A Call to Public Service

| February 23, 2009

Dickinson College What's Wrong with Public Service? A Challenge for Higher Education

Dickinson College
February 23, 2009

I am honored and delighted to be with all of you today as we gather to celebrate a new generation of public service for our country.

When President Bill Durden called me last summer to say that Dickinson and the University of Maine had decided to host this conference, I wanted to support him in any way I could.  President Durden is  a brilliant and inspiring leader here at Dickinson and this conference is a good example of his visionary leadership.

I am pleased to join Presidents Robert Kennedy of the University of Maine and President Mark Gearan of Hobart and William Smith College, both of whom join me in another form of public service, membership in Red Sox Nation.

I agree with all three of the Presidents that America needs our students today to embrace public service as a career and way of life.

We need that, in my judgment, ultimately more than we need the bricks and mortar of the stimulus package.   We need it for the long-term health of our country.   We need it because our human capital, the strength and resolve of our own people, will be the most vital ingredient in whether we succeed to meet the great challenges ahead of us.

We need young people to choose service because we are at one of those clear transition points in American history.  We are moving from the Industrial Age to the Age of Globalization.  We should choose to move from the carbon age to an era of reduced carbon emissions.  We are clearly moving from an age of unrivaled American power in the world to a more multilateral future where Americans will share the international stage with China, India and Brazil.

At this time of historic transition and change, our country needs the best and strongest possible government.  We therefore require the most energetic, committed, intelligent, and determined young people to lead the federal government, to serve in state and local government, to teach, to help the poor and to serve our nation and society.

The need for young people to choose a life of public service is actually quite acute because this is an especially challenging time for our country and the world.

Think of the dangers we face.

At home here in America, we are experiencing the most severe economic turbulence since at least the Great Depression of the 1930s.   I am sure that all of us here today know someone who has lost a job recently, or lost their home and lost any kind of certainty of what lies ahead should things, God forbid, turn even worse.

Many of our cities have crumbling infrastructure.  Our public school systems are in failing in much of the country, especially in the inner cities.  We have nearly forty million of our citizens without health care.  Despite our many accomplishments in race relations, there is still racism and intolerance in America that needs to be overcome.

Beyond our shores, we face the most daunting foreign policy agenda in our lifetimes. We know we must finally address the Climate Change problem.  We are fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with no clear plan for success in either theater.  We face the continued threats of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, trafficking of women and children and international drug and criminal cartels.  There are predictions of a fifty percent increase in the demand for food worldwide by 2025 and the possibility of pandemics and water shortages, as well.

With all of these mighty challenges facing America and the world, we simply cannot afford to have our best young people outside of public service.  We need to fill the ranks of our national, state and local governments with young people willing to work hard, to rebuild our country to make it great once again.

And there is so much you can do to make a difference.  Public Service is not just about running for office or working in Washington D.C., although those are vital pursuits.  Public Service actually encompasses a huge array of possibilities.  You can choose to work in the Foreign Service as I did or in the military.   You can teach and I hope that some of you will join Teach for America.

You can join the Peace Corps that President Mark Gearan once led.  You can emulate the young college graduate Barack Obama and become a community organizer.   You can decide to work for the many non-governmental organizations that are contributing so much good in every corner of our society and the world beyond.  There are literally thousands of opportunities for you to choose from.

There is nothing wrong with the private sector.  There may not be many jobs left on Wall Street but there are thousands of opportunities to make a contribution in business.  It is important work.  We certainly need young men and women to produce wealth and build successful businesses for our future.

But, I would suggest that, at this time in our history, the need is  greater in the public realm.

My daughter, Sarah, is just a few years older than most of the students here today.  Like many of you, she had a strong interest in politics and international relations as a student.  When she graduated from college in 2005, she decided to work in government and found a job in Washington on the staff of a brilliant and inspiring Congressman named Tom Lantos.  She worked for him for two years until his untimely death a year ago.  Since then, she has worked at Amnesty International as an advocate to prevent violence against women.  I am very proud that Sarah chose public service.  She is making a positive difference in her work.  All of you can make a difference too.

Public service is not just a duty.  It can be exciting and fulfilling and worthwhile.

Think of public service this way.

Public Service is where you can make a difference.  You can work on the biggest issues facing us--Climate Change, the Iraq war, terrorism, social justice, poverty.   Think of the difference that John F. Kennedy made when he chose to run for office; or Hillary Clinton as our new Secretary of State; or Kofi Anan, a Ghanaian, as the United Nations Secretary General.

Public Service is where the stakes are highest.  It is where leaders decide whether to go to war or make peace, whether to fight poverty or to be overcome by it., whether to create an alternative energy future or be tied to the carbon economy for another generation or more.

John F. Kennedy understood how government could succeed brilliantly or fail disastrously in its use of power.  He said, “We hold in our mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.”   I suspect that he knew that the success or failure of governments rested, in the final analysis, on the quality, intelligence and values  of our leaders-- the women and men who occupy public office.  The stakes are indeed high in public service.

Public Service can even be a place where you can practice idealism.   We all wish to make a positive difference in the world.  And, I know from teaching at Harvard, that young people, especially, want to believe that they can make a big difference--to right some wrongs, to end injustice and to make peace rather than war.   You have public servants alive today who have made that kind of difference.   Think of Nelson Mandela who nearly single-handedly brought down the evil Apartheid regime in South Africa not through the barrel of a gun but through the more powerful arsenal of peaceful protest.

Think of Bill Gates who is giving away billions of his own dollars to try to eradicate HIV/AIDs.   Think of the nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is living under house arrest in dictatorial Burma but remains in her steadfast courage a living example of human dignity in her commitment to democracy and freedom.

Public Service is a place where you can make a world of difference.  In all democratic societies, from Ancient Greece to the Enlightenment to our own time, service to family, the village, the community and country has been the highest calling.  And in this age of globalization, I would add that service to our planet, the world, is most definitely public service at its best.

Public Service can also be ennobling and enduring on a personal level.  Gandhi said, “The best place to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

The founder of the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver, talked about the responsibility we all have as members of a democratic society.  He said, “The basic bargain of American citizenship is that responsibility is owed to others less fortunate by every citizen who has benefited from the riches and opportunities of America.”

I spent the last twenty seven years in the State Department as a career foreign service officer.  It was what I dreamed of doing when I was at Boston College more than thirty years ago.  And, I wouldn’t trade those years in government for anything.

I had the incredible opportunity to work for five Presidents and nine Secretaries of State.  My family and I lived in five countries.   There were some hard times, to be sure, of terrorism and war and anti-Americanism.  But, we had the chance to serve our country and to try to make a small difference in its future.

We had amazing personal opportunities--of exploring the Sahara desert, seeing the ancient ruins in Greece and Rome, of learning foreign languages,  of seeing the beautiful cathedrals of Europe.

More importantly, we had the chance to witness some extraordinary history.

In my own career over three decades, I saw the rise of radical Islam in Mauritania and Egypt.  I was asked to coordinate economic assistance to the Palestinian people in the West Bank.  I was fortunate to work in the White House as an advisor on Soviet Affairs just as communism collapsed in Eastern Europe and then the Soviet Union itself came crashing down.

I witnessed first-hand the power of diplomacy when our country ended the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s and then kept the peace there.  I saw the power of our universities and ngos as bridges to the people of Europe and the Middle East and beyond.  There were some tough times.  I felt sorrow and bitterness as I stood with the NATO Ambassadors in Brussels the day following 9/11 as we lowered the American flag in tribute to three thousand killed in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington.

But, there were opportunities to build for the future too as we created new relationships for the United States with India and Brazil, expanded our assistance to Africa and saw the spread of democracy throughout Eastern Europe.

Looking back, I am so happy to have found work that was compelling, worthwhile and, in a very small way, hopefully contributed to the public good.

For the Dickinson students here today--I think it all comes down to what you think you can do best; what your passion is; what your skills are.

It comes down to you, the individual, to choose your path ahead.

The essential question you will need to ask yourself is this--what do I really want to do with my life?  Do I want to be on the sidelines observing or on the playing field doing the best I can to make a contribution, to make a difference.

Nearly one hundred years ago, one of our great Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, spoke about this question and about public service when he visited the Sorbonne in Paris.

This is what he said.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man (or woman) who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends him or herself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

You can be that person who chooses a life in service to others, to our country and to make this a better, more stable, more prosperous and more peaceful world.

We need you, the world needs you, to make that choice.

Thank you very much.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Burns, Nicholas. “A Call to Public Service.” February 23, 2009.