John Kerry’s Remarks at the United Nations International School Commencement Ceremony

United Nations International School – A Kindergarten-to-12th grade, coeducational, college-preparatory day school, the United Nations International School (UNIS) was established in 1947 by a group of United Nations parents to provide an international education for their children, while preserving their diverse cultural heritages. What began as a nursery school for 20 children quickly grew, adding grades, students and faculty. More

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Thank you very, very much. I accept the nomination. (Laughter and applause.) What an absolutely extraordinary place to have a graduation, any graduation, but especially this one.

Director Camblin, thank you for your very generous introduction. I’m glad you gave the short version. (Laughter.) And thank you, Mr. Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson, an old friend and a terrific fighter, a warrior for peace. President Lykketoft, for your words this afternoon and for your leadership.

Believe it or not, folks, the Deputy Secretary General, the President, and I have something in common – we’ve all reached the point where a lot of people are asking us, “What are you going to do in your next job?” (Laughter.)

Now, obviously, that is not my current focus, but friends are telling me there are some really special outside diplomatic assignments that I might conceivably take on. I understand that Batman and Superman have been having difficulties, Captain America has been caught up in a civil war, and that Daenerys Targaryen needs help getting back to Westeros, folks. (Cheers.) So I’ve got nothing to worry about. There’s plenty out there for me to do.

Director Camblin, Principal Delaitre, distinguished guests, parents, members of the faculty and the members of the board of trustees, and the awesome class of 2016: Thank you – (applause) – thank you for the chance to share with you this very, very special day. If some of you were hoping for Beyonce – (laughter) – I’m sorry, here I am. (Laughter.) And for that you have my niece Iris who’s graduating to thank – or maybe to blame. (Applause.) I want you to know that not only is Iris a proud member of your graduating class, but she is also a terrific campaigner. And she got out the vote for Uncle John when I ran for president in 2004. I should have sent her to Ohio; it might have made the difference. (Laughter.) She had more common sense even then as a 6 year-old than some more recent presidential candidates whom I could name – (laughter and applause). But I won’t name him. (Laughter.)

I want you to know, though, that running for President wasn’t pressure. Trying to decide on the theme for this commencement – now that’s pressure. I had a long lecture in mind, but then there’s an old saying that “the mind can only absorb what the seat can endure.” So you’ll be happy to know that I’m going to keep this short. And after all, if you all graduate on time, we can all go to Central Park and re-enact senior cut day. (Laughter.)

Now, to all you moms and dads, let me just say that if your emotions are at all like mine when my daughters graduated, you’ll feel a little bit sad, a little bit – maybe even a lot – relieved, incredibly proud, and absolutely blown away by how short the interval is between diapers and diplomas. (Laughter.)

Now, for all of you who are graduating, I’m absolutely confident that deep down you all know your parents have always been proud of you and always will be. So do them a favor and delete some of those photos on your Facebook page. I mean, there really are some “Tut House” memories that are not meant to be shared with everybody. (Laughter.)

Now, I did not come here just to warn you about the double-edged sword of social media. And the reason is pretty simple, and both prior speakers have referred to it. This is not an ordinary school, and you are certainly not an ordinary graduating class. You are very lucky to be international students who have come of age in a global era – and make no mistake: This is an enormous advantage. You already know how to be explorers. You’ve already tested some of your limits, venturing across boundaries of language and culture, adapting to new situations and surroundings. I know that when I graduated from high school, nobody imagined the internet, let alone social media. And for you, it’s second nature beginning almost before you could walk. But I do have at least one thing in common with you. Like many of your parents, my Dad was a diplomat for a while, and I got to travel a lot as a kid.

When I was just 11, my father was assigned to Berlin, Germany, not too long after the war, World War II. And I want you to know that my experience living overseas taught me an enormous amount, but one principal lesson that I will share: If you are trying to understand someone else’s country, and you want to really know what’s going on, make sure you look at that country not through your own lens, but through the lens of the people who live there.

It makes all the difference, for example, whether you grow up in a country that is stable and peaceful or where conflict compels everyone to live in fear. The priorities of parents today are affected by whether they live in a place where children go to bed hungry each night or where diet books are best sellers. Even if you share the same hopes and aspirations, the lessons of history are not the same to a young person attending class in Ramallah compared to one going to school in Tel Aviv. And your view of world affairs is absolutely going to be affected by whether the lens through which you’re looking is in China, or India, or Saudi Arabia, or Iran, the United States, or anywhere else.

Here at UNIS, you understand this reality as well as anybody anywhere, and you are already looking through the right lens. That’s the privilege of having gone to this school, the privilege of being part of this great family. You represent 41 countries, as has been stated. You speak 38 languages – though, hopefully, not all at once. Many of your parents sit alongside each other in the UN Security Council or right here in the General Assembly. And each year, you set the standard for constructive dialogue at the UNIS-UN conference.

In the process, you have demonstrated what we know to be true: UNIS is a school with a conscience. Here, you don’t just talk about the values of diversity, tolerance, and respect for the rights and dignity of others. You live it. You are that diversity. You live those values every single day, and you know, as Winston Churchill said, that “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak – but it’s also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Above all, this international school is a place that is deeply engaged in the analysis of global problems. It is where young people from around the world can get a head start on the challenges that you will, very soon, be taking on together.

And believe me: That head start matters.

Each year, about 120 million people across the globe reach the age of 16, and almost 90 percent of them are in poorer countries. Overall, the youth unemployment rate is at record levels on a global basis. And somehow, through innovation, through ingenuity, through force of will, through your efforts, we will have to generate a huge number of new jobs, even while technology makes many old ones obsolete. And that task obviously does not stand alone.

From weapons of mass destruction to sectarian conflict to climate change and a host of other things, we face an array of huge, additional challenges. But what I can tell today you for certain as you graduate, not one of these problems, not one of them, is without a solution.

I’m proud to say that, for instance, on climate change America is among the countries in the lead. Right here at this dais, as was mentioned earlier, six weeks ago, my granddaughter on my lap, I formally committed the United States to join the global climate change agreement that 196 nations – all with different views, different capacities, different understandings – came together to adopt in Paris, and which will curb greenhouse gas emissions and bring about a low carbon energy future. Already in the United States, I know that we are at about 10 percent of the goal of the 17 percent that we set, and hopefully we will exceed the goals.

We have to approach this challenge with the urgency that it demands. This past April was the hottest April in recorded history – it was also the twelfth consecutive record-breaking month, every month preceding hotter than any before. We learned that 2015 was the hottest year in recorded history, by far, after knowing that the past decade was the hottest on record and the one before that, the second hottest on record, and the one before that, the third hottest record. Now, no one would blame you for believing that this is simply how the world works – higher temperatures, more violent storms, more droughts, more famines, more deaths due to pollution and breathing problems, more people forced to leave their homes and become refugees because of floods or because of environmental damage, which meant they could no longer make a living.

My message to you this afternoon is that what you have been living is not the way it has to work. And the path back begins by admitting what scientists have been telling us for years is true. Some people right here in the United States still refuse to listen to the scientists. They think that sea level rise is fine because the extra water is just going to slop over the sides of a flat Earth. They claim to have no way of knowing that climate change is real because they, individually, are not scientists. That’s what you hear. That’s what I heard on the floor of the United States Senate. And only this year, one United States senator walked to the floor of the Senate with a snowball in his hand and said, “Look, snow,” in January – must mean there’s no climate change, it’s a hoax. Well, folks, I know he set out to prove something, but not – that’s not what he proved. (Laughter.)

Every one of you knows, because you learned it in high school or perhaps in middle school or elementary school, even, that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and the Earth revolves around its axis – and we believe it, but we’re not scientists. You don’t have to be a scientist to know that something’s wrong when glaciers are melting at record speeds and warmer oceans are causing fish to change their migration patterns.

And what I find legitimately exciting and motivating in this – and I hope you will, too – is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We have choices. You have choices.

Just think about it: If the proponents of action on climate change were somehow wrong, flat wrong, contrary to all that science declares, but nevertheless we proceeded to reduce carbon and other gases released into the atmosphere, what is the worst thing that would happen? Well, under that scenario, the worst would be millions more jobs in the transition to clean energy, the opening of a whole new energy market – the largest market in the history of humankind with a more sustainable policy – healthier populations, reduced health care costs because we’re not sending kids to the hospital in the summer charging billions of dollars for environmentally induced asthma, cleaner air, reduced expenditure on environmentally induced diseases, an improved outlook for the oceans with less acidification and die-off of coral reefs and ecosystems affected by pollution which falls to the Earth and into the ocean, and surely, we would have greater security because of less dependence on someone else’s source of energy. And we would have stronger economies as a result. My friends, that is the worst that will happen.

But what if the naysayers are wrong? What if the people who deny all the science are wrong? What if, because of their ignorance, we fail to take the action that we should? What is the worst then? The worst then is sheer, utter disaster for the planet and all who inhabit it. So I ask you a very simple question: Whose “worst” would most thinking people rather endure?

Like any generation, you’re going to have your fair share of challenges, to ask those very kinds of questions, provide the answers, and make the difference. Unless I miss my guess, the class of 2016 will welcome the chance to be tested, because you wouldn’t be graduating from a school like this if you lacked global vision or the ability to lead and succeed.

And I have no doubt that you are going to tackle these challenges.

For one thing, you have great role models – and I’m actually thinking beyond your parents, who are sitting behind you. Look to your right, look to your left, look behind you, some of you in front. Your fellow students from your own class have already achieved great things. And I’m not talking about the time that you moved all the classroom furniture onto the roof. (Laughter.)

Consider your accomplished athletic teams – girls’ volleyball, boys’ soccer, many others, always pulling together and leaving it all on the court or the field.

Consider your classmate who built an award-winning drone that won third place in an NYU-sponsored science competition.

Consider another student whose research in the Dominican Republic put a needed spotlight on the deportation of ethnic Haitians from that country.

Consider another classmate who last summer worked at the genocide museum in Rwanda.

And consider those of your fellow students who went to Nepal to fight hunger and ended up raising more than $7,000 to aid the victims of last year’s devastating earthquake.

You don’t need me or anyone else to tell you to care. You already do.

You don’t need anyone to urge you to step up and speak out because you already are.

And you don’t need anyone to remind you it will soon be your turn, as Jan said, not just to study or to observe history – it’s going to be your responsibility sooner than you may think to write the history of your age.

Class of 2016, I know you’re under no illusions about the gigantic challenges before us. But you need to remember that compared to any other – any earlier generation, you have tremendous advantages.

When I graduated from high school, the conventional wisdom was that rising populations were soon going to overwhelm limited food supplies, causing widespread starvation. And indeed, between then and now, our planet has become far more crowded – the population more than doubling. But guess what? Because of new techniques, new technology, creativity, entrepreneurial activity, food production has tripled and hunger has been cut in half in ways that we never predicted.

Just a quarter of a century ago, we faced an epidemic in HIV/AIDS and it threatened to continue its spread in Africa and across the globe, killing almost all who were infected, and seemingly beyond our control. But in the time since, the world community generated the money, the tools, the treatments required to bring us to the threshold – which is where we are now – of the first HIV/AIDS-free generation in three decades.

Just two years ago, the Ebola virus was devastating parts of West Africa and there were predictions that by Christmas of two years ago, a million people were going to die. Instead, a global coalition came together to stop it right here at the United Nations and in countless efforts of diplomacy and saved countless lives.

From ancient times, we’ve been told that poverty is an inevitable part of the human condition – and yet this spring, for the first time in history, the rate of extreme poverty has fallen below 10 percent. This means that, in the course of your lifetimes, more than a billion people have been able to lift themselves from the bottom rungs of the economic ladder and begin to climb upward.

In the same period, the average income of the average person has doubled, infant death rates have plummeted, millions more girls have been enrolled in schools, and life expectancies have risen steadily in nearly every part of the globe. Meanwhile, more people live in democracies than ever before and the number of nuclear weapons has been slashed by two-thirds from their Cold War heights.

None of this is because of what any one country or any one government was able to do alone. It’s what happens when people have faith in their own values, in their own skills – when people respect the rights and the dignity of each other – and when they believe in the possibility of progress no matter how many setbacks they may experience.

And more often than not, my friends, it is because young people have been willing to fight and show the way.

I am not just saying that to make you feel good on graduation day. The fact is that people your age have been part of virtually every great advance our world has made in the direction of social and economic justice – from the abolition of slavery in our nation, to the end of apartheid, to support for the empowerment of women, to today’s ongoing campaign for LGBTI rights.

People didn’t make those gains by sitting on the sidelines or saying somebody else has to do it or saying it isn’t doable or simply making a demand. They did it by organizing their arguments, mobilizing their peers, debating their opponents, and having the patience to accept small gains while always persisting in the struggle for greater progress.

So, graduates: That is your job now and that’s how you’re going to live up to your responsibilities as global citizens in a global age.

One of the greatest rewards of being Secretary of State, I will tell you, is getting to see with my own eyes how much good news there actually is in the world. You don’t hear it that much because the media thrives on the conflict, and politics always thrives on blaming somebody else for things that are going wrong.

Last week, I had the privilege of traveling back to Vietnam with President Obama, who is just the third sitting U.S. president to visit that country. And long ago, as was mentioned by Director Camblin, I fought in the Vietnam War – a war that never should have occurred. It stemmed from a profound failure of diplomatic insight and political vision, the failure to ask the tough questions that you’ve learned how to ask in your education here. And the tragedy of what happened should be a constant reminder of the horror and the suffering that war inflicts.

But even as we think about that, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to become the prisoners of history.

When I first returned to Vietnam as a civilian, as a senator – 1991 – I touched down at a Hanoi airport served by a cramped, ramshackle terminal. Cars and motorcycles were few. Most people were on bicycles. None of the streetlights worked. Locals were prohibited by law from even speaking with foreigners. An economic embargo was in full force.

Today, thanks to the hard work of diplomacy that we did, Vietnam has embraced a raging capitalism. Cars and motorcycles line the streets. Two decades ago, we lifted the embargo and tourists now flood those streets. In fact, those streets as we drove in from the airport were filled with people 10, 20, 30 deep – the largest crowd President Obama has seen in his travels as President of the United States. Fewer and fewer are thinking about the war of long ago. In fact, most people are far too young to even remember it. And certainly, the young people I met are far more interested in plugging into the world economy than in reliving events that took place long before they were born.

It took us 20 years to normalize relations. It took us 20 more years to move from healing to building. Think of what we can accomplish with a new university that we’re setting up in Ho Chi Minh City. Think of what we can accomplish in the next 20 years to come.

So members of the graduating class, above all this afternoon, I urge you to move forward with confidence. Believe in yourselves. Believe in the possibility of change. Believe in the lessons of the past. But most importantly, believe in the future.

You graduate today with an increasing reservoir of knowledge and skills. But how you use those gifts is ultimately a question of your character. And that only you can decide. So as you continue your education, I urge you to pursue arenas that excite your passions, help you to teach and serve and to heal and give back – because that is what makes life worthwhile. And remember, yes, you’ve got to have fun along the way. One of my college buddies had his nutty idea to start something called the Yale Flying Club our senior year. And admittedly, this was more of a scheme to get us out of class and off the campus. We basically spent our senior year majoring in flying, practicing takeoffs and landings. I may have given new meaning that year to Mark Twain’s quote, “Never let my schooling interfere with my education.” (Laughter.)

So each of you will leave this place with a different path in mind. Some of you may decide to work in government. Others may continue in academia. I’ll tell you this: The world is moving so fast today that I guarantee that many of you will ultimately embark on a career in a company not yet founded today using devices not yet developed today based on ideas not even yet conceived today. And no matter where you end up, no matter what you choose to do, never underestimate the power that you have to make a difference. Participation is the best antidote to cynicism. If you have questions, ask them. When you see injustices, go out and correct them. When you dream up a solution, put it on the table and pursue it and fight for it.

No matter where you come from, no matter where you’re going, the years that you’ve spent here are a spectacular introduction to responsibility. And your education does require something more of you than just serving yourself. It calls on you to give back in whatever way that you can. It requires you to serve the world around you, and yes, to try to make a difference. There is never a wrong time to stand up for an ideal or to pour the full measure of your devotion and talent into a cause that enriches both your own life and that of other people. Find something that taps into your passion, and no matter how tough the road ahead, remember what Nelson Mandela said: “It always seems impossible until it is done.” Who knows – maybe even some of you feel that way about your diploma today. (Laughter.)

So congratulations to every single one of you. I wish you great Godspeed and good luck on the road ahead, and thank you for letting me share this very special moment with you. Thank you. (Applause.)

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