Ambassador Kennedy Speaks at Columbia University Graduation Ceremony

Good Afternoon. I love the flags. “Hey Japan!” It is a great honor to be here today. I want to thank Dean Janow for inviting me. I want to thank the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty and administrators. Most of all, thank you to the students and families here today. You really are the world.

My youngest child just graduated from college on Monday, so I want to say a special word of congratulations to the parents in the audience. I know what a proud day this is for you – and how exhausted you must be. There are few satisfactions greater than watching your children take hold of the future, commit to making a meaningful contribution to the world around them, and acquire the skills to see that commitment through. So I want to give another round of applause to all the parents here today.

I have never given a commencement address because I can’t imagine I have much advice to give – but when Dean Janow asked me I couldn’t say no. That’s because we have been friends since our first day at Columbia Law School 30 years ago. I don’t know if SIPA assigns seats like they do at the Law School, but because our last names are alphabetically close – hers beginning with J and mine with K, we were assigned to sit next to each other in the same small miserable Contracts section. So that just shows you the power of a name like Kennedy – and the role that random chance will play in your life.

My Columbia law school education was one of the most valuable experiences in my life. I worked hard, I grew up a lot. I learned a new way of thinking and gained the confidence to tackle the challenges of adulthood. I also got married and had my first child two weeks after graduation. So needless to say, I remember nothing about the graduation itself and I suspect that you won’t either.

But there are a few things I think are worth mentioning today.

The first is Congratulations – you have accomplished a great deal, and there is so much more to come. I know that many of you have travelled far from home and family to be here. In today’s world, a degree in public policy and international affairs is the most useful and important degree you can possibly have. I hope that when you return home to other countries, or serve as an American overseas, you will think each day about how fortunate you are to have this tremendous advantage, and how you can use it to increase international understanding and cooperation which are so desperately needed.

When I think back to my time in law school now that the exams, moot- court and job-hunting have faded away, what stands out is the importance of individual rights in a system that is based on the rule of law.

America is the rare country founded on an ideal. We have no king, no official religion, or language. We are bound together by the promises made in the Declaration of Independence, the framework of the Constitution, and the 450 words of the Bill of Rights. Together they form the most greatest protection of individual freedom and opportunity in history. We are still struggling to live up to these promises, but our common work has been a beacon of hope for millions all over the globe.

The quote that sticks with me was written by Alexander Hamilton, defender of the Constitution, subject of the hottest show on Broadway today, and Columbia graduate. He wrote, “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”

No matter how deeply immersed in policy you may become, it’s the most fundamental values of hope, respect for human dignity, service to others, and a commitment to peace that inspire the world. I’ve seen this first hand since I arrived as U.S. Ambassador to Japan. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. A great deal of thought and attention is being given to the role of history in regional relations and the need to work together to solve current and future problems.

2015 is also the 64th anniversary of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Built from the ashes of war, our alliance goes well beyond security. Japan and the United States share democratic values, respect for human rights, and the rule of law. We work in global partnership in areas of health security, disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, the education of women and girls, energy security and climate change, and non-proliferation.

The trust and friendship between the US and Japan has been built and sustained by our parents and grandparents. We should not take it for granted. Each generation has to form their own relationships so that this alliance, and others like it, can continue to play a positive role in the world. Now it is our turn.

I was fortunate to grow up in a family that taught by example – that we are never too old, or too young to reach out to others, to find common ground and to work for a better world. That has proved true in Japan just as it has been here at home.

Here’s one example. As you probably know, President Kennedy served in the Navy during World War II. He was the Commander of a PT boat that was sliced in two by a Japanese destroyer. The gas tank exploded, two of the crew were killed, and others were burned so badly they couldn’t swim. All were given up for dead. After six days of danger, my father spotted a Solomon Islander in a canoe, carved a message on a coconut shell and rescue was arranged.

After the war was over and my father was in Congress, he corresponded with Captain Hanami of the Japanese destroyer. Like so many other young men of their generation worldwide, the destroyer captain also returned home to run for public office, and served as the mayor in a town in Fukushima. They shared a desire for reconciliation and a commitment to peace. In the 1950s my father inscribed a photo which was recently on display in Tokyo, “To Captain Hanami – Late Enemy, Present Friend.” One of the Japanese crew members campaigned in my father’s Senate race in 1952 – the same year the Occupation ended. And when he was elected President, my father invited the entire crew of the destroyer to attend his Inauguration and had hoped to be the first sitting U.S. President to visit Japan.

Ever since I’ve arrived as Ambassador, I have been struck by the deep affinity for the US, and the depth of affection for President Kennedy. An entire generation learned English by memorizing his Inaugural Address and almost every day someone quotes the phrase to me, “Ask not what your country can do for you, Ask what you can do for your country.” That call to service still echoes around the world, even 50 years after his death.

And our powerful story of reconciliation still resonates today. In March, I had the chance to meet the widow of the destroyer Captain and I felt the power of history on a human scale. Last month when Prime Minister Abe became the first Japanese leader to speak to a Joint Session of Congress, we saw General Snowden who fought on Iwo Jima shake hands with the grandson of the Japanese garrison commander there – himself now serving his country in the Diet. These encounters are an important reminder that policy must not become disconnected from the emotional dimension of history. They show us that peace is built by countless acts of individual courage, compassion, sacrifice and friendship.

Yet we are living in a world with more than 7 billion other people – most of them in developing countries, and too many in countries that deny basic human rights – especially to women. We need to look for ways to provide opportunity and a better future for millions of our fellow global citizens, and we can’t do it one person at a time. The 21st century has accelerated the importance of alliances, partnerships and multilateral organizations which work together to increase peace and stability.

America needs our friends and allies more than ever. Countries around the world are looking for US leadership, partnership and sustained engagement. Nowhere is this more true than in the Asia Pacific region. The 70 years of peace and prosperity have allowed millions of people to rise out of poverty. Today there are more than 525 million middle class consumers in Asia. In 15 years, there will be 3.2 billion. That represents an enormous opportunity for each of you but it won’t happen unless all the countries in the region respect each other’s sovereignty, accept their shared history and invest in our common future.

One of the most important opportunities we have right now to shape that future is the Trans -Pacific Partnership, and I’m pleased that Trade Promotion Authority just passed the Senate today, but we still have a long way to go. This ambitious 12 nation trade agreement will cover an area representing 40% of the world’s GDP and provide enormous opportunities for American workers and American exports. It will require high standards in areas such as: regulatory transparency, intellectual property protection, digital trade, environmental protections and worker’s rights. And it will lower barriers to US goods and services in the Asia Pacific’s fastest growing markets.

There are people who say that TPP will erode the middle class, undermine our financial regulatory system, and give even more power to large corporations. These are the same arguments that were made against NAFTA twenty years ago. Since some of the criticism is coming from the senior Senator from Massachusetts, I decided to look at what the senior Senator in those days had to say.

Throughout more than 45 years in the U.S. Senate, there was no greater champion of American workers than my Uncle Teddy. Like my father, he also looked always to the future. After an impassioned speech on the Senate floor outlining his concerns, he supported his President and voted for the agreement.

At the time he said, “Standing against all these arguments against NAFTA, is a larger overriding truth – all of the problems that working families face because of the nation’s inability and unwillingness to deal with the dislocations they are suffering will be even worse if NAFTA is defeated … We cannot turn our backs on progress or cast our votes against the future. Massachusetts, like America, has prospered over the years because of trade, and we can prosper in the years ahead because of trade. Our challenge is to see that trade is fair as well as free.”

That is what President Obama, another Columbia graduate, has committed to do through TPP. In addition to including enforceable provisions on labor rights and environmental protections, TPP will eliminate and reduce tariffs and non-tariff barriers to US exports, and level the playing field for US firms and workers competing with state-owned enterprises. It will strengthen protections for patents, copyrights and trademarks, and provide important new access to long-protected agricultural markets, such as Japan.

In addition, TPP has enormous strategic benefits. It will demonstrate the US commitment to and engagement with this important region. It will allow us to write the rules for 21st century trade instead of letting others do so. We have the opportunity right now to ensure that those rules are fair and that they are based on the values of individual freedom and opportunity.

The regional headlines are dominated by aggressive land reclamation, threats of missile testing and nuclear proliferation. So when our Secretary of Defense says that a trade agreement would do more for American security than another aircraft carrier, TPP seems like a win for everyone.

This is the complicated world you are entering. It is a world where an agreement impacting industries from automobiles to agriculture, can also influence the peace and security of millions of families.

This world is exciting, it’s challenging, and it needs a new smart, committed and connected generation of activists to solve our collective problems. You have bravely stepped forward to be those leaders. Whether you stay here in the United States or go abroad, your contributions are going to have enormous impact on the global community.

As Ambassador, I have seen firsthand the dedication and sacrifice it takes to serve on a global stage. Trust yourself. Trust that the future can always be brighter. You will never regret traveling, learning, and sharing your truth and talents with the rest of the world.

You already, know how to get good grades and complete assignments. From now on, success will not be as easy to define. Remember to be open to others, and to embrace the role of chance in your lives.

Think back on that person who sat next to you on the first day of school – they may invite you to speak at graduation one day – or better yet, together you might come up with a new way of bringing two countries closer, reduce the spread of nuclear weapons, or increase the use of renewable energy.

Don’t be afraid of failing – it’s not as if my generation has done such a great job. And the lessons you learn from those mishaps will be among the most valuable of all. Your insights, your efforts, your talents, your friendships, and the knowledge you have gained here at SIPA are vital to our common future.

As the great civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis often says, “Find a way to get in the way. Don’t be afraid to speak up, and speak out for what you believe in.”

We can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

And most of all, make sure to have fun.

Thank you very much.