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Commencement Speech to Stanford's International Relations Program

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Commencement Speech to the International Relations Program
Larry Diamond, Stanford University, June 12, 2011

Commencement always summons in me, in my faculty colleagues, and I am sure in many of you graduating seniors, deeply mixed emotions.  First and foremost, we feel great pride in what you have achieved, and genuine gratitude for the opportunity to have taught you, advised you, and come to know you as people.  Second, we share in the excitement for the opportunities that await you as you commence upon what we know will be highly creative, meaningful, and influential careers.  Among other things, we are just intensely interested to know what will become of you.  Third, there is a sense of relief that we have all made it to this finish line together, rather exhausted from multiple commitments and another year of striving to do our best.  And finally, there is a sense of sadness and loss.  A few of you are staying on at Stanford for co-terminal or other higher degrees, or to help us in research and administration.  We look forward to another year with you.  But most of you will now venture into a breathtakingly diverse array of new and often distant frontiers.  We will miss you.  You have been a great class.

I am not going to take this opportunity to inflict on you one last international relations lecture.  You are smart and by now impressively well informed young people.  You know the daunting and in some instances existential challenges that our country and our shrinking planet face:
• Slowing the accelerating pace of climate change, driven by the ever-increasing burning of fossil fuels and relentless deforestation of many of the world’s most precious and vital ecosystems;
• Halting nuclear proliferation and reducing and ultimately eliminating nuclear weapons, before war, terrorism, or accident once again unleashes their awful destructive power;
• Reducing the still staggering levels of extreme poverty in the world, which find well over a billion people struggling to get by on less than a dollar and quarter a day.
• Improving governance and strengthening democracy and the rule of law around the world so that people can have voice, dignity, and protection for their human rights, rather than repression and fear.
• Addressing the yawning fiscal deficits in the United States that could lead to a Greek-style economic meltdown if we do not transcend stale partisan positions and make tough choices and difficult compromises on taxing and spending;
• Revitalizing our educational system and our ability to compete in a world economy where the United States now finds itself 16th in college completion rate; 22nd in broadband Internet access; 24th in life expectancy at birth; and 27th in the proportion of college students receiving degrees in science or engineering.
• And, among other things, reforming a political system in this country, and in the state of California, that is drenched in special interest money and power and increasingly polarized and dysfunctional.

These are difficult times.  Graduating at a time when we are still struggling to emerge from the worst economic recession since the Great Depression is bound to provoke anxiety.  Any one of the above challenges (and there are many other very serious ones) could seem overwhelming. But I know you are a “can-do” class who leave Stanford with a sense of hope, empowerment, and optimism.  We admire you for that, and I think you are right to feel that.  For all the suffering and tragedy in the world, there are also many positive things happening, as enterprising people and institutions forge creative responses to the problems we face.

Stanford itself is forging some of these exciting initiatives.  Some of you are already a part of them and many more of you will be in the years to come.  Technological innovation is bringing us to the cusp of a radically new era in energy, when renewable forms of energy will be more affordable and available and energy use will become more efficient and responsible.  Stanford’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center is at the cutting edge of understanding and advancing these changes.  And the Woods Institute for the Environment is bringing together Stanford faculty and students with leaders in the public and private sectors to develop innovative policy responses to climate change and other environmental challenges. 

At the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, we have been deeply engaged with scholars and political activists from the Arab world to understand the historic movements for democratic change and to identify the types of institutions, policies, and transition mechanisms that will finally make for viable democracy and effective governance in that vital region of the world.  In our Program on Liberation Technology, we are tracking how information technology and social media are enabling citizens to mobilize for democratic change, defend their rights, hold their rulers accountable, improve public health, raise productivity, and make markets work more efficiently.  In partnership with the computer science department at the University of Nairobi and a leading Kenyan development NGO, our course on Designing Liberation Technologies has brought Stanford students together in development teams to generate practical solutions to the needs of urban slum dwellers in Kenya for clean water, better sanitation, accessible health care, and physical security.  At the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford scholars are doing groundbreaking applied research to understand the health and nutrition challenges of rural school children in China, the adoption of energy-efficient biomass stoves in India, the way local politics affects poverty reduction in Mexico, and the potential for mobile phones to help improve public health in Africa. 

These represent only a very small sample of the myriad ways that Stanford is addressing the real-world challenges of international development and security.  In a rich harvest of outstanding senior honor’s theses in the IR, CISAC and CDDRL programs, you have helped us understand nuclear proliferation and how to contain it, public health systems and how to improve them, HIV/AIDS policies in developing countries and how to energize them, state-building and democracy assistance efforts—and how to make them more effective and responsible. The growing array of opportunities, with financial support, for Stanford students to conduct significant original research represents one of the most exciting improvements in undergraduate education in recent decades, and it is a tribute to your class that so many of you have made such creative and consequential use of these resources.

On behalf of the Haas Center for Public Service, I want to also acknowledge and thank the large number of you who have devoted some of your time here at Stanford to community and public service.  As I have become more deeply involved with the work of the Haas Center this year as co-director, my admiration has grown for the energy, imagination, and dedication you bring to the diverse array of service and service learning opportunities at Stanford.  Whether it is tutoring middle-school students in East Palo Alto, aiding environmental nonprofits and government agencies in Sacramento, supporting the governance work of NGOs like the Carter Center in Atlanta or Global Integrity in Washington, or serving in the diverse array of overseas summer internships offered by Stanford in Government and the Haas Center, you have made a difference by choosing action over apathy.  Moreover, the insights and practical skills you have gained through these experiences give you a foundation for what we hope and trust will be an ongoing stream of contributions to community and public life.

In bridging the divide between service and scholarship, theory and practice, you are living the dream of Leland and Jane Stanford: to have this daring new educational venture, in this vast beautiful stretch of golden land, “promote the public welfare” by “exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization.”  Leland Stanford was elected California’s eighth governor at the age of 37, and went on to serve eight years in the US Senate until his death.  Stanford in Government continues a tradition of literally Stanford IN government.  At a time when cynicism about politics dominates dinner conversation, the news, and the blogosphere, I hope some of you will seek to restore our faith and consider government service or even elective office.  Most members of Congress are actually not enmeshed in sex, lies, and video scandals.  For the most part, they are decent, intelligent, and public-spirited people caught up in a bad system, mired in perverse incentives.  It urgently needs reform, and you can help reform it.  Whatever you do and however you choose to serve the larger good, I hope you will take to heart Gandhi’s memorable advice that “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Many of the faculty who teach in the IR program are, like myself, research fellows in centers like FSI and the Hoover Institution.  We teach not because we have to but because we find it meaningful, rewarding, and fun. With you, the remarkable students of this extraordinary university, we discover new knowledge about the global challenges we are seeking to understand. From you we derive inspiration, and motivation to do our best.  In you, we see the promise of a new generation, immensely talented, savvy, and idealistic, preparing to assume the opportunities and responsibilities of global leadership.  To you, we offer now our admiration and congratulations for what you have accomplished at Stanford, our thanks for your many intellectual and service contributions, and our confidence that you will in the work you do and the lives you lead make the world a more just, sustainable, and well governed place.