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U.S. Department of State

Great Seal Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright
Commencement Address - George Mason High School
Falls Church, Virginia, June 17, 1997
As released by the Office of the Spokesman
U.S. Department of State

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As delivered

Thank you, Sarah, for that wonderful introduction. And may I say the Wellsley class of 1959 greets Wellsley class of 2001. (Applause.) I thank you very much for inviting me to address your commencement. It is a great honor. I have been in a lot of fancy places recently, and have addressed some fancy commencements. But there is no greater honor for me than to have the opportunity to talk to all of you, and I thank you very, very much for asking me to do this.
I want to say to all of you what Sarah has always known -- that her father, Bob Frasure, was a great man who made a difference in the lives of his colleagues and in the course of his country's history. He had the courage to go to some of the toughest places in the world; the resourcefulness to resolve some of the most intractable problems you can imagine; and the sense of humor to keep it all in perspective. It is a joy, but certainly no surprise, to see how wonderful his daughter is.
To everyone here, Superintendent Shaw, Principal Snee, students, parents, teachers, and the entire George Mason community, among whom I see many government colleagues, I say congratulations.
I am mindful of the responsibility I have, in that my speech is the last thing standing between the Class of '97 and your diplomas and the ringing of the bells. So I won't be too long and you don't have to take notes. In fact, I can definitely announce, on behalf of the whole United States Government, that there will be no pop quiz in the morning. (Laughter.)
And despite what Marian said, I do want to take a few moments to talk to you about what the era of constant and transforming change in which we live and where you are in it.
President Clinton has called this the greatest age of possibility our people have ever known. If we are wise and active and caring, we have it in our power to produce enough food, build enough shelter, deliver enough healing medicine and disseminate enough knowledge to allow people everywhere to live better and more productive lives.
But we can't just wish that kind of world into being. It will not happen because of advances in science, or because of the Internet, or because Batman and McDonalds and Smashing Pumpkins are household words from China to the Czech Republic. It depends on the choices we make today, tomorrow and in the future.
As your commencement speaker, I wish I could answer all of the questions you might have about your future, but I'm not even sure whether the questions are essay or multiple choice. They may even be like those SAT questions for which there actually turns out to be more than one right answer.
All I can offer is the benefit of my own experience, as one who has lived through more than half of this tumultuous century; as someone, as Sarah said, whose family was driven twice from its home -- first by Hitler, then by Stalin -- while I was still a little girl; who was welcomed here as a refugee; and who is now both proud and, frankly, a little astonished to represent the greatest and most generous nation in history to all the nations of the world.
As a student, mother and teacher, I have attended many graduations. So I promise not to place upon your shoulders the weight of the world, or to lecture you about your social habits, which is something I actually did when I was the graduation speaker at my own graduation. (Laughter.) There, it kind of seemed more appropriate. I will tell you that I believe that in coping with change, the best place to begin is with the simple principles that have not changed.
The first of these is that we have a responsibility to one another. This is a duty that goes even deeper than remembering to rewind the tape from Blockbusters. It begins with the simple decency of good manners, extends to a willingness to provide a helping hand when needed, and rests, above all, on tolerance for racial, ethnic and cultural differences.
A few days ago, President Clinton reminded a college audience in California that in 50 years, there will be no majority race in America. "We know what we will look like," he said, "but what will we be like? Can we be one America, respecting, even celebrating our differences, but embracing even more what we have in common? Can we define what it means to be an American, not just in terms of the hyphens showing our ethnic origins, but in terms of our primary allegiance to the values America stands for and values we really live by, " he asked.
The President urged us to join in a great national conversation that should lead to action by individuals, by communities and by the government through which we strive to shape a more just community for all. I have my own perspective about the importance of this conversation, because traveling around the world in the last few years I have seen the costs of prejudice and hate. I have seen that the alternative to dialogue is often destruction.
Three weeks ago, in a small village in Croatia, I visited a house that had been set ablaze by ethnic Croats to drive away the ethnic Serb family that had lived there. The ethnic Croats had themselves been run out of their homes by ethnic Serbs in another part of the country.
The next day, I visited a town in Bosnia called Brcko and drove by a hotel where during the Bosnian war innocent people were beaten, tortured and raped not for anything they had done but simply for who they were.
The people who committed these terrible acts were, superficially at least, ordinary people. They were not genetically more prone to hatred than you or I. Genocide is not an inborn trait; it is not spread by the wind; it is not a natural disaster. It is not something that just happens.
It is caused by leaders who nurture hate and who exploit it for their own ends. It often follows years of bad government and sometimes no government at all. It happens when no one stands up to lead people toward reason and away from revenge.
That is the lesson for America that lies in places such as Bosnia and Rwanda. But these countries are more than just warnings to us. It matters to America whether they succeed as peaceful societies or perish in violence.
In today's world, you cannot just draw a line on the map somewhere in Africa or Asia or Latin America and say that what happens on the other side of that line does not affect us. Civil wars, if left unattended, can turn into international conflicts that draw in American troops. Wrenching poverty, if left unattended, often pushes refugees across borders. Pollution in one country, if left unattended, can poison air all over the world. In other words, problems abroad, if left unattended, all too often come home to America.
There is a simple rule that any police officer will tell you is true. If a window is broken in a neighborhood and no one fixes it, sooner or later every window will be broken. That applies to foreign affairs, too. If we don't defend basic standards of international behavior when they are threatened, sooner or later those standards will be violated everywhere.
That is why right now, thousands of young Americans not much older than you, are serving their country in Bosnia. They are keeping the peace that Sarah's father and many other dedicated Americans helped to forge. They represent what is best about America -- optimistic, full of hope, willing to serve, willing to believe, as did St. Francis, that if you start by doing what's necessary, then do what is possible, suddenly you will be doing the impossible.
Earlier, I told you two depressing stories about what I have seen in the Balkans. Let me tell you a happier one. On my last visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, I visited a playground in what used to be called "Sniper's Alley," where many people had been killed because of ethnic hate. This time, the children were playing there without fear and without regard to whether the child in the next swing was Muslim, Croat or Serb. They thanked America for helping to fix their swings and asked me to place in the soil a plant that they promised to nourish and tend.
Stopping the fighting in Bosnia is an American achievement of which we all can be proud. It is an achievement that should inspire each of us to meet our responsibility to our country. That responsibility is called patriotism.
Patriotism is not just love of America, but a commitment to preserve what is best about America and to change what must be changed. It is not "my country right or wrong," it is accepting our shared duty as citizens to keep America on the side of peace and freedom and tolerance at home and around the world. And of course, this is a lesson that applies in its own way to the citizens of any country.
The students of this graduating class know that. You are already living global lives. Many of you have participated in an exchange program with students in Bolivia. You have an international baccalaureate program that is the envy of many schools. Enjoy these years. Treasure these opportunities. Remember that as Mahatma Gandhi once said, there is more to life than increasing its speed.
Before long, you will have your share of battles to fight and challenges to meet. Looking at you now, I know you will face them with courage; that you will aim high; that you will meet your responsibility to others. And in so doing, you will meet the greatest responsibility of all, which is to yourself -- to live a life full of meaning, rich with accomplishment and spiced with friendships made here that will endure all your life.
Congratulations and go get 'em, class of '97. (Applause.)

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