Nearly four decades after he sat in the audience as a graduating student, former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon MC/MPA 1984 looked out at hundreds of Harvard Kennedy School graduates Wednesday and exhorted them to fix what his generation had failed to fix. 

Speaking about the existential threat of climate change, Ban, who led the U.N. from 2007 to 2016, said future generations will live in a world increasingly resembling the dystopian planets imagined in science-fiction movies unless the political leaders take necessary action now.  

“The fact of the matter is that today’s world leaders have thus far failed miserably by putting selfish national interests ahead of urgent global needs,” Ban told the HKS graduating class of 2023. “They have failed to see the big picture—that the world will sink or swim together—or they have decided to play a dangerous game of chicken—demanding that others do more to curb CO2 emissions.” 

 “They have utterly failed to grasp that the urgency is too great or that the problem is too big to let others deal with it. I urge you to speak up and act, so that world leaders can muster the necessary political will,” he said. “It is up to your generation to fix what my generation failed to fix." Echoing his political hero President Kennedy, he called for a new “Earthshot” and paraphrased Kennedy’s famous remarks before the United Nations: “Either mankind will put an end to the climate crisis, or the climate crisis will put an end to humankind.” 

Ban, who returned to HKS as an Angelopoulos Global Public Leaders Fellow in 2017, was addressing a class of 706 graduates from 42 U.S. states and 84 countries and territories. “Through his lifetime of public service, Secretary-General Ban represents an admirable example for anyone seeking to become a principled and effective policymaker and public leader,” Dean Doug Elmendorf said in introducing him. The students will receive their diplomas in a ceremony on Thursday. 

Known as a careful and tactful diplomat—he served as South Korea’s foreign minister before heading the U.N.—Ban was explicit in citing the failures of world leaders, both in his call for urgent action on climate change as well as in his withering criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

“Freedom and justice should be mutually reinforced in an interconnected world, where dueling narratives of the future global order are being increasingly contested,” Ban said. “I am deeply concerned and disappointed that many countries around the world have kept silent about this unacceptable violation of international law. … Neutrality is not an option when it comes to Russia’s illegal invasion.” 

“Standing before you, let me reiterate once again that the war in Ukraine is directly related to the fundamental issue of ‘justice’ that all enlightened human beings and virtuous societies must faithfully pursue.” 

Ban Ki-moon waving to the crowd after his 2023 graduation address.

“The challenges we are facing are simply unprecedented; so, our response must be equally unprecedented. … Let us work together to help realize a better future for all. That is our moral responsibility.”

Former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon MC/MPA 1984

He also reminded graduates to “do more to cultivate and expand the great virtue of global citizenship with compassion.” 

“To be a global citizen and leverage the power of compassion is a significant step as an individual to create a brighter future for all of humanity and our planet,” Ban said. “Today, 8 billion people live on our planet. I have met countless people from all around the world who possess enormous amounts of passion and courage. Passion and courage constitute a significant portion of human power, but they are valuable only when accompanied by compassion.” 

Ban’s address was peppered with references to President Kennedy, whom Ban met in 1962 during a visit to the White House as part of Junior Red Cross Fellows group. It was an occasion, he said, that changed the course of his life. 

“I had the special privilege to ... hear him say: ‘There are no national boundaries; there is only the question of whether you are ready to extend a helping hand,’” Ban remembered. “Upon hearing those inspiring words, my eyes were opened to the importance of public service and global citizenship. His words altered the trajectory of my life, and they continue to steer me even today.” 

Ban was so moved by his meeting with President Kennedy that when he joined HKS as a mid-career MPA he gave himself a nickname: Just From Korea, or J.F.K.  “It was … an homage to my hero,” he said. 

Ban ended by returning to Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech, in which the president said, “We stand today on the edge of a new frontier … a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.” 

“The remarks of 60 years ago seem prescient and befitting of the realities of our world today,” Ban said. “As you leave this place, you will still be facing unknown opportunities and perils. I am confident that great things await you, as you move forward with your lives and careers all around the world, and I take this opportunity to respectfully call on you to manage your lives in a way that is free, just, and considerate of others and our planet.” 

“The challenges we are facing are simply unprecedented; so, our response must be equally unprecedented,” Ban concluded. “Let us work together to help realize a better future for all. That is our moral responsibility.” 

Photos by Kayana Szymczak

Ban Ki-moon at Harvard Kennedy School 2023 Graduation Address

Keynote remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you for your warm introduction.  

Dr. Doug Elmendorf, dean of Harvard Kennedy School, distinguished professors of Harvard Kennedy School, dear Harvard Kennedy School Class of 2023, dear family members, friends, ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon!  

My sincere appreciation goes to Harvard Kennedy School for inviting me to participate on this special occasion.

Allow me to begin my remarks by conveying my warmest congratulations to the Harvard Kennedy School Class of 2023.  

Exactly 39 years ago, in 1984, I sat here just as you do today and graduated from Harvard Kennedy School proudly with my MPA degree.  

Therefore, it is really a great privilege to stand in front of all of you—HKS Class of 2023—representing the world’s top intellectuals from around 90 countries.  

Congratulations again and what an achievement it is for you! This place, and the special feeling it instills, has been a lodestar to me both personally and professionally, and I always considered Harvard to be a spiritual beacon that grounds me and guides me. 

I applaud all of you for the resilience, dedication, and perseverance that you have demonstrated in overcoming the challenges.  

On top of the many challenges all previous HKS graduates have faced, I am sure you experienced many additional difficulties due to the COVID-19 pandemic over the last 3 years:

  • I’m sure many of you have had to recover from contracting the COVID virus, 
  • Some of you unfortunately had to deal with losing a loved one or with financial hardships,  
  • And, I suspect, at least a few of you had to deal with the great embarrassment of standing up during a Zoom call, forgetting that you were wearing only your pajama pants. That happened to me too.  

If you are like I was 39 years ago, I believe your hearts must be full of hope, confidence, and maybe some anxiety.  

My advice is: “Worry about your future … but not too much.”  

During the summer of 1962, as a high school student from Korea—a war-torn, poverty-stricken country at the time—I joined other Junior Red Cross Fellows from around the world to travel to the United States for the first time. 

On August 29 of that year, I had the special privilege to visit the White House and meet the namesake of this school, President John F. Kennedy and hear him say, 

“There are no national boundaries; there is only the question of whether you are ready to extend a helping hand.”

Upon hearing those inspiring words, even as a young boy, my eyes were opened to the importance of public service and global citizenship. His words altered the trajectory of my life, and they continue to steer me today.  

Later, after I had just arrived at HKS to attend as a diplomat pursuing my MPA degree, I asked my new friends to call me JFK, which was short for “Just From Korea” and was simultaneously an homage to my hero.  

The world then is very different from today’s world, and it is characterized by unprecedented outbreaks and pandemics, U.S.-China tensions, Russia’s illegal aggression against Ukraine, and many types of strife and conflict, not to mention the interconnected world of globalization, the urgent climate crisis, new transboundary issues, and the 4th industrial revolution.  

Encompassing all these issues, allow me to focus my remarks on the two areas, which I believe are essential for young people to build a sustainable, inclusive, secure, and prosperous future.  

First, freedom and justice should be mutually reinforced in an interconnected world, where dueling narratives of the future global order are being increasingly contested.  

Against this backdrop, I am gravely concerned that the ongoing war in Ukraine has now continued into a second bloody year.  

Russia’s invasion flagrantly violated the rule of international law that has been maintained since the end of World War II, and it has paralyzed the U.N. Security Council and its ability to respond.

At the invitation of President Zelensky of Ukraine, I had the opportunity to visit Bucha and Irpin last August and see firsthand the atrocities committed there.  

I am deeply concerned and disappointed that many governments have kept silent about this unacceptable violation of international law. Neutrality is not an option when it comes to Russia’s illegal invasion.  

Standing before you, let me reiterate once again that the war in Ukraine is directly related to the fundamental issue of “justice” that all enlightened human beings and virtuous societies must faithfully pursue.  

Justice always prevails: if not today, then tomorrow; if not tomorrow, then surely soon in the near future.  

Second, we must do more to cultivate and expand the great virtue of global citizenship with compassion.  

To be a global citizen and leverage the power of compassion is a significant step as an individual to create a brighter future for all of humanity and our planet.  

Today, 8 billion people live on our planet, and I have met countless people from all around the world who possess enormous amounts of passion and courage.  

Passion and courage constitute a significant portion of human power, but they are valuable only when accompanied by compassion.  

A grave consequence of Putin’s reckless and passionate push to resurrect Russia’s past glory, in the absence of compassion, is the current brutal war in Ukraine.  

On the other hand,

  • Global citizens care and collaborate beyond national borders;  
  • They are compassionate and tolerant of other peoples and cultures;  
  • They are willing to fight for our planet and the human rights and equality of all, making sure that no one is left behind;  
  • And they build bridges rather than erecting walls to work alongside others on issues such as climate change, sustainable development, and gender equality.  

I have a lifelong motto that comes from an ancient Chinese scholar Lao Tzu’s classic on Daoism, and it says, “The highest virtue resembles water”.  

This has always spoken deeply to me because water is the element that not only symbolizes wisdom, flexibility, and quiet strength, but also compassion.  

Dear HKS Class of 2023,  

The world’s people and planet Earth itself are suffering from climate change, poverty, and natural disasters, and it would be very remiss of me not to say a few words about the climate crisis.

The IPCC—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—warned in its latest report that we are now unlikely to achieve the Paris Climate Change Agreement goal of limiting global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030, which is less than seven years away.  

The unprecedented and frequent wildfires, the droughts, the floods, food shortages due to crop failures, and climate refugees, as well as the resulting political and economic fallout from these increasingly severe and frequent events—all these things will require time to reverse course, and it will get much worse without effective adaptation efforts.  

There will be no words to sugar-coat this coming world, this post 1.5 degrees planet that will increasingly resemble the dystopian worlds depicted in science-fiction movies.  

My generation and I will not be around much longer to be frank, and I regret that we are passing on this impending existential threat to you.  

But the fact of the matter is that today’s world leaders have thus far failed miserably by putting selfish national interests ahead of urgent global needs.  

They have failed to see the big picture—that the world will sink or swim together—or they have decided to play a dangerous game of chicken—demanding that others do more to curb CO2 emissions.  

They have utterly failed to grasp that the urgency is too great or that the problem is too big to let others deal with it. 

I urge you to speak up and act, so that world leaders can muster the necessary political will, the developed countries can fulfill their promise of $100 billion per year in climate finance, and all countries—especially those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change—have access to the resources and technologies to adapt.  

It is up to your generation to fix what my generation failed to fix.  

But let the famous words of President Kennedy inspire and guide you:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”  

Today, if you choose to save our planet from climate extinction—not because it is easy but because it is hard and urgent—you can be the heroes that will accomplish the Earthshot mission: “Either mankind will put an end to the climate crisis, or the climate crisis will put an end to humankind.”  

We all have a responsibility to live together as global citizens in a global village.  

And now, more than ever before, the world needs a new generation of thinkers and doers.  

We need thinkers who can see the scale of the intertwined challenges before us, and we need globally minded doers who can step up and act but can also “extend a helping hand.”  

As I conclude my remarks, let me quote again what JFK said as a presidential candidate on July 15, 1960: “We stand today on the edge of a new frontier—the frontier of the1960s, a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats”.  

The remarks of 60 years ago seem prescient and befitting of the realities of our world today. As you leave this place, you will still be facing the unknown opportunities and perils.  

I am confident that great things will await you, as you move forward with your lives and careers all around the world, and I take this opportunity to respectfully call on you to manage your lives [in a way] that is free, just, and considerate of others and our planet.  

Please remember that you have benefitted immensely, and you should be ready to return those benefits to others because you hold the keys to unlocking a brighter future.

We only have one planet, and our ability to share and sustain it together will dictate the viability of our collective future.

The challenges we are facing are simply unprecedented; so, our response must be equally unprecedented.

Let us work together to help realize a better future for all. This is our moral responsibility.

My warmest congratulations again to the Harvard Kennedy Class of 2023!

God bless you all! Thank you for your attention.

Commencement 2023

Harvard Kennedy School celebrates graduating students who carry the School’s mission of public service around the globe. Our graduates embody the aspiration that skilled leadership and smart public policy can improve people’s lives.

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