U.S. Must Not Isolate Itself from International Affairs
The following is the complete text of President Bok's commencement address which was delivered at Notre Dame University on May 17, 1987.
It is a special privilege to speak at the final commencement of a great leader of American higher education. For over 30 years, Ted Hesburgh has taught us all that it means to be an educator in the fullest sense of the word. At a time when so many of us are little more than energetic administrators, Ted has succeeded not only in strengthening Notre Dame academically but in teaching audiences everywhere about the values that matter in our society.
We should not underestimate what an unusual accomplishment this has been. University presidents constantly try to please all of their constituencies because their institutions cannot prosper without the support of faculty, students, and alumni, not to mention foundation officers and government officials. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that Ted has been willing to speak and speak again for ideas and ideals which he knew were unsettling and unpopular.
Such integrity in the service of humane values has special meaning at a time when many educators are searching for ways to strengthen the moral standards of their students. In the coming years, we are likely to witness more courses on ethics and more attention paid to developing standards of honesty, decency, and respect for others on our campuses. That is all to the good. But as we labor at these reforms, we should keep one thing in mind. No set of courses, however brilliantly taught, no code of conduct, however wisely conceived, will ever succeed in strengthening the character of our students unless they are buttressed by the force of personal example. If you would know virtue, Plato tells us, observe the virtuous man. For more than a quarter of a century, Ted Hesburgh has given to us all the example of a virtuous man. May his success embolden more of us to follow his lead.
Commencement is an ancient rite that takes different forms in different institutions. But almost everywhere, the ceremony affords an occasion not only to congratulate the seniors who have completed their course of study but to reflect upon the world they will inherit and the contributions they can make to improve it. In this spirit, let me draw upon the three months I recently spent wandering abroad to express some thoughts on one of the many themes to which Ted Hesburgh has devoted his talents.
Throughout the life of American higher education, great institutions like this one have steadily grown from small local colleges to national universities and then to international seats of learning. In this evolution, our universities have simply followed in the path of the society to which they belong. For America too has grown from a collection of separate colonies preoccupied with local interests to a single nation shielded by oceans from foreign conflicts and finally to a great world power connected by political, commercial, and military links to events in every corner of the globe.
With each passing year, the bonds that join us to other nations are growing tighter--mounting trade, larger capital flows, greater travel, and much more rapid communication. These developments make us more and more sensitive to events in other parts of the world. Today, recessions in Asia can cause hundreds of thousands of Americans to lose their jobs. Population growth in Mexico seeps across our borders to alter the economic and political life of cities and states from New York to California. Decisions by oil ministers in distant continents can affect our standard of living and endanger our economic prosperity. An epidemic of AIDS in Africa or a hole in the ozone layer over the Arctic threatens the lives of Americans all across the land.
While these developments are familiar, there is one respect in which our relations with the rest of the world have not gone exactly as one might have expected. As the welfare of nations grows ever more interdependent, one might have thought that America would be entering into more and more forms of close international cooperation. And so we did, at least for a time. After World War II, the United States led the way in developing the United Nations, in supporting international organizations and agreements of many kinds, in upholding international law, proposing limits on atomic weapons, promoting freer trade and--not least--in giving generously to help poorer nations through the Marshall Plan. the Point Four program and other initiatives of a similar kind.
Decline of Internationalism
Over the past 15 years, however, the postwar spirit of internationalism seems to have waned and given way in this country to something quite different. Our behavior toward international organizations has become less supportive and our voice often petulant and shrill. We have left UNESCO, pulled out of the ILO for a time, rejected the World Court, threatened to leave the FAO, cut our contributions to the World Health Organization and the United Nations itself, and balked at supporting new initiatives by the World Bank.
In the domain of arms control, we have repudiated the SALT II understanding and flirted with questionable interpretations of the ABM treaty.
In the field of international exchanges, we have allowed inflation to erode the Fulbright Program to the point that it supports less than half of the students and scholars that it did when I was a Fulbright scholar more than 30 years ago. The Peace Corps too has shrunk to a level less than half its former size.
In trade, where we once led the fight for liberalization, we have voted new quotas and tariffs and would certainly have imposed even greater barriers had President Reagan not threatened to veto them.
In foreign aid, although we live in a world where four billion people are in poverty and 40,000 children die of starvation every day, our economic assistance has dropped by almost 50 percent in real dollars since 1960--and much of that is concentrated now on just two countries, Egypt and Israel. Among the industrialized nations, we have sunk to 17th in the proportion of our gross national product that we give to aid our poorer neighbors abroad. Some even have suggested that $200 million is to much to give to Aquino's Philippene government.
It is tempting to see these developments as the handiwork of politicians and government bureaucrats. But this is hardly an accurate view of what has transpired. In fact, the shift away from international cooperation reflects much deeper changes in American public opinion. According to public opinion polls, the interest of Americans in international matters steadily declined throughout the 1970s. By the early 1980s, only one international problem--defense policy and the threat of war--ranked among the ten issues that Americans considered most important. In 1986, the foreign policy goal most important to the public was protecting the jobs of American workers, while strengthening international organizations, promoting human rights, and encouraging the growth of democracy abroad lagged far behind. Three-quarters of the public agreed that "we should no longer think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems." Even the left no longer offered a positive agenda for working with other nations but simply did what it could to keep Washington from engaging in questionable activities abroad.
The U.S. and `Global Unilateralism'
Despite these shifts in public opinion, we are not likely to return to the isolation we practiced before the Second World War. Our stakes abroad are now too high to make that policy feasible. What we have been doing, it appears, is to shift more and more toward what one Assistant Secretary of State has called "global unilateralism." Whether by air strikes on Libya, withdrawals from international organizations, trade sanctions against Japan, or secret operations in the Middle East and Central America, we seem inclined to pursue our goals around the world with somewhat less attention to the interests of others, somewhat less concern for the reactions of our neighbors, and somewhat less determination to seek collective solutions to common problems.
Initially, it may seem odd that we should retreat from international cooperation at the very time that our commercial, cultural, and economic ties to the rest of the world are steadily growing stronger. After further thought, our behavior is not so difficult to understand.
It was quite natural and easy to be internationalist after 1945, World War II had made us painfully aware of our ties to other parts of the world and our stake in avoiding another global conflict. Russia's march into Eastern Europe and Mao Tse Tung's rise to power made us all fear communist expansion and appreciate that we could never again enjoy the pleasures of isolation.
As we embarked on a more vigorous international role, we found ourselves in a position of unprecedented power. We had a monopoly over atomic weapons. We dominated the global economy, accounting for more than half the world's output. Dozens of nations depended on our military and economic assistance. In such a world, we could enter freely into international organizations with little fear of losing control of the results. Enough countries followed our lead to insure safe working majorities on most important issues. Under these conditions, we could enjoy the fruits of international cooperation with remarkably little danger or cost.
By 1970, however, the situation had changed quite radically. The Soviet Uniion now rivalled us in nuclear weaponry, while Viet Nam revealed the limits to conventional military power. As other nations recovered from the War and started to grow rapidly, our share of world production shrank from over half to a third and ultimately to less than 25 percent. Developing countries no longer felt beholden to us, and United Nations majorities were no longer secure. Indeed, much of the talk that billowed forth from international organizations seemed intemperate, unfriendly, and at times downright irresponsible.
As our ability to control world events grew smaller and other countries proved increasingly independent, irritation mounted and our taste for cooperation began to wane. Our problems with OPEC, Lebanon, Iran, Libya, and even Japan dramatized the frustrations that seemed to dog us whenever we involved ourselves with foreign problems. Small wonder that the spirit of internationalism began to ebb.
Although we can understand the reaons for the shift toward unilateralism, we should not delude ourselves that such a policy will serve us well in the decades ahead. On the contrary, strong forces are at work in the world to limit our power to go it alone.
America's Growing International Reliance
Economically, our share of the world market is bound to decline still further so that neither our trade nor our aid will have even the influence they currently possess. By the year 2000, we will have to rely on foreign markets, foreign goods, foreign investments loom larger in our eonomy, we will be unable to achieve greater growth or reduce our unemployment without the cooperation of the other great economic powers.
Politically, the Cold War already restricts our ability to dictate solutions. Despite the inconvenience of massive immigration from the South, we cannot afford to close our borders and bring intolerable rural unemployment to Mexico and Central America. We fear the consequences of forcing South Africa to reform its system or insisting that Brazil or Argentina pay their debts on time. As the years pass, more and more issues will arise that require the collective efforts of many nations--acid rain, the destruction of the ozone layer, the traffic in drugs, and many more. Such problems will create increasing pressure for cooperative rather than unilateral decisions.
Militarily, just as Viet Nam revealed the limits of our power to commit American troops to combat, so have the last few years demonstrated the practical limits to military spending. As armaments grow ever costlier, and more and more countries threaten to build their own nuclear weapons, the pressures for more effective cooperation will undoubtedly grow in this domain as well.
In every sphere, therefore, the number of problems needing international solutions is mounting while our power to dictate solutions is decreasing. In this kind of a world, global unilateralism will not only be less effective; it will make cooperation more difficult. In international affairs, as in all human undertakings, the search for common solutions works best in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and trust. We will hardly succeed in creating such a climate for the longer run if we try to go our own way and impose our solutions without paying close attention to the interests of other nations.
For all these reasons, the world that graduating seniors will inherit will be a world that we depend on more but dominate less--a world where circumstances force us to look increasingly toward negotiated solutions. If we can neither control our sister nations nor retreat into isolation, we have no choice but to learn to cooperate more effectively.
Building Durable Forms of Cooperation
In saying this, I do not mean to conjure up some grand utopian scheme of world government. The political differences are too great, the economic interests too divergent to make such visions realistic. Instead, it seems wiser to begin by making more determined efforts to build durable forms of cooperation for particular problems, however, where there are strong mutual interests in doing so. Such structures have served us well in the past. In the field armaments, the nonproliferation treaty has held the rate of nuclear diffusion to one-third the level that President Kennedy predicted in 1961. In commerce, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade has helped to slow the growth of protectionism. In banking, cooperation has worked to contain the threat of massive defaults and to manage the vast shifts of wealth brought on by the OPEC cartel. New opportunites for progress may exist in areas as disparate as protecting the ozone layer, stabilizing exchange rates, establishing rules for capital movements and trade, limiting nuclear weapons, or even the use of peace-keeping forces. Further possibilities will doubtless appear with increasing frequency over your lifetime.
There are also many ways in which we can work to encourage cooperation, and institutions like Notre Dame and Harvard will clearly have a role to play. Whatever our competitive problems may be in automobiles or silicon chips, American universities are now preeminent in the world and will undoubtedly remain so for a generation or more. In country after country, old educational traditions are changing and the United States is becoming the country of choice for able students wishing to study abroad. In these circumstances, we have an unprecedented chance to attract the future leaders from most nations of the world to study with us, live with us, and come to know our people and our culture. Of course, not every foreign student will emerge from this experience loving America or agreeing with all its policies. But the knowledge such students acquire of our language and culture and the personal ties they make will help to increase understanding and eventually improve the climate for cooperation.
Do unto Other Countries...
There are other ways as well to build an atmosphere of trust that can nurture new forms of cooperation. If we are to capitalize on these possibilities, however, we will have to try harder to apply in our international dealings the lessons we already appreciate in dealing with one another. In our personal and professional lives, we know that we cannot build trust by heaping abuse on those we do not like, by sowing confusion with campaigns of disinformation, by ignoring agreements that prove inconvenient, by conducting secret operations that violate every moral standard we profess. Yet all of these tactics have become all too familiar in the conduct of foreign policy. While international relations and human relations are not the same, it is surely time to ask whether we have not become too impressed with the short-term gains to be derived from these questionable methods and too insensitive to the damage they do to the credibility and trust we will need in order to work more effectively with other nations.
Finally, as our economic and military might continue to decline relative to other countries of the world, we will be unable to depend so heavily on the force of arms and will have to rely much more on the power of ideas and ideals to achieve our objectives. To exert such influence, it will not be enough to work implacably against Russian expansion, however dangerous the Soviet threat doubtless continues to be. We will also need to demonstrate more powerfully just what we are for, not only by rhetoric but by acting responsibly abroad and building a more just, humane society at home. In particular, as we strive to become more competitive overseas, we must remember that we cannot demonstrate the strength and vitality merely by producing better automobiles and supercomputers. If we mean to live up to our ideals and set an example that others will wish to follow, we must also be competitive with the most advanced nations in combating such social afflictions as poverty, homelessness, infant mortality, adult illiteracy, and violent crime.
By this time, some of you may be wondering just what all this has to do with you and your future lives. Much more than you might think.
To begin with, our successes and failures in coming to terms with a world we can neither dominate nor escape will probably do more than anything else to affect your peace of mind, your standard of living, even your survival. You have every reason to be concerned.
You also have a stake in the effort to cooperate more effectively with other nations, for this is not a job that you can safely leave for others to perform. On the contrary, it needs the continuing participation of many people exactly like yourselves. We will certainly need able public servants and politicians and diplomats to help guide our relations with other countries and build the trust and mutual respect required to make cooperation possible. But we must have much more than this.
We will need lawyers to help craft procedures--public and private--to settle disputes and facilitate discussion across national borders.
We will need business executives working with their counterparts overseas to fashion ways of bringing more stability to international trade and investment.
We will need journalists to help the public appreciate our role in the world and increase their knowledge of world affairs.
We will need scholars to help us gain greater knowledge of the foreign cultures and traditions with which we must increasingly interact.
Above all, we will need the support of an informed, tough-minded citizenry. Such citizens are our best defense against shortsighted desires to withdraw from world affairs. They are our sturdiest bulwark against the dangerous illusion that Americans are possessed of superior virtue while those who oppose us are unworthy and evil. They are our greatest hope for achieving the breadth of mind to understand the feelings of other peoples and the reasons that lead them to contrary points of view. Above all, informed and active citizens will always be our strongest safeguard against public figures who would drive us into ill-considered foreign adventures by rhetoric, half-truths, and artful propaganda.
As Voltaire once said: "Those who can make us believe absurdities can make us commit atrocities." In foreign affairs, the risk of being misled and manipulated grows especially severe, since foreign affairs are so often conducted in secrecy and have to do with people and events so far removed from our normal lives and everyday experience. Who can possibly overcome such barriers if not alert, educated citizens such as yourselves?
In your years at Notre Dame, the university hastried to prepare you for these responsibilities byoffering courses on foregin languages and othercultures, by surrounding you with classmates formother lands, by providing fellowships and programsto study abroad. All these activities andopportunities have been conceived, at least inpart, to enlarge your tolerance for culturaldiversity, to awaken your interest in foreignlands, to broaden your perspective to include theentire world as your frame of reference.
But no university can force you to put theseattitudes to work, or make you believe that yourparticipation truly matters, or convince you thatyou are not another inconsequential cog in a vastmachine but someone who must participate fully inhelping to shape America's role in the world.These are convictions that each of you must findwithin yourself. As we celebrate your departurefor the world outside, I hope that you wil profitfrom the example of Ted Hesburgh, profit fromNotre Dame's traditional concern for humanevalues, profit from the commitment many of youhave already shown to serving the community aroundyou and begin to take initiative andresponsibility on a larger international stage. Toparaphrase Martin Luther King: "In a world facingthe revolt of ragged and hungry masses; in a worldtorn between the tensions of East and West, whiteand colored, individualists and collectivists; ina world whose cultural and spiritual power lags sofar behind our technological capabilities that welive each day on the verge of nuclearannihilation; in this world, [non-violentinternational cooperation] is no longer an optionfor intellectual analysis, it is an imperative foraction.