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COMMENCEMENT 2004

U.S. Must Not Become 'a Fearful Giant'

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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George Soros

Columbia University, School of International & Public Affairs, May 17

You are about to enter the real world. But the real world is a very troubled place, and international relations are at the core of our troubles. So it may be appropriate to pause for a moment and reflect on the world you are about to face.

Why are we in trouble? Let me focus on the feature that looms so large in the current landscape -- the war on terror. Sept. 11 was a traumatic event that shook the nation to its core. But it could not have changed the course of history for the worse if President Bush had not responded the way he did. Declaring war on terrorism was understandable, perhaps even appropriate, as a figure of speech. But the president meant it literally, and that is when things started going seriously wrong.

It is not a popular thing to say, but the fact is that we are victims who have turned into perpetrators. The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 claimed nearly 3,000 innocent lives, and the whole world felt sympathy for us as the victims of an atrocity. Then the president declared war on terrorism and pursued it first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Since then, the war on terror has claimed more innocent victims than the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. This fact is not recognized at home because the victims of the war on terror are not Americans. But the rest of the world does not draw the same distinction, and world opinion has turned against us.

I would dearly love to pin all the blame on President Bush and his team. But that would be too easy. It would ignore the fact that he was playing to a receptive audience, and even today, after all that has happened, a majority of the electorate continues to have confidence in President Bush on national security matters. If this continues and President Bush gets reelected, we must ask ourselves the question: "What is wrong with us?" The question needs to be asked even if he is defeated because we cannot simply ignore what we have done since Sept. 11.

We need to engage in some serious soul-searching. The terrorists seem to have hit upon a weak point in our collective psyche. They have made us fearful. And for reasons of its own, the Bush administration has found it advantageous to foster the fear that Sept. 11 engendered. By declaring war on terror, the president could unite the country behind him. But a fearful giant that lashes out against unseen enemies is the very definition of a bully, and that is what we are in danger of becoming. If there is a single lesson to be learned from our experience since Sept. 11, it is that you mustn't fight terror by creating new victims.

By succumbing to fear, we are doing the terrorists' bidding: We are unleashing a vicious circle of violence. If we go on like this, the war on terror need never end because the terrorists are invisible; therefore they will never disappear. If we are in a permanent state of war, we cannot remain an open society.

Being the most powerful nation gives us certain privileges, but it also imposes on us certain obligations. We are the beneficiaries of a lopsided, not to say unjust, world order. The agenda for the world is set in Washington, but only the citizens of the United States have a vote in Congress. A similar situation, when we were on the disadvantaged side, gave rise to the Boston Tea Party and the birth of the United States.

If we want to preserve our privileged position, we must use it not to lord it over the rest of the world but to concern ourselves with the well-being of others. Globalization has rendered the world increasingly interdependent, and there are many problems that require collective action. Maintaining peace, law and order, protecting the environment, reducing poverty and fighting terrorism are among them. We cannot do anything we want, but very little can be done without our leadership or at least active participation. Instead of undermining and demeaning our international institutions because they do not necessarily follow our will, we ought to strengthen them and improve them. Instead of engaging in preemptive actions of a military nature, we ought to pursue preventive actions of a constructive nature, creating a better balance between carrots and sticks in the prevailing world order.

The full text of George Soros' speech can be found at www.sipa .columbia.edu/events/graduation/ George Soros.pdf.

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