Public service is written into Harvard Kennedy School’s DNA, Nicholas Burns, U.S. ambassador to China and a former HKS professor, told the crowd of graduating HKS students and their families on Wednesday as the speaker for the HKS Graduation Address. He urged graduates to confront the “seemingly overwhelming challenges” of the world they are heading out into and “find the collective vision, the collective faith, the collective courage to do something about it.”

“The world needs change,” Burns said. “The world needs your help. Change the world, change it for the better, make it more humane, make it more just, make it more prosperous, make it more peaceful.”

Burns, who taught at the Kennedy School for 13 years before returning to public service in 2021, spoke to an audience of 659 graduating students from 35 U.S. states and 87 countries, calling them “our planet in microcosm.” The student body is 56% international, one of the most cosmopolitan classes in the School’s history. They will be granted their diplomas Thursday on Commencement Day.

Dean Doug Elmendorf introduced Burns, who before joining HKS’s faculty served as the most senior U.S. Foreign Service official and led negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, as a “stellar example of principled and effective public service.”

“Ambassador Burns ... is a wonderful model for our graduates as they leave the Kennedy School and go on to lives as public leaders and public-minded citizens—in this country and around the world,” said Elmendorf, who is overseeing his last Commencement celebrations before returning to teaching after eight years as dean.

Burns spoke about the incredible reach of the Kennedy School. In China, he has repeatedly run into HKS alums. He described attending Easter Mass in Beijing’s North Cathedral in April. “There's a point in the Catholic mass where you turn to the person beside you when you say, ‘Peace be with you,’” Burns said. “And so that point came in the mass, and I turned to my left and before I could say anything, this young woman said, ‘Professor Burns, peace be with you. I was in your great powers class in 2014.’”

Nicholas Burns.

“You could be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the challenges before your class, and we really couldn't blame you. Or you could find the collective vision, the collective faith, the collective courage to do something about it.”

Nicholas Burns

Burns turned to the enormous challenges the world faces, citing issues such as attacks on democracy, climate change, risks from new technologies, and brutal wars.  

“These are seemingly overwhelming challenges ...  [and] heavy issues to contemplate on what should be a celebratory day,” Burns said. “But it is the real world you're going to inherit when you leave Harvard after tomorrow.”

“I do believe you can be change agents,” Burns said. “And as a Kennedy School network you have that opportunity, but you also have the obligation as a Kennedy School graduate to be that change.”

Alluding to President Kennedy’s famous challenge to Americans—words that the Kennedy School has made its own—Burns reminded the graduates that their obligation is not to themselves but to humanity.

“It’s, ‘Ask what you can do.’ It’s not, ‘What will I gain?’ It’s not, ‘What will I profit from?’ It’s not, ‘What’s in it for me?’ It’s, ‘Ask what you can do to make this a better world.’ The Kennedy School asks that you not just be involved in the world but to be great in the world.”

Dean Douglas Elmendorf and Ambassador walking off the stage.

“You could be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the challenges before your class, and we really couldn't blame you,” Burns said. “Or you could find the collective vision, the collective faith, the collective courage to do something about it.” 

Burns also addresses what he described as “the elephant in the room”—the brutal Israel-Hamas conflict, which has claimed more than 35,000 lives, and the deep fissures it has created on American campuses.  

“You know this far better than me. You've been here on campus. I've been 7,000 miles away in China. I don't come here to be judge and jury,” he said. Echoing the themes of Harvard Kennedy School’s Candid and Constructive Conversations initiative, he urged students to reach across differences with understanding and humility.  

“All I can offer today is a sense of my own experience as a diplomat in dealing with difficult emotional discussions about polarization, about injustice, about the tragedy that every life lost is a loss for humanity, about looking at both sides to a conflict."

“So as you graduate tomorrow,” he continued, “consider how you in small and big ways can be a force for civil discussion. Civil debate in a democracy, can you be a force for unity in a world that sometimes it appears just wants to divide and even disintegrate, be that voice for compassion, learning, understanding, and unity.” 

Thank you. Good afternoon, everybody. Good afternoon. And Congratulations to the Class of 2024. Why don't you all stand up so we can see you?  Whoa, that's a beautiful sight. There are 659 Kennedy School students graduating today from all of our programs, masters and PhD. It's a beautiful day. It's a little hot, but it's a beautiful day under this tent in John F. Kennedy Park. I'm thrilled to be back out of China for about a week back home. My wife, Libby, my daughter Elizabeth, her friend Andrew all here, Cathryn Clüver, Professor O'Sullivan, thank you for this return. We're going to have a memorable graduation tomorrow. I know my place: not to screw it up.

I graduated from Boston College 46 years ago. We had a very distinguished speaker. He waxed enthusiastically, laboriously and an exquisite detail about the minutiae of federal communications policy for 45 minutes. So the lesson for me today is I don't want to be that guy, and that's because there's only one subject for a graduation speech. In the United States these days, it shouldn't be federal communications policy. It shouldn't be the war in Ukraine. It shouldn't be any other single subject that you've studied here over the last couple of years. The graduation speech has to be about you, about your place as graduates, as individuals, and your class's place as a collective entity, 659 of you all around the world. You really deserve this day because you came here, some of you two years ago, some of you a year ago as the pandemic was subsiding. And I remember as a professor here what it was like in the dark days of 2020 and 2021. And when you came here, Zoom Harvard gave way to classroom Harvard again and we could come back to this campus, so you've had a fairly normal two years here, but you deserve this day. Whether you're one of the 232 students graduating as Master in Public Policy, one of the 89 students graduating in Master in Public Administration in International Development, one of the 87 students is Master in Public Administration, the largest group, 226 Mid-Career MPA students, and finally 25 new PhD graduates. That's a very high number for Harvard Kennedy School.

Every graduation speaker tells the class, "You're really special," but your class is actually unique. 56% of you are international students. It's the highest level in the history of Harvard Kennedy School. Congratulations to all of our friends from overseas. You represent 87 countries. So you know what? You're a planet in microcosm. You're a network that's formed in a world that's built on network where nearly everything that's difficult in the world or every opportunity in the world can only be decided these days, not by the United States alone or China alone, by the whole world together, and that's one way to think about your class as a network. I've been back here for a day and a half. I hadn't been on the campus for two and a half years. It's been really exciting to hang out with my friends, the professors, to see a lot of students. I met five great students in the tent today, Pickering and Rangel Fellows from the U.S. Department of State—they'll be American diplomats within a couple of months. Can I ask the five of you to stand so we can see you, because we're really proud of you? Future ambassadors—just not next year, but future ambassadors. Yesterday, and you won't be surprised, I'm ambassador to China, I met with 25 of you who've been here from the People's Republic of China. We're proud of you too, and thank you for being 25 of the 300,000 Chinese students in the United States. You're very welcome in our country.

Speaking of China, maybe you won't be amazed by this, but it's interesting. I see Harvard Kennedy School students everywhere in China. I caught a glimpse of one of my students. She was riding a bike. I was crossing a busy Beijing street. She said, "Hey, Professor Burns," and she vanished. I bumped into another student, Libby and I, in a hotel in Nanjing, and he told me all about his career in business. He's done really well since he graduated from our school. And just last month, Libby and I were at Easter Sunday Mass at the North Cathedral in Beijing. And there's a point in the Catholic Mass where you turn to the person beside you when you say, "Peace be with you," and so that point came in the mass and I turned to my left and before I could say anything, this young woman said, "Professor Burns, peace be with you. I was in your Great Powers class in 2014." I thought, "What a small world," right beside Libby and I at Easter Sunday Mass.

It's one of Harvard's secret powers. Keep your network alive from your 87 countries. Have reunions. Come back to this campus. Think of yourself, you've been through this amazing, extraordinary, challenging, difficult experience together. Stay united. And in that respect, I see a lot of moms and dads, and grandparents, and nieces and nephews and friends. The graduates know they couldn't have gotten here without their moms and dads and sisters and brothers. Maybe the graduates should give them a round of applause.
And at these commencements, and we've been to a lot of them, always a privilege to be at a commencement. It's such a hopeful day. Thank you, Harvard faculty, Harvard Kennedy School staff, thank you for what you do to make this a great, great school. I want to thank our dean, whom I've known and worked with for a long time. I want to thank him for his leadership and his friendship, and thank you for inviting me back to Cambridge, Massachusetts, Doug.

I left graduate school 400 years ago, it seems like that sometimes. And I just wanted to find my way forward. I wasn't completely sure what I wanted to do, but I wanted to be an American diplomat. My generation of American public service came of age just after Vietnam, and that was a searing conflict for all of America. Just after the tragic assassinations of three of our greatest leaders: President Kennedy for whom our school is named, Martin Luther King, Senator Robert Kennedy. When for African Americans, their dream of equality was a dream deferred and had not been given to them—it still hasn't in many ways by our country. And our politics were mired in corruption— Watergate—and we had double-digit inflation, we were in a deep recession. It was a troubling time. I think a lot of my colleagues, male and female, went into the government because we just wanted our country to be a positive global influence. We wanted to get our country back into engaging with the rest of the world, and I'm forever grateful for those years in public service. It gave me the opportunity, and a lot of my friends, to work on really consequential issues over the last couple of decades. The fact that the Soviet Union and communism collapsed in Europe was an epocha event. 9/11, one of the worst days in our history, I was at NATO as ambassador. All the NATO countries within six, seven hours said, "We're with you," and they invoked Article 5 to come to the defense of the United States.

That was an incredible day to feel that we had something in common with Canada and the European countries. And then there's the other side of the coin. The really difficult issues—our ill-fated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I was part of that. And we had to account for that and think about it and try to understand the lessons of those two wars, and I taught courses here where we thought about the lessons of those wars. Many of our graduates today have been public servants or will become public servants, so they know the intrinsic value of what it's like to be in public service. You're in an enterprise, in a job with a team that's bigger than you, that's more important than you. A team that's pointed forward towards a goal, whether you're a Brazilian or Indonesian, or South African or German, wherever you're from in the world of the United States of America.
There's something really beautiful about that enterprise government, and it's been interesting for me and really heartening to go back to government and be part of that team. It's a chance to contribute to your children's world and your grandchildren's world. And when I retired in 2008 the first time, I thought, "How can I continue to be a public servant in another vein?" And thankfully I'd worked with four people who had left Harvard to go into the U.S. government and come back to Harvard, Professor Graham Allison, Professor Joe Nye, Professor Larry Summers and our great friend, the late Professor Ash Carter. And they said, "Come to Harvard and teach," and I hesitated. I hadn't been in a classroom since my student days. I'd never taught before. I'm not a PhD. And frankly, negotiating the Iran nuclear issue, that was one thing. Standing in front of a class of Harvard graduate students, a little bit daunting. Professors don't like to tell you that, but it's true. But I agreed to try it for a year and I stayed for 13.

I loved everything about the Kennedy School, and that's really come flooding back for Libby and me in the last two days. I love the mission. Look at these banners—“Ask what you can do.” I love Professor Allison's description of the unique value of the Kennedy School. Here's what he said. He said, there's an intellectual union of the young and the old. The young, that's all of you, energy, creativity, optimism. The old, that's me and a couple of other professors here. We've got more yesterdays than tomorrows. We've got a little bit of life experience and, perhaps, a bit of wisdom to contribute in the classroom. I'll tell you what I really loved. I loved looking out in my class. I taught big classes, 50, 60 students, and the extraordinary kaleidoscope of ethnic, racial and religious and gender diversity in this class fundamentally different than the classrooms I'd been in four or five decades ago as a college and graduate student.

That was really inspiring, and it was really inspiring to see who was in the front row of those classrooms. Invariably immigrants, invariably first-generation Americans, refugees to the United States, people who came from families who in many cases had not had anybody go to university because they weren't given access to a university degree. That was a beautiful memory that I have of Harvard Kennedy School. In my very first week here, it was September, President Drew Faust was a great university president. She sent an email to 20,000 people in the Harvard community, and it was an email about what was going to happen during the school year. And at the very end of that email, as I remember it, she said, "But the fundamental purpose of Harvard University is the pursuit of knowledge." Four words, “the pursuit of knowledge.” That made a huge impression on me.
I come from the government where we have 4,000 missions. She was articulating one mission. Harvard's mission was extraordinary, I thought, to research and study everything about everything, every subject in every academic and intellectual discipline. I found that really exciting and really meaningful. Think of the power of this university and of every university, the power to investigate the past. The poems of Emily Dickinson, the impact of the Napoleonic Wars, the women's suffrage movement in the 19th and 20th century.

Universities have a power to drive the future, artificial technology, robotics, quantum science, cancer research. Universities move the humanities forward and they shine a path toward the future and they free minds and they ensure free speech and free thinking and people who speak up and people who stand their ground. That's beautiful about this University and this School and all universities. So my advice—and you haven't asked me for it, but a speaker is supposed to give it—take that power and freedom of imagination and inquiry. Take the innovation with you to the next stage of your life.

So when you think about it, every time people graduate, every time there's a speaker speaking, or so it seems, there's one theme. You're graduating, you're leaving this world for another world outside the tent, outside the gates, outside the fence of the university. The world needs change. The world needs your help. Change the world, change it for the better, make it more humane. Make it more just, make it more prosperous, make it more peaceful, and we need peace in 2024. Now, I realize that that sounds a little bit like a Hallmark card, a little bit naive. It'd be asking a bit much for your class to cure cancer or make world peace in your first year out. But change however small or large, however incremental or transformative, it's still the right message. It's still the right goal because graduations serve as a changing mechanism. They're a changing of the guard from the old generation to your new generation, and we're handing that baton leadership out off to you today. And I've got to tell you, my generation is leaving you an imperfect world, imperfect. Forgive us.

Here are just a few of the challenges that your class is going to face in the next decade or so. Climate change. It's the existential threat to 8 billion people on earth, the existential threat to humanity, and we are lagging behind. We're lagging behind in limiting the average global increase to 1.5 degrees centigrade. Find a way to get us back on course. There's nothing more important for all of us in this tent and all future generations beyond. Second, technology has moved to the very center of global politics. We see the enormous promise in biotechnology, quantum science, robotics, and AI. We also see the dark side, the forbidding example, a risk for, example, of trying to manage AI in a nuclear weapons world. So find a way to get that balance on technology right. Third, democracy is under assault in the United States and other countries, challenged from within in many cases by anti-democratic forces, and challenged from without by authoritarian countries trying to change the world order and diminish the inherent rights, human rights that all people in all countries have. Defend democracy.

Fourth, brutal wars have broken out in Ukraine, Russia's assault on Ukraine, in Israel and Gaza, in parts of Africa. The highest priority in international politics should be, stop the wars and end the bloodshed. Fifth, there are a multitude of what we would call transnational problems. Problems that are flowing under and over, and right through everybody's borders. They know no borders. Let me just list a couple, cyber aggression, the race for dominance in space, global health challenges, billions of people, more than 2 billion still below the global poverty line. Human trafficking, trafficking of women and children. Ever more powerful drug and criminal cartels, alarming income inequality all over the world, and of course, terrorism. These are seemingly overwhelming challenges, and we could add, if we went around this tent and ask for ideas, a thousand more. These are the defining challenges of our time. Use your HKS network around the world, across borders to coalesce to fight these challenges.

Now I have to admit, these are heavy issues to contemplate on what should be a celebratory day for all of you. Forgive me, once again, but it is the real world you're going to inherit when you leave Harvard after tomorrow, after you get your degree. My wife, Libby, came to one of my lectures at Harvard a couple of years ago on the subject of these transnational challenges in this period of racing global change. And we were walking home here in Cambridge, just down Brattle Street after the lecture, and I said, "How'd that go, Libby?" She said, "You're depressing everybody." She said, "All that talk about nuclear war and climate change; there are problems in the world, of course, but you've got to give people hope," and Libby as always was right. The last thing I want to do is depress you all and your families the day before graduation, so let's talk about hope. Let's talk about hope. I do believe you can be change agents, and as a Kennedy School network you have that opportunity, but you also have the obligation as a Kennedy School graduate to be that change agent.

The Kennedy School's very different from a lot of schools. You studied under banners—and we've got them here today as I pointed out—and those banners are from President Kennedy for whom the school is named: “Ask what you can do”. It's not, “What will I gain?” It's not, “Wwhat will I profit from?” It's not, “What's in it for me?” It's, “Ask what you can do to make this a better world.” And the Kennedy School asks that you not just be involved in the world, but be great in the world as individuals. Great in the truest sense—have an impact in the world, both as individuals and as a class. And in that regard, we had another speaker in Harvard Yard in September 1943. It was Winston Churchill who came to Harvard in the middle of the Second World War. And he challenged Harvard students way back then with a message that is strikingly, I think, relevant to your class today.

Here's what he said to the Harvard students in 1943, "The price of greatness is responsibility," Churchill said. "One cannot rise to be in many ways the leading country in the world without being involved in the world's problems convulsed by its agonies and inspired by its causes. The people of the United States," Churchill concluded, "cannot escape world responsibility." That was a powerful message to a country that had been isolationist. And if you look at the public opinion polls in America today, we've got some isolationist sentiment back. How is that possible in a time when we are all connected around the world—and your class personifies that—when the only way forward is to combine forces with people, students, universities around the world? That's an important warning that we might recall from the memory of 1943. You've got an opportunity to lead and you have an obligation to lead, and you know you have a choice too.

You could be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the challenges before your class, and we really couldn't blame you. Or you could find the collective vision, the collective faith, the collective courage to do something about it. Previous generations were overwhelmed too, by a multitude of problems, but as so often happens, farsighted, courageous people stood up to lead. Think of Lincoln writing the Emancipation Proclamation. Think of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton asserting that women have fundamental rights in the 19th century. Think of Dr. Martin Luther King writing a single letter from a Birmingham jail that changed history. Think of Nelson Mandela, 27 years in prison, and yet he emerged to dismantle apartheid and create a multiracial South Africa just three decades ago. Think of the courage of a Polish Pope, Karol Wojtyła who stood up against soulless communism. Think of the courage in our day of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy standing up to a wicked despot in Vladimir Putin. Think of the bravery of your commencement speaker at Harvard tomorrow, Maria Ressa. She's standing up for press freedoms around the world. We have examples from the past that can lead us forward, and we have other examples.

When I taught here my Great Powers course and my Diplomacy course, I'd always end each semester, each class at the very end with a dramatic reading of a speech by Theodore Roosevelt at the Sorbonne in 1910. It's known as “The man in the arena” speech. Why don't we modernize Roosevelt, the person in the arena, the woman, as well as the man in the arena? Here's what he said. He said, "The credit belongs to those who have the courage to step into the arena." He meant what we would call public service at Harvard Kennedy School, and he praised those who fight for change even if they're bloodied, even if they fail in the process.

And he ends with a key message that I think, I hope, might have some resonance with your class as you step out to fight the battles in the arena of 2024. He said, "Even if she fails, at least she fails while daring greatly so that her place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat." Isn't that an amazing quote? What was he saying? You're never going to change the world from your living room armchair. You're never going to change the world unless you take some risks, unless you go out into the world to do things that are hard and difficult and daunting, but change the world by taking those risks.

There's a final issue that we should discuss, and that's the challenges that you've been facing as individuals and facing collectively here at Harvard this year. It's the elephant in the room at every graduation in America this spring.
It's the crisis of the war in Israel and Gaza that has engulfed so many university campuses. You know this far better than me. You've been here on campus. I've been 7,000 miles away in China. I don't come here to be judge and jury. All I can offer today is a sense of my own experience as a diplomat in dealing with difficult emotional discussions about polarization, about injustice, about the tragedy that every life lost is a loss for humanity, about looking at both sides to a conflict. My profession of diplomacy is all about disagreement and debate, and discussion and speech. If you think about the United Nations, nearly every issue that comes to the rostrum is a difficult issue where people are divided, where nations are divided. And Professor O'Sullivan and I have been talking about this and I think we agree, we agreed the other day that this process of learning how to disagree, learning how to cope, learning how to reach out, that's a life skill.

It's not something that you're just going to have to process and practice now. It'll be part of your life forevermore. So what are the lessons we might learn from the experience of this spring about how we move forward as a unified public? You know the adage from the Bible, "Be slow to judge, be quick to forgive.” Speak your mind, stand your ground, but listen as well as speak. Ask yourself a question that I certainly don't ask. I think a lot of us don't. "How might I be wrong?" Are my assumptions correct? Are my facts correct? It's important for people like me to ask those questions in my line of work. Find the humanity in the person that you're arguing with, debating with, maybe shouting at. There's a human being there and you are too. Find more spaces at Harvard and around the country for diverse voices, progressive, middle of the road, conservative. We're one country, not two, not three. Listen to everybody and be civil and be peaceful in debate and discussion.

One other way to look at this, and I know this is hard, and I know it's been difficult this year, that we are not the first generations of Americans and people around the world to contend with disagreement and to contend with really difficult issues. In the wake of the Cuban Missile crisis, 1962, ’63, when much of the world was at risk of complete physical destruction if a nuclear war had been fought in October 1962, President Kennedy spent eight months thinking about what had nearly happened, and he went to the American University in June 1963, and here's what he said about what happens when you demonize someone and what he was saying to the American people, we've demonized the Soviet people, we've turned them into the enemy. Here's what he said, "For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's future and we are all mortal."
Well, those sentences are as relevant today as they were in 1963, they're insightful. And by the way, if you look at the granite posts all around John F. Kennedy Park, take a moment when you leave, you'll find that quote put there by Professor Allison when he was dean on one of our hallmarks here at Harvard Kennedy School. So as you graduate tomorrow, consider how you, in small and big ways, can be a force for civil discussion, civil debate in a democracy. Can you be a force for unity in a world that sometimes, it appears, just wants to divide and even disintegrate? Be that voice for compassion, learning, understanding and unity.

And because Libby wants us to focus on hope and she's right, the final thing I want to say to you today is this. I'm Irish-American, as is Professor O'Sullivan, as our Libby and Elizabeth Burns, our daughter. One of our greatest modern poets in Ireland is Seamus Heaney. He taught here. He was a professor at Harvard. He wrote a poem called “The Cure of Troy,” in 1991. He's my favorite poet. More importantly, he's Joe Biden's favorite poet. Here's what he said about the future and about hope.

"History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave. 
But then once in a lifetime,
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope in history rhyme."

Harvard Kennedy School Class of 2024 please give us hope. Thank you, and congratulations to all of you.

Photos by Kayana Szymczak

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