Secretary-General Calls for ‘New Multilateralism’ in Nitze School Commencement Address, Urging Students to Become Part of Something Larger than Themselves

22 May 2009

Secretary-General Calls for ‘New Multilateralism’ in Nitze School Commencement Address, Urging Students to Become Part of Something Larger than Themselves

22 May 2009
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Secretary-General calls for ‘new multilateralism’ in nitze school commencement

address, urging students to become part of something larger than themselves

Following is UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s commencement address as delivered at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, “Global Leadership in a Time of Crisis”, in Washington, D.C., on 21 May:

Thank you, Dean Jessica Einhorn, for your very kind introduction.  Congratulations to you and this distinguished faculty for your inspired leadership of an exceptional institution.  Congratulations as well, Bernard Schwartz on your years of tremendous service to the school.  And of course, my heartfelt congratulations to the graduates of the Class of 2009, whose extraordinary achievement we are celebrating.

Today, we send you forth with fondness and high expectations.  I wish you all lives of adventure, commitment to noble causes, and great accomplishment.  I say to you only this:  Take risks!

As we mark this passage, let us also celebrate those who helped you along the way ‑‑ parents, grandparents, sisters and brothers, and families who wish you all success.  Thank you to them as well.

I feel very much at home, speaking to you at SAIS, and you may be very excited and a little anxious, because this is the first commencement address I have given since becoming Secretary-General.  I’m here to give you a message.

With so many nationalities represented, this school is almost a mini-United Nations.  The famous piece of artwork in your courtyard, the “Single Form”, has a sister sculpture at UN Headquarters.  And your campus, too, has a piece of the Berlin Wall.  Some of you would have been very young at the time.  But all of us remember how it once divided the world.  It was the physical embodiment of a grim and dangerous era, splitting the globe along ideological lines ‑‑ East versus West, the Free and the un-Free, Them and Us.

The cold war cast a terrible shadow.  It coloured every issue, every conflict.  No matter where you lived, everything was distorted by the lens of confrontation ‑‑ and the lens of what they believed in.

Then, abruptly, the unthinkable happened.  Twenty years ago this November, the Wall fell … and the world was transformed.  The first cracks appeared in May of that year, exactly two decades ago.  Here we are now, in another May, a generation later.

Today, too, new forces are gathering.  Today, too, dramatic change is at hand.  We can see the outward signs, on every side.

A financial crisis has shaken the foundations of the global economy ‑‑ its rules, its credibility, its values.  Climate change threatens our way of life.  Planet Earth is warming much faster than everybody may think.  Every day, it seems, scientists find that their worst-case scenarios have become more likely scenarios ‑‑ and the timeline for action grows shorter.  As the current flu epidemic proves, “transnational threats” are no longer problems for classroom discussion.  They are challenges of the here and now.  So far, today’s H1N1 outbreak has been relatively mild.  Fortunately.  Next time, it could be worse.  Meanwhile, old problems are very much with us ‑‑ problems of human rights, war and peace, deep poverty and humanitarian need, from Gaza and Sri Lanka to Somalia and Sudan.

The world has changed.  Ties of commerce, communication and migration bind us ever closer.  Threats spill across borders.  Just as the world’s people have become more interdependent, so have the issues.  No nation can deal with them alone.  This new world demands a special brand of leadership ‑‑ I’m now talking to you, the next generation ‑‑ global leadership.

We need new vision, bold action, powerful partnerships for enduring peace and prosperity.  That is why I call for a new multilateralism.  A multilateralism focused on delivering global goods:  freedom from hunger, health and education and security from terror or the threat of Armageddon.  A multilateralism whose instruments ‑‑ the United Nations above all ‑‑ have the authority and the resources to do what is asked of them.  A multilateralism that couples power with pragmatic principle, recognizing that in our interconnected world the well-being of any one nation depends, to an increasing degree, upon the well-being of all.

The economic crisis has demonstrated our interdependence in the most visible way.  Who would have thought, a few years ago, that a mortgage crisis in Arizona or Florida would bring down Governments in Europe and shake the economies and societies of Latin America, Asia and Africa?  Perhaps we should have seen it coming, and acted sooner.  Even so, our response has been encouraging.  We have confronted the crisis in a spirit of cooperation and coordination that is unprecedented.

At the recent G-20 Summit in London, nations came together to work out their differences and agree on a global plan to restore economic growth and lending.  The United States has been a leader in this process.  They accepted that there could be no winners in a trade war, and they agreed to rethink our Bretton Woods financial architecture.

Most important for me, as UN Secretary-General, leaders embraced the principle of global solidarity.  That is why they dedicated more than $1 trillion to help emerging economies through the crisis, and why they reaffirmed their aid commitments under the Millennium Development Goals, despite hard economic times.

Each nation recognized that its own prosperity depends upon the economic health of the others.  Acting in their enlightened self-interest, they began taking the steps to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable nations do not disproportionately suffer.

We see other such signs, a cause for optimism despite many difficulties.  From my first day in office, I have made climate change a top priority.  For two-and-a-half years, I have circled the globe, calling attention to an existential threat to humankind.  I have seen the ice sheets breaking up in Antarctica and glaciers melting in the Andes.  I have been to the Amazon River basin and to Lake Chad, whose waters once supported 30 million people, now shrunk to one tenth the size it was 30 years ago.  I was startled by what I saw.  Before the year is out I will go to the North Pole, as well as to regions where drought and competition for water threaten peoples’ lives and well-being.  I have travelled to all the places where I could learn and witness for myself the alarming consequences of climate change.

Wherever I go, I say “the time for action is now”.  The cost of inaction will be much more than the cost of action.  Today, people are awakening to the threat.  Countries are beginning to mobilize.  Leaders are committing to action.  In September, we will come together at a special summit on the margins of the General Assembly.  There, we will prepare for a final push at the decisive Summit in December in Copenhagen.

This is a make-or-break moment.  We must seal the deal.  We absolutely must reach an agreement to reduce greenhouse gases and help millions of families adapt to climate change ‑‑ before our time runs out.  We need to be smart about it.  You know well how these crises are connected.  Solutions to the global economic crisis should, therefore, also be solutions to climate change.  I call this a Green New Deal.  By investing in green, we create jobs and spur economic growth.  At Copenhagen, we need to unleash green investment and jump-start a lasting economic recovery, at the same time we strike a blow for climate change.  This idea, too, is gaining traction.

Around the world, we can see new momentum for change ‑‑ politically in the United States, with President Barack Obama’s energy and environment policies.  In China, Brazil, South Africa, Europe.  Only this morning, before I came here, I met with the Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and we agreed to work together to achieve a global deal by December in Copenhagen.  Today’s she is making the same point at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.  These are exciting times and big issues, carried forward by nations and international institutions working together with vision and new determination.

Let me touch on a third encouraging sign.  That’s the area of global health.  The international response to the flu epidemic is another example of the new multilateralism.  Why?  Because we saw it coming and were prepared.  We learned the lessons of 2005 and the outbreak of avian flu.  Working with the World Health Organization and national health authorities, we put in place a system of coordinated global response.  When the H1N1 virus hit, we understood the balance between acting with urgency and calling for calm.

We worked closely with national authorities at the epicentre of the outbreak ‑‑ in this case Mexico.  We called on national leaders not to restrict trade or close borders, which would only cause economic disruption without social or health benefits.  As with the economic crisis, we sounded a strong moral theme:  “solidarity ‑‑ global solidarity”.  We insisted that information, medicines, vaccines and financial resources be shared by all, so that the poorest and most vulnerable nations would not be disproportionately hurt and all of us endangered.  Now we must keep our guard up.

We can see these global partnerships for health paying off in other fronts, as well.  Thanks to an alliance of UN agencies, the private sector, NGOs and philanthropic groups such as the Gates Foundation, we are moving to eliminate deaths from malaria in a few short years.

Polio is close to eradication, like smallpox before it.  HIV/AIDS is coming under control, slowly but steadily.  These advances testify to the growing power of the new multilateralism.

The task going forward will be to extend this modus operandi to more traditional challenges, including those of peace and security, development and human rights.

We are re-thinking our strategies for multinational peacekeeping.  A decade ago, the United Nations fielded less than 20,000 civilian, military and police personnel.  Today, that number exceeds 110,000, as Dean Einhorn has already introduced.  I have heard it said that I command the second largest deployed force in the world, after the United States ‑‑ but we are stretched to the limit.  That is why I am beefing up our peacebuilding and conflict prevention efforts.

If we can intercede early to prevent conflict, we save lives and forestall the need for a vastly more expensive peacekeeping mission down the road.  But this, too, requires concerted and coordinated diplomacy ‑‑ a muscular and more proactive multilateralism.  You can see this new emphasis in Afghanistan, where the international community now accepts that any winning military strategy must be robustly complemented with aid and development.

We must be realistic, however.  The new multilateralism, however welcome, offers few easy fixes.  Progress comes in fits and starts, usually without the clear triumphs of a long-distance runner crossing a finish line.  Ours is a world maybe of half-loaves, of glasses half full ‑‑ when we are lucky.

When Hurricane Nargis struck Myanmar last year, concerted international diplomacy led by the UN opened the country to aid.  We saved hundreds of thousands of lives.  Yet political progress, so far, has remained elusive.  In Somalia, the UN feeds half that war-torn country’s people ‑‑ roughly 2.5 million.  Yet as we all know, there is as yet no peace to keep.  In Darfur, we will have deployed close to 26,000 peacekeepers by year’s end.  I am proud of this, because I pushed hard for an intervention when I took office, after four years of failed efforts.  Yet we have not been able to stop the fighting.  In part, that is because political negotiations have stalled.  But to be blunt, it is also in part a failure of multilateralism.

We got the troops in, but nations calling for them did not fully back them.  They did not put up the resources ‑‑ such as helicopters ‑‑ to allow us to project our forces and effectively fulfil our mission:  saving lives and helping those in need.  Darfur shows what happens when multilateralism does not work as it should, when good intentions flag and leaders do not deliver on promises and their high-minded rhetoric.

Here’s the bottom line:  an effective multilateralism must be backed by political will of the political leaders.  UN mandates must be matched by resources.  Fine words must be accompanied by action.  Promises must be delivered on.  That takes leadership ‑‑ a new global leadership commensurate with the demands of a new era.

Tonight, immediately after this, I leave for Sri Lanka.  You have all watched what is happening.  You all empathize with the plight of people trapped by fighting and living in terror and grave hardship.  Unfortunately, as you also know well, this is only one of such many places that need international help.  And this is where I appeal to you.

We at the United Nations cannot succeed on our own.  We need you, your support and your help.  I urge you to look out upon the world and understand all that the UN does, and to consider joining us.  You might find yourself in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, rescuing child soldiers.  You might manage a programme planting trees to fight climate change ‑‑ part of a growing global movement that aims to plant more than 7 billion trees by year’s end.  This is one for each person on the planet.  You might be a humanitarian worker in Haiti, devastated by four tropical storms last year, or find yourself in a Land Cruiser bouncing over the deserts of Chad or Darfur, delivering food to the hungry ‑‑ and saving lives daily.  I will tell you this:  there is no more noble calling.  There is no greater good than a life of public service.  This I know, personally.

During my boyhood in Korea, immediately after the Korean War, I experienced first-hand what is it like to be hungry, afraid and alone.  It was after the war, and I went to school in the open air.  There were no walls; only rubble.  There was not much to eat.  Often I went to sleep, crying from hunger.  The United Nations, led by the United States and other countries, helped feed and defend my people.  And I was one of them.  It helped rebuild my country.

Ever after, for me and my country, the United Nations has been the symbol of hope.  For many hundreds of millions of people, it is so today.  And that is why I see my role as the champion of the poor and the powerless.  By virtue of my position as Secretary-General of the United Nations, by virtue of my personal history, I see it as my responsibility to go out into the world, to travel the globe and listen to the poorest of the poor.  I see their hardship. I listen to their fears and hopes and aspirations.  And then I take their message to the councils of the powerful and I make sure they are heard.

We at the UN are the voice of the voiceless.  We are the defenders of the defenceless.  And that is why I call on you today.  That is why I am here to speak to you.  You should be the leaders of the next generation.  That is why I urge you to join us … to enlist in the new multilateralism, at the grass roots.  It could be with the UN.  It might be with the Peace Corps, Red Cross or Crescent.  It could be Médecins Sans Frontières, CARE, Human Rights Watch or any number of emerging NGOs from the South.  The point is to be a part of something larger than yourself.  To live a life that is full of dimension, full of meaning beyond home loans and car payments and jobs in office buildings that all look alike.

As I said at the beginning of these remarks, I urge you to take risks.  Without risks, there is no success.  Live lives of adventure.  Engage.  Think of how you want to invest your energy and passion and help us change the world for the better, and aid the many helpless people in the world.  And then, when you sit one day in the future, watching your own children graduate, you will be able to look them in the eye and say:  “I did everything I could to make a difference in this world.”

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.