My Message to Harvard Kennedy School Grads

The following speech was delivered at the 2014 Commencement of the Harvard Kennedy School, where I was previously Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy and the Founding Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

Thank you, Dean Ellwood. It is a huge honor to be among you here in the cold today -- particularly with the chance to pay tribute to the 2014 M.P.P., M.P.A., M.P.A./I.D., and Ph.D. graduates. And congratulations to the Kennedy School for keeping with the long and sacred government tradition of creating more acronyms than any normal human being can process.

I'm particularly honored that two of my favorite colleagues are here with us today, maybe others as well. But I can't quite see out. But Michael Ignatieff and Graham Allison, two of the liveliest co-conspirators that I could have had in a very formative learning period for me here at the Kennedy School. They are phenomenal teachers, remarkable leaders and great and always present friends. I'd also say the same about your dean, Dean Ellwood. And I'd add that Dean Ellwood has a lot to be proud of about his time as dean here at the Kennedy School. Today, looking at the list of degree recipients, he has at least 555 reasons. But also by doubling financial aid during his tenure, he has made it possible for many of you to attend this school. And without this aid, many more of you would be so weighed down by debt that you wouldn't be able to leave here and pursue careers in public service. So let's give Dean Ellwood a big round of applause for this in particular.

Your families are here with you in body or in spirit today not just because this is Harvard -- though, of course, that doesn't hurt! They are here because they support the path that you have chosen. They have given you the blessing to do the work of serving the greater good. I hope you can draw strength and inspiration from them and from their faith in you. And I know you will join me now in thanking them.

As the dean mentioned, I went to law school here. I wrote most of my first book here. I taught my first class here. And coming back here brings me closer to my loved ones: the Boston Red Sox.

Most importantly, it is here -- in fact, right over there, at Charlie's -- that I had my first date with another loved one: my husband Cass Sunstein, who is also here today. Thank you Charlie's. Cass and I each knew Barack Obama separately before the then-senator ran for president, and we each worked on the Obama presidential campaign, but we somehow did not know one another. Then one day Cass sent a grumpy email to a confidante, complaining somewhat harshly about his particular group of campaign advisers' pace of work. The only problem was that Cass accidentally sent the email to everyone working on the campaign, including all of those about whom he was complaining. Ever done something like that? Raise your hand. Well, I have too. So my heart went out to Cass Sunstein, and I emailed him and asked if he would like to meet to discuss the need to return to communication by carrier pigeon. And now, thanks to his errant email, that successful first meeting at Charlie's, we are married with a 5-year-old son and a daughter who will turn 2 this weekend.

Now, I tell you this story because while I have a serious message for you today, my more personal appeal is to stay open to all that is around you. Professionally and personally, you never know when lightning will strike.

Now email and dating advice aside, at the Kennedy School you have fine-tuned the basic skills you need to become formidable public servants. Advocacy: talking your way into Heifetz's leadership class despite being short by 200 bidding points. Strategic planning: nabbing a seat near the microphone at Forum events, so you can box out those pesky Harvard undergrad overachievers. And research: methodically tracking the list of daily Kennedy School receptions to make sure you never have to pay for a soggy egg roll or a plastic cup of boxed wine.

Now, my task today is easier than that of most commencement speakers, who often have to try to motivate departing students to try to go out and change the world. On May 18, 1963, the man from whom your institution takes its name gave the commencement address at Vanderbilt University, in the heart of the American South. In the weeks leading up to his speech, the nation had been confronted by horrific events in Birmingham, Alabama, where police dogs had been unleashed on brave African Americans determined to end segregation.

President Kennedy spoke that day about how the protection of our rights is incumbent upon the fulfillment of our responsibilities. "Equality of opportunity does not mean equality of responsibility," he said. "All Americans must be responsible citizens, but some must be more responsible than others."

All of you -- Americans and international students alike -- came to the Kennedy School because you wanted to take on more responsibility for the world around you. And now that you have received a top-rate graduate education, you bear even more responsibility than when you got here.

You are ready. You have been trained to work within systems built on respect for the rule of law and fundamental human rights. This makes sense, as there is no region in the world that has not been touched by the expansion of democratic norms and values.

But there may be one thing you have not fully prepared for, and it is the subject of my remarks today. Even as some countries continue steadily along the path toward greater democracy, others have taken some concerning steps back with respect to political rights and civil liberties. Still others seem caught in a rut of tyranny from which even the ambitions and the aspirations of their people have not yet freed them. Your challenge is to ensure that democracy expands, deepens, and delivers.

As President Obama told graduates of West Point earlier today, the United States must continue to lead efforts to confront threats to democracy and to advance freedom and human progress. In doing so, we -- and by "we" I mean those of us who are privileged to serve in government, but also "we" citizens who have decided to make the world's problems our own -- we must address several distinct phenomena that some have begun -- wrongly -- to attribute to democracy.

For starters, in some of the "younger" democracies -- countries that had been on the path towards greater democracy and rule of law -- progress has slowed or setbacks have occurred. This shouldn't come as too big a surprise, because we know it is much tougher to build a system of genuine checks and balances than it is to depose an autocrat. In too many places, the outward marker of a democracy -- elections -- marks the absence of basic rights and the strong institutions needed to defend them.

In Ukraine, one of the electoral democracies born out of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Maidan protests started last year because successive elections had done little to end the state's rampant corruption and authoritarian tendencies. In Venezuela, the current government came to power through an election, but when protesters turned out to criticize certain policies, security forces brutally beat them and locked up opposition leaders on false charges.

Additionally, in some places where citizens have demanded the right to choose their own leaders, democratic transition has coincided with political instability and a dramatic increase in ethnic and religious conflict. For all of the jubilation that accompanied the original Arab Spring, this journey was never going to be easy. Think for a second how hard it is to grow trustworthy institutions on fallow ground where, for decades, rulers governed by fear, where people on the losing side of a political contest could never reasonably expect to have a shot at winning the next time around, where there had never before been a next time around.

Look at Egypt, where millions who demanded their dignity forced a dictator from power, but where successive governments that followed have employed old-school repressive tactics, attacking protesters, suppressing dissent, and muzzling journalists.

And finally, at the very moment when we most yearn for a city, or cities, on a hill -- models that serve as proof that the democratic system can deliver -- many "older," established democracies are delivering too much dysfunction. Gridlock and partisanship are too common. Political influence can seem to be a special privilege reserved for those with wealth and power.

The birthplace of democracy, Greece, has witnessed the near-complete collapse of the economy, massive unemployment and riots, and successive governments forced from power. As support for traditional parties has plummeted, the popularity of the racist and anti-Semitic Golden Dawn party has grown alarmingly, even spreading into high schools.

This trend is not limited to Greece. In the European Parliament elections last week, parties from Britain, France, and Denmark scored big by running on platforms that replaced the sacred principle of democracy -- inclusive pluralism -- with xenophobic nationalism.

At this point you're probably asking, "What does all of this mean for me?" What does it mean when the model that you've studied -- and in which you are supposed to become agents of change -- is being challenged in these ways?

Well, one thing it means is that, because of the path you've chosen, the challenges being posed to democracy are personal for you. Whether you'll be working for governments or the NGOs monitoring them, in a newsroom or in a classroom, your success in promoting these values will depend in large measure on how well you work within -- and on behalf of -- democracy.

True democracy, complete with checks and balances, offers what no other system can. You know already that democracies are less likely to go to war, are less corrupt, and, on average, are wealthier than non-democracies. You are also familiar with Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen's landmark finding that no genuine democracy has ever experienced a famine.

But I want to emphasize something else today: Democracy wins out in the long run because it offers a chance to fix its own mistakes. It is the only system built on the premise that if something is not working, people can actually correct it, from the bottom up. In fact, democracy works best when people are given the opportunity to constantly monitor and repair the kinks in the machinery. And given the choice, nearly everybody would welcome the chance to rein in abusive police, to stop paying bribes to get social services, and to ensure their children have access to quality education. Self-correction is not destabilizing; it is stabilizing. As President Obama put it today, "respect for human rights is an antidote to instability and the grievances that fuel violence and terror."

Democratic governments that respect human rights have not and will not fail to deliver on their promise. Nor have they lost their intrinsic appeal. In fact, the opposite is true.

A few weeks ago, the world's largest democracy held elections. Two in every three voters in India -- more than 550 million people -- went to the polls. And the people brought a new party into power. Here's what a representative of the outgoing party said after the results came in: "We believe that in a democracy winning and losing is part of the game. This time the mandate is clearly against us. I accept the mandate with humility."

How about that for democracy? How about an outgoing party acknowledging that it lost because it failed to live up to the people's demands, rather than blaming the voters for their shortcomings, or, worse still, refusing to cede power?

This is what happens when a government recognizes that its authority emanates from -- and can be taken away by -- the people it serves. And this culture of accountability is not built on elections alone. It comes out of initiatives like India's landmark 2005 Right to Information Law. Among other things, the law allowed people living in rural areas, for the first time, to see how local budgets were being spent. And so, community leaders who had long suspected that local officials were pocketing money meant to build local roads and schools could actually open the books and see for themselves what was being spent where.

Knowing many rural areas lacked electricity -- never mind the Internet -- these leaders went to local community centers and painted the facts, just the facts, on the outside walls of these centers -- for all to see. And just like that, entire communities became public auditors. Suddenly, villagers flocked to check out the walls and to discover for the first time how funds were supposed to have been invested in their communities. Citizens saw large expenditures on infrastructure, school textbooks, and clean water that they knew had never been made, local officials had to explain themselves, and if their answers fell short, the people could give them the boot.

Give people a chance to fix their broken systems and they will seize it.

Similarly, to those who are disillusioned with what's happened in places like Syria -- places where people took valiant first steps towards demanding democracy, only to suffer a horrific backlash -- I would remind you that what we are witnessing in the Middle East is not the consequence of too much democracy but rather the toxic consequences of too little democracy for too long.

To those who would argue that such fear cannot be overcome and such conventions cannot be changed, I would point you to Tunisia. The Arab Spring began there, as you all know, when a humble street vendor who was humiliated and beaten by local officials went to his governor for help. He wanted to work within the system. He went to his governor. But he was turned away. It was only when he could see no other way to secure change that he set himself on fire.

Show me a clearer illustration of hopelessness in the face of injustice, of living in a system that lacks the means for self-correction.

But look at what's happened in Tunisia since that time. The Tunisian people not only unseated a dictator but also replaced him with a diverse mix of Islamists and secularists. After two years of intense negotiations, those representatives approved a new constitution, which recognizes fundamental freedoms and the separation of powers. Many people claimed an Arab democracy would never respect the rights of women or religious minorities. Now Tunisia has a constitution that protects both.

Yet it would be a mistake to look at this achievement as the work of Tunisia's leaders alone. It was the Tunisian people, backed by human rights defenders, civil society groups, a vibrant press, NGOs, and so many others, who pressed these new leaders to reach such a compromise.

Even in places where leaders have repeatedly failed to live up to their pledges, citizens have shown remarkable patience with democracy. This past weekend, millions of Ukrainians voted and elected a leader who promised to replace the graft and divisiveness of his predecessor with accountability and unity. Notwithstanding their recent history, Ukrainians hold out hope in democracy not because they are naïve or because they have short memories but out of a reasoned pragmatism. They know that no model gives them a better shot or a greater hand in correcting the mistakes of the past.

Here at home, while we Americans are entitled to feel frustrated with one standoff after another in Washington, or the outsized influence of a wealthy few in politics, the truth is that the American system has, time and again, risen to advance its and all people's rights.

I can't tell you how proud I am to serve under a president who has made it possible for gay people to serve openly and proudly in the Armed Forces, and in a federal government in which gay employees enjoy the same federal benefits as their straight colleagues. Or to have served alongside a secretary of state who so eloquently declared that "gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights." Or to speak to you in the state that not only repeatedly had an "out" gay member of Congress but whose courts were the first to legally recognize same-sex marriage in the United States.

None of these once-unthinkable changes would have been possible if citizens had not fought doggedly to make them happen, if agents of change -- people just like you -- had not challenged their government and their courts to right historic wrongs.

It is because we believe deep-down in what democracy makes possible -- and because we have seen what it can produce -- that we can endure the challenges of a system that can sometimes feel broken. It is because, when we look towards our president today, we can trace a line straight back to those courageous men and women who braved police dogs in Birmingham in 1963.

It's also why we feel a profound responsibility to reject the false choice between strengthening fundamental rights at home and doing so abroad. We can -- and we must -- do both. Indeed, it's our own relentless, inch-by-inch effort to "form a more perfect Union" that allows us to stand credibly and passionately for democracy and human rights abroad.

President Obama has instructed all his diplomats to make supporting civil society an integral part of American foreign policy -- to support the change makers who are on the front lines of the struggle for universal rights. It is no coincidence that civil society and journalists are often the first to come under fire when democracy is backsliding. That's why, every day, American diplomats stand up for the right of people to organize peacefully for change, bringing real resources and sustained diplomatic pressure to bear. There is no hidden agenda here, simply a fundamental expression of our support for, and belief in, democratic values.

Indeed, all of the steps toward more inclusive and rights-respecting democracies -- in India, in Tunisia, in the United States, and in so many other democracies, young and old -- can be traced back to the demands of citizens and the agents of change who have inspired and empowered them. And all of these changes would have been impossible if the system itself were not predicated on fixing its own mistakes.

I said earlier that you were a group that did not need to be convinced of the importance of pursuing public service. But in closing, let me remind you of why it is so important that you be your smartest, most relentlessly dedicated, and most empathetic selves as you head out into the world to take up this calling.

As we sit here today, at least 200 Nigerian girls are in captivity. They were targeted, quite simply, because they chose to get an education.

I suspect you will not hear me utter a line like this one again, but here goes: Boko Haram understands something very important about those girls.

They understand that educated girls will ask smart questions.

An educated girl will question whether she wants to grow up in a society where she is condemned to silence and servitude.

An educated girl will question the values of a justice system that sentences a woman to death simply because of her religion or that of the man she loves, as happened two weeks ago in Sudan to a woman who, just yesterday, gave birth to a child in prison.

And an educated girl will question whether a woman should earn less than a man simply because she's a woman, as a woman named Lilly Ledbetter asked in the United States.

For all of those reasons, Boko Haram understands that a generation of girls armed with books, with pencils, and with the ambition to learn is a greater threat to their close-minded vision of the world than any military.

Just look at the girls who've escaped Boko Haram's clutches. Do you know where they are? They're back in school. In a place where heavily armed soldiers are too afraid to go out on patrol, these girls are brave enough to walk back into the classroom.

And yet, while Boko Haram is right to be afraid of these girls, they are wrong to think they can keep them from claiming a future within their reach.

These girls bring us back to an unimpeachable truth: If you give people the tools to correct the parts of their government that are broken, as only democracy can -- whether it is access to education or access to health care, a fair wage or a fair justice system, a free press or freedom of information -- they will seize them. And they will defend their rights as tenaciously as have those brave girls in Nigeria.

So go out there, graduates, and use the tools you now have to fix these problems. Help make democracy work better here and abroad. And remember that you -- now that you have acquired new tools -- bear even more responsibility.

I know that you will shoulder this responsibility with poise and exercise it with world-changing impact.

Best of luck, and congratulations.