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The Last Word

Commencement speeches by movers and shakers cap off graduates' education -- and give us all something to chew on

June 13, 2004

SPRING is a time of celebration for graduates of the nation's colleges. It is also a time for speeches. National security advisor Condoleezza Rice, former President Clinton, President Bush and financier George Soros were among those offering advice to this year's crop of graduates. What follows are excerpts from their remarks. In the interest of readability, we haven't indicated where material has been omitted, but we have provided website addresses for full texts of the speeches after each excerpt.

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`Our common humanity' is what's most important

Bill Clinton

Cornell University, May 29

We are in a new turning point of history for our nation and the world. At the end of the Cold War, with the emergence of a global information economy, for the first time in all human history we have the opportunity to bring people together across the planet in common cause for common good.

We live in an age of interdependence, but that can be good or bad. It simply means that we cannot escape each other. Trade and travel are good, terrorism is bad; they are two sides of the same coin. The terrorists of 9/11 used easy travel, easy immigration, easy access to information and technology to kill 3,000 people from 70 countries in the United States. They used the forces of interdependence.

We have the Human Genome Project, an international project decoding the mysteries of life. We have an International Space Station put up with the best minds from across the world. We also have a global AIDS epidemic. We have global warming. They too reflect our interdependence.

I believe the great mission of the 21st century world is to build up the positive forces of interdependence and beat back the negative ones. To move from mere interdependence to a global community based on shared benefits, shared responsibilities and shared values. That will require America to ask and answer some very large questions, and I would argue that we've been debating them now for some years. If the industrial era is over, the era of big bureaucracies is over, what is the role of government in our lives? Is government really the problem, as we have been told, or instead should government still be there to give everybody an equal chance and to help those who through no fault of their own have been left behind, to give people the tools and conditions to make the most of their own lives?

At this unique moment of economic strength for our country, should we just take all we can now, or should we build a world where the half of the people that don't feel any benefits from globalization have their chance too? How should we respond to terror? With stronger attacks, stronger defenses, or should we also try to make a world with more friends and fewer terrorists? What should our attitude be toward our own racial and religious and ethnic diversity? Is it bound to make us more fractured, or could it make us even stronger?

I would argue to you that most of the categories of political thinking which have dominated America since the end of World War II are completely inadequate to answer these questions. This is a time when we need to, in President Lincoln's words, "think anew, so that we can act anew." If you live in a world where you cannot kill, occupy or imprison all your actual or potential adversaries, then you have to make a deal. You have to try to build a world with more friends and fewer terrorists. That is the purpose of politics, to bring people together when they cannot control each other.

It is easy to say and hard to do. Half the world is living on less than $2 a day. A billion people live on less than a dollar a day. A billion people go to bed hungry every night. A billion and a half people never get a single clean glass of water in their lives. Ten million children die every year of completely preventable childhood diseases. One in four of all the people who will perish on Earth this year will die of AIDS, TB, malaria and infections related to diarrhea. Most of them are little children.

Now, if you solve all these problems, does it mean there will be no terrorists? No. But it means there will be fewer people who'll have a reason to hate, to resent, to feel left out and left behind.

Most of the world's problems are not well suited to unilateral solutions. You can tear down a building alone, but you normally need some help to build one, and most of the world's problems work better or respond better to cooperative solutions. The great power of the United States through history has not been in our weapons but in the power of our example and the hope we have held out to others.

World history can be seen in part as the conflict that is generated when people of different families, clans, tribes and nations start bumping up against one another. And first they are afraid of people who are different from them; then they see that they're not so different from them; then they get interested in working together.

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