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IRC President David Miliband's Harvard Kennedy School commencement address, May 27, 2015

Today International Rescue Committee President and CEO David Miliband delivered the commencement address to the 2015 graduating class of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Read the full text of his remarks:

I want to offer my warm and sincere congratulations to the 2015 graduating class. I know from friends who have graduated from the Kennedy School, and from when I was a Fisher Fellow in the Future of Diplomacy Project in 2012, that the standards here are high, the values of public service consistent and enduring, and the ambitions for global impact wholly in keeping with the legacy of John F. Kennedy. I also know that while competition to get in is tough, the collegiality once you are here is striking. And while your origins are diverse, your shared commitment to promote practical answers to advance the social good is inspiring. Individually and collectively you have my admiration, and my hopes for the future.

There would of course be no graduation for many of you without the support of your families. So thanks to all the families here too. You are the quiet heroes of the student experience: you provide the support without having the fun.

And there would be no class at all without outstanding teachers. It is invidious to pick out a single person, but after 11 very successful years as an inspiring, caring and inquiring Dean, I am sure you agree David Ellwood deserves your special thanks.

It is always special for me to come back to Cambridge. In the 1970s I came to live in Newton, the town next door, with my family. I attended Junior High School, survived what was until this year the great blizzard, played the role of Mayor Slade in the school play “Destry Rides Again”, and began what is now a nearly forty year relationship with the US and especially the East Coast. That makes me feel old.

In later years, I went to graduate school here. My wife is a dual UK/US citizen. My children were born in the US. We all now live and work in New York. 

I do, though, have a confession to make. I did my Master’s Degree down the road at MIT. For some of you that will be bad enough. But my full confession is even worse. I could have come to the Kennedy School. After all I was Kennedy Scholar. But I chose MIT instead. In other words mine is a sin of commission not just omission.  

This school is a reminder for me of a road not taken. Just imagine if I had been able to take the course that my housemates, both studying here, talked about in 1988/89. Maybe it still exists. It was called “How to be a politician”.  I could have saved myself a lot of trouble. 

I joined the UK’s Labour Party thirty years ago.  I was a Member of Parliament for 12 years from 2001.  I was proud to be a Minister for eight years in a Labour government in the UK, including three years as Foreign Secretary. People sometimes ask how did it happen?

The truth is that my big break owed a lot to luck. I was in the back room in the early 1990s when Labour in the UK figured out how to win elections rather than lose them. As this month’s election in the UK showed, the electorate have recently sent us back to the classroom for the second time in five years.  

Today I am very proud to run the International Rescue Committee, an international humanitarian NGO with 16,000 staff in 35 countries, and 22 offices around the country helping to resettle refugees here in the US. I can reflect on government and politics from the outside, as you have done at this school.  

My first political opinions were developed in reaction to the politics of Margaret Thatcher in the UK.   

After university the collapse of communism turned international politics upside down.  

And then in the 1990s in the UK, US, continental Europe, Australia and South America, center-left politics was rebuilt as an effective political force.  

What drove or underpinned that success?  I would say five things.

First, understanding the difference between knowing your own mind and asserting your own version of reality.  The former is essential.  The latter is dangerous. The best politicians recognize the facts and then apply their values, rather than make the facts fit the reality they have organized in advance. 

Second, recognizing the importance of tackling fundamental problems head on rather than evading them. President Eisenhower’s advice still holds: when you cannot solve a problem, enlarge it. In all the talk in management books of quick wins and low hanging fruit, what is important can get lost. The top politicians never confuse tactical froth with strategic choices.  

Third, embracing the reality that ideas really matter in politics. In other words the centrality of argument rather than arithmetic, of persuasion as well as mobilization.  If there is a Bush-Clinton rematch in the US next year, the decisive issue will be which one of them has the biggest ideas for the country. And if only one of them can bring together a big, authentic, real set of ideas, and the other doesn't, he or she will win. Something always beats nothing. 

Fourth, spotting that so much which seems important to the media at the time is actually not so. Far more important are the decisions not taken in order to avoid controversy. That usually means that problems fester and produce disaffection.

And finally, perhaps most important, learning that government can be a great force for good but that requires a cast of mind that is entrepreneurial. That is the role of politics — to add entrepreneurship to necessary bureaucracy. Its role is to create the space for innovation and that means constantly being alive to the importance of reinventing government and reimagining policy.

That is what I want to talk to you about today. The vital importance of reinventing what we do in humanitarian affairs and in foreign policy.  

The Problem of Foreign Policy

Your mission here at this school is not to set yourselves up for the most lucrative careers. Don't your parents know it – after all, you did not choose the Law School or the Business School.  

The imperative you have embraced is to understand how to solve complex problems of public policy. That is a noble endeavor. Your mission is, to put it into words that risk naivety, to commit yourselves to make the world a better place. I do not regard that impulse as naïve. I think of it as idealism and without idealism progress would stall.

Right now, as you survey the worlds of government, NGOs and social enterprises that are your predominant destinations, you can see everywhere that domestic public policy faces severe challenges. 

You will see that wages for the middle classes are stagnant in rich societies as globalization produces as many losers as it does winners.  

You will see that societies as otherwise different as Germany and China face the problem of paying the pension liability for an ageing society. 

You will see from Egypt to South Africa to France a global problem of youth unemployment 

You will see all over the world societies struggling to cope with migration, and to cope without it. 

These are major questions. But everywhere the debate is vigorous and solutions are being canvassed, experiments are in train and progress is being made. 

The same cannot, unfortunately, be said in the foreign policy arena. As President Obama said: switch on the news and you would think the world is going to hell.  

Now that the world is a global village, the question we confront in foreign policy is the same as we face at home: how we ensure the conditions so that we can live together, not just tolerably but as the economist John Maynard Keynes put it, "wisely, agreeably and well".

Wisely – so that we sustain the nourishment of the planet for future generations.

Agreeably – so that human difference is a source of wonder not enmity.

Well – so that the fruits of progress are properly shared.

And for that we need the same degree of entrepreneurialism, idealism, passion and commitment that is commonplace in domestic policy.

The world's population has never been wealthier, healthier or more connected. Yet the number of people displaced by conflict and disaster has never been higher; the number of states prey to chaotic violence is growing; and the international system has rarely been weaker or more divided.

This is a situation that demands international engagement. But the traditionally strong international powers from the West are reining themselves in. 

In the US, the danger is that the priority of nation-building at home becomes a recipe for neglect of engagement abroad. The UK is one of the most open and globally engaged cultures in the world; DFID is a world leader in aid programming but politically we are in retreat. The defence budget is going down; there is a referendum coming on whether to stay in the EU. 

Meanwhile, the emerging powers are leery about engaging in politics beyond their own region.   

The result is a vacuum in the global commons: trade deals stalled, the environment under assault, and new wars starting as old wars refuse to fade.

The Case of Syria

The most vivid, distressing and dangerous example of what I mean is in Syria. Syria is where all the problems, and the absence of solutions, of modern foreign policy come together – so much so that the human consequences are losing their capacity to shock.

No, the truly shocking aspect of what is happening in Syria is the extraordinary absence of a political process to seek to solve the problem. Or even any impetus towards a political process. Instead Syria is declining amid a desperate and dangerous silence; and its problems are being exported to its neighbors. 

Let’s just recap the scale of the disaster I am referring to. 

Since March 2011, when anti-government protests first erupted in Daraa, a small town in the southwest of Syria, Syria has descended into hell. The conflict has claimed at least 260,000 lives – some estimates are double that – and left every second Syrian in need of humanitarian help.

Since 2011, 4 million people have fled Syria. This is the largest refugee population on earth after the Palestinians. There are three million Syrian children who have been robbed of their future because there is no school for them to go to. 

The humanitarian disaster inside the country is not an unfortunate by-product of conflict; it is the intended result of the strategy being pursued by the Government of Syria, whose bombs killed seven of the people being served by IRC programs in Idlib last week.

The water and electrical supplies of more than two million people in the governorates of Aleppo and Daraa were wilfully disrupted by warring parties in February. More than half of Syria’s hospitals have been destroyed or seriously damaged, and belligerents continue to murder medical personnel and seize surgical supplies. 

The aid on offer is not keeping pace with the scale of the problem. Food, water, shelter, healthcare, safe sanitation and hygiene services are all desperately needed. But they are not arriving in the quantities required. Almost halfway through 2015, this year’s UN appeal for Syria is only 19 per cent funded.

The burden on Syria’s neighbors is too great for them to bear. Turkey has become the biggest refugee-hosting country in the world. One in four of the population of Lebanon is now a Syrian and the number of school-age refugees outstrips the entire intake of the country’s public school system. In Jordan, tens of thousands of families live below the absolute poverty line: rent accounts for more than half of refugees’ monthly outlay, forcing parents to send their children out to work long hours for meager pay. 

Some things are complicated, and you can understand why they are not done, but others are relatively simple, and when they are not done it is closer to a crime than a tragedy.  

We know over 300 000 Syrian kids in Lebanon are getting no education.  

We know over 2,000,000 Syrian women in the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq are struggling to make ends meet. 

And we know that western countries have been extraordinarily reluctant to admit the most vulnerable Syrians as refugees. The US figure, traditionally the most generous country as measured by refugee admission, is 842. Germany, to be fair, has committed to resettle 30,000.

If I had stood here four years ago and said that in the face of two countries wracked by war, 12 million in humanitarian need, four million refugees and over 260,000 dead, we should have an international peace effort consisting of one envoy seeking a temporary cease fire, would you have accepted that? I don’t think so.

And this is just the Syria story. Iraq deserves a lecture of its own. The two countries share the challenge of ISIS, which rejects the ideas of a border between them. 

We have proved the risks of doing little. We have shown, in the terrible unfolding, that not to act is an action with consequences every bit as grave as intervention itself.  In fact, many of the real dangers of intervention – triggering a refugee crisis, inciting extremism, prompting the use of chemical weapons – have happened anyway. 

The reasons for this are sadly clear. The diplomatic determination, imagination, and energy required to end the war has ebbed and all but disappeared. 

Deteriorating relations between the US and Russia over Ukraine, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and rifts between the backers of Syria’s fragmented opposition have sapped hope that a meaningful political process can take place. And of course the high price of the mistakes of the West in Iraq and Afghanistan have sapped confidence that western powers will do anything other than make things worse, and drained support for anything other than hand-wringing. That is the explanation for the UK’s almost complete absence from the political as well as military battlefield. 

Syria’s descent into hell therefore raises very hard questions for the humanitarian sector as well as for foreign policy.

What Can and Must Be Done?

The first question concerns the humanitarian response. It is a partial answer, consisting of remedial work, during and after the damage of war and conflict, but essential nonetheless. And more essential as the numbers affected and the complexity of their situation grows.

In 2013, for the first time since World War II, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people in the world exceeded 50 million. More than half of the displaced persons are now in urban areas, while only a quarter of all refugees are in camps.

Conflicts and complex emergencies like Syria now account for three-quarters of humanitarian crises. I am thinking here of Somalia, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen. 

The humanitarian sector now delivers $22bn of help a year to those affected, but the gap between needs and provision is growing not shrinking. And the mismatch is not simply financial.

The humanitarian sector is designed to address the victims of wars between states, yet more and more we are dealing with those affected by wars within states. 33 of them in 2013.  The sector is designed around the responsibilities of nations, yet more and more we are working in the midst of battles between nations and non-state actors.  The sector is designed to house people in refugee camps, yet the proportion of displaced people in camps is shrinking not rising.  The displaced population is increasingly young, increasingly female, and increasingly displaced for a long time. The average duration a refugee spends outside their own country is now 20 years.

That means there is a new and important agenda for the humanitarian sector. 

I want the IRC to lead that debate. We cannot just work harder or faster. We need reform of the system.

We need donors, UN agencies and NGOs to become far clearer about the outcomes we are seeking for the people we serve.  

We need radically to improve the evidence base of what works. At the IRC we have said we want all our programs to be evidence-based or evidence-generating.

We need to embrace interventions, like cash distribution rather than provision of goods and services, that empower displaced people in urban areas rather than in camps.  

We need a new compact between displaced people, the communities they arrive in, and the international community, about the economic and social support for peoples and nations bearing the burden of refugee flows. The European migration crisis shows that.

And we need humanitarian effort to operate at a scale proportionate to the size of the problem. This has been the fundamental problem in the neighboring countries to Syria.

But even if we double the scale and effectiveness of the humanitarian effort, it can never be enough. It is only ever clearing up the debris once something is broken. It is, by definition, crisis management which cannot tackle the root causes of so much deep disorder.  And it cannot make up for the determination of parties to a conflict to break all the rules in pursuit of their war aims.

It cannot tackle the religious and ethnic politics that have become a conduit for political, economic and social grievances; or the increasing inability of weak states to contain the schisms and conflicts that result; or the weakness of an international system characterized by division and hesitation.

So we have to look to politics for solutions. In 2005 the world came together to assert the "Responsibility to Protect". After the trauma of Rwandan genocide in the 1990s nations said never again. Over 190 nations signed up to the doctrine that rulers had obligations to their peoples, and if that covenant was broken then the international community had a responsibility to fulfil those obligations.  

Over 50 million people around the world today need that responsibility to be reasserted. The norms and laws of war need to be reaffirmed, so that civilians are protected from the worst of warfare.  The rights of women and girls to be free from abuse need to be affirmed as universal, and not some kind of western imposition.  And the tools to underpin these rights and norms need to be sharpened, from the top down. Let me give you two examples.

First, the United Nations Security Council has as its mandate the requirement that it consider all matters that are a threat to regional peace and security. And humanitarian atrocities often fall into this category, because their impact spills over into neighboring states. Yet far too often one of the permanent members of the Security Council has made effective action impossible by using, or by threatening to use, its veto.

Between October 2011 and July 2012, Russia and China vetoed three Security Council resolutions which were designed to hold the Syrian government to account for its mass atrocities.

The French foreign minister Laurent Fabius has proposed a new code of conduct concerning the use of the Security Council veto in situations of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The plan is that each of the permanent members should agree to suspend their right of veto in cases of mass atrocity.

The French proposed the same thing in 2001. Two years later the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan looked at the idea. An independent Genocide Prevention Task Force, led by Madeline Albright and William Cohen pursued the same thought. 

Of course there are issues to be addressed. For example who declares a mass atrocity? And countries might use the veto in any case, even though it had been declared. But that would be to their moral and political cost. A new norm would have been established in international politics. It would, if it did nothing else, provide a firmer moral footing for countries that wanted to pursue other forms of intervention.

And there is history here. Apartheid, for example, was condemned by the UN General Assembly in 1966 as a crime against humanity. The ten draft resolutions that followed which sought to impose sanctions were then vetoed by the Security Council.

In my time as Foreign Minister I never used the veto in the Security Council.  In fact Britain has not used its veto since 1989.  I want today to endorse the French proposals for voluntary limitation of the veto, and call on others to do so too.  It would raise the costs of turning a blind eye, and increase the pressure not to do so.

The second example concerns UN peacekeeping.  At the moment there are over 100,000 troops, police and military experts from 122 countries undertaking 16 UN missions. The vast majority come from and are deployed in Africa. The total cost is $8.4bn. The bills are paid in the main by the West. The US pays about a quarter of the cost. The missions are increasingly dangerous, complex and long.

The results of this peacekeeping effort are frankly mixed. There are a number of reasons for that, but one is the refusal of the strongest military powers to deploy under UN auspices. In the US this has legal force since the 1994 Presidential Directive insisting that all US troops must always be under US command. In the UK it is the result of inertia – we post less than 300 servicemen and women to UN missions, compared to around 10,000 in 1994. 

Yet it is not just the US and UK. European peacekeeping contributions are down too, to around 6,000, despite the drawdowns from Afghanistan and Iraq. And it is not just about numbers. The UN needs advanced assets – intelligence, engineers, airlift, bomb disposal, and leadership.  

I therefore very much welcome the new-found interest in strengthening UN peacekeeping. Ambassador Samantha Power, who spoke at this event last year, has called on the US and Europe to “pool our resources and capabilities…in particular the importance of UN peacekeeping”. President Obama has promised to chair a special session of world leaders next September to look at the issue. The UN Secretary General has set up a review of Peacekeeping Operations.

At a time of cuts in defense budgets, new and asymmetric threats, and record numbers of people fleeing conflict, the case for strengthened and more fairly shared UN peacekeeping capacity is in my view overwhelming. Peacekeepers, properly resourced and led, have never been more needed, and the consequences of inaction never more evident.

What peacekeepers need above all is for the parties to the conflict to see a path to compromise that involves a share of power not surrender. Civilians need that too. In other words peacekeeping is only as good as the political vision it serves. So the peacekeeping review needs to have as its major conclusion a commitment to link the peacekeeping missions of the UN to its political diplomacy. Civilians need both.

The Power in Your Hands

The debate about these ideas needs to be broadened out. Because on their own these recommendations would not stop the Syria war. That war continues because the force fuelling the fire is greater than the efforts to douse it. In other words there is a mismatch of political will.  

But political will is created, not natural. And I think you have a role here. 

What you have learned here is how to turn passion into practical politics. Sometimes that is called technocratic. But never lose sight of the passion which was the impetus to act in the first place.  

There is a view abroad that yours is the apathetic generation. Pope Francis has gone so far as to bemoan the "globalization of indifference".

Yet that is not what I see on university campuses from the US to Pakistan to the Middle East.  

In the complex, murky but magnificent world we live in it is easy to be lost in the detail and forget that what inspired you to join a school of government in the first place: a passionate desire to see a problem alleviated and the world improved. My message is: Never forget that. Never lose it. 

Others have done it, in some ways in much more difficult circumstances, and we stand on their institutional and moral shoulders today.   

After he left Harvard in 1931 a young man called Varian Fry worked as a foreign correspondent for the American journal Living Age. It was while he was in Berlin in 1935 that Fry witnessed the abuse to which Jews were subject. He wrote fearlessly about the subject, later for The New York Times.

But Fry was not content with being a commentator on the world. He wanted to change it. Working for what became the International Rescue Committee, Fry risked his life to help Jews flee the Vichy regime from Marseille in the south of France. He smuggled more than 2,000 Jews across the border, through Spain, into neutral Portugal and from there on to the safety of the United States.  

In a letter to his wife Eileen in February 1941 Fry wrote that “among the people who have come into my office…. are not only some of the greatest living authors, painters and sculptors of Europe… but also former cabinet ministers and even prime ministers of half a dozen countries. What a strange place Europe is when men like this are reduced to waiting patiently in the anteroom of a young American of no importance whatever”. 

Fry was right on every point except the last one. The man who helped to save Hannah Arendt, Andre Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Golo Mann and Arthur Koestler among many nameless others was not an American of no importance whatever. He was a hero. He was a man who went out into the world, encountered injustice and could not rest until he had helped to put it right. As far as he ever could. 

Many years later, Fry gave an account of what he did and left us with the manifesto for those of you who want to go out to do good in the world. “I could not remain idle”, he said, “as long as I had any chance at all of saving even a few of the intended victims”. 

Ladies and gentlemen, perhaps we do not all have the heroism of Varian Fry. But something of that spirit lives in all of us – and certainly it resides in the animating spirit of this institution. It is with that thought in mind that I wish you well as you enter, or re-enter, the world beyond academe and beyond Cambridge, Massachusetts, a world which in time I hope will be that little bit better for your efforts within it. 

Thank you so much for listening today. It has been my privilege to speak at this occasion.

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 26 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.