Remarks to the Harvard National Model United Nations Conference

Dean Douglas Elmendorf
Harvard Kennedy School
February 16, 2017

Good afternoon, everyone! I am so pleased to be able to join you to kick off the Harvard National Model United Nations Conference for 2017. As you know, this model UN conference has been going strong for 60 years. That is a long stretch for any organization, and a remarkably long stretch for an organization run by undergraduate students—who are, I hope, also taking classes and meeting other responsibilities. Moreover, any event that brings together 3000 people from around the world is quite an accomplishment. So, let me begin by congratulating the more than 200 Harvard students who have put together this conference, because I am truly impressed by what you have done.

I also want to congratulate all of the delegates who have come to this conference. Your talents, your interest in international relations, your initiative to participate in model UN, and your commitment of time and energy to make this conference a success are exceptional. I am impressed by what you have done to get here and what you will do in the next few days. I also want to offer my thanks to you for coming to this conference at Harvard. We are pleased and honored to be your hosts.

During the next few days, you will work together to find solutions to some of the greatest problems facing our world. In that, you are much like the students and faculty and staff of Harvard Kennedy School. The Kennedy School community works together to improve public policy and public leadership around the world so that everyone can lead lives that are safer, more prosperous, and more fulfilling. We work together in the sense of pursuing projects that draw on the talents of students, faculty, and staff; we work together in the sense of combining insights from experts in international relations, national security, economics, human rights, science and technology, politics, the media, history, and other fields; and we work together in the sense of building bridges between people from different countries and different parts of those countries.

So, as you work together in the next few days to address important public problems, you will be pursuing an objective and an approach that are very familiar to those of us at the Kennedy School. I am delighted that you and we are engaged with the world in similar ways.

At the Kennedy School, we draw inspiration for our work from, among other sources, the ideals of President John F. Kennedy. His most famous and stirring words are probably the line from his inauguration speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I hear that statement as a call for active citizenship, and I broaden its meaning to be not just what you can do for your country, but what you can do for people of all countries. I want to talk about what I think active citizenship entails, and why it is so important for the world and so rewarding for the people who do it.

Let me start with the crucial point that people can be active citizens in many ways, and they can make a real difference in the world in all of these ways.

One way is to run for elected office—to face your fellow citizens and make the case for the policies you support and the leadership you can provide, and try to persuade your fellow citizens to stand behind you. Running for office is not easy; you need to put yourself and your ideas out there to other people and risk rejection. But ultimately the people who take that risk are the ones who make the key public decisions in democratic societies. I’ll give you one example. I was talking in the fall with Gina Raimondo, who is the governor of the state of Rhode Island. I taught Gina when she was a student in college, but I had not seen her in a number of years, and I asked her why she had run for treasurer of the state and then governor. She said that she ran because elected officials at the time had been planning to shut down local bus routes that she had used to get to the library when she was a high school student in a not-very-well-off family. She wanted to fix the state government’s finances to keep those bus routes going for the next generation of Gina Raimondos. She is an active citizen.

Another way to be an active citizen is to vote in elections. In the United States, turnout in elections is low, and turnout among young people is lower than turnout among older people. That is very unfortunate. Moreover, some people in this country are trying to make it harder to vote with the purported objective of reducing voting fraud—even though the evidence shows that such fraud is very rare and that making voting harder will reduce turnout further. That is even more unfortunate. So, you should be sure you vote when you can, and you should look for ways to increase voting among our fellow citizens. As one example, two alumni of the Kennedy School—Seth Flaxman and Kathryn Peters—created TurboVote, which is an online application that makes registering and voting in the United States easier. They are active citizens.

Still another way to be an active citizen is to work for a government in a non-elected role. My example here is me. Since my first year in college, I have been fascinated by economic policy, and over time I became pretty good at thinking about policy issues. So I have been an active citizen through my many years of service with the U.S. government, at the Federal Reserve Board, Treasury Department, President’s Council of Economic Advisers, and Congressional Budget Office, which does economic and budget analysis for the Congress and where I spent size years as director. By the way, I do not view that service as a sacrifice of any sort: I cannot imagine anything that would have been more rewarding than that work. And I know many people who would describe their own work for local governments, state and provincial governments, and national governments around the world as the most rewarding things they could do.

But public service does not just mean government service, of course. Yet another way to be an active citizen is to work for an intergovernmental organization, a nonprofit, or a social enterprise—and to do so as a full-time job or a part-time volunteer or something in between. Ban Ki-moon, who just stepped down as Secretary-General of the United Nations—and by the way, who graduated from the Kennedy School 30-some years ago—was an active citizen through his work at the UN. Hazami Barmada, a Syrian-American woman who is now a student at the Kennedy School, recently organized a drive at Harvard to collect warm clothing for Syrians who are freezing in the cold. She is an active citizen.

One can also be an active citizen by making your voice heard by elected officials and your fellow citizens. Over the last month, millions of U.S. citizens and citizens from other countries have protested the actions and words of President Trump and his administration. Through marches and demonstrations and protests and phone calls and letters and comments at town hall meetings, these people have argued that the new administration is violating core American values and that previous policies should be restored. But other U.S. citizens have come to Washington to rally for changes in policies that they hope and expect will be implemented by the Trump administration to reverse longstanding American practices. All of these people who are advocating for the policies they prefer, on whatever side of political debates they fall, are active citizens.

So, there are many different ways in which people can be active citizens and make an important positive difference in the world—by running for office, voting, serving in a government, working or volunteering for international organizations or nonprofits or social enterprises, or making one’s voice heard. People should pick the way or ways they find most comfortable for themselves, but they should pick something. In my view, people have a responsibility to be active citizens. I also think they have a responsibility to follow certain norms of behavior as active citizens, regardless of the specific way or ways they choose to be active. Let me briefly describe five norms that are especially important in my mind:

First, active citizens should listen to other citizens with different views and treat those people and their views with respect and civility. Too many people are not very good at that now. In the United States, liberals and conservatives tend to get their news from different sources, live in different areas, and prefer that their children not marry someone of a different political persuasion. Those factors diminish how much we listen to people with different views from our own, which leads us to forget that other people of good will see the world very differently than we do. Too many of our leaders demonize their opponents and accuse them of advancing policies that are not just wrong but are illegitimate or threatening to the essence of a society. Some rhetoric of that sort has always been present in the United States and elsewhere, but we have seen much more in recent years than in preceding decades. Such rhetoric is not just unpleasant, it is damaging, because it stokes fear and anger, and it feeds a false perception that societies’ fundamental characteristics are at risk from many ordinary policy choices. Elected leaders need to restrain their rhetoric, and the rest of us need to help—by not rewarding leaders who talk that way and by not talking that way ourselves, by listening to each other and being open-minded as we listen.

Second, active citizens should compromise with other citizens who disagree with them. There is a wide range of views in this group, among the leaders of any country, and among the citizens of any country. We cannot wish those disagreements away, and we should not expect them to disappear. What we can and should do is to find ways to work together despite our disagreements. Political systems generally require compromise to function, and leaders should view the negotiations that generate compromise as effective leadership rather than weak leadership. Moreover, all of us need to view compromise by our leaders as useful and to practice compromise in our own activities as citizens.

Third, active citizens should rely on facts and evidence. Our political systems and societies depend not just on civil discussion, they depend on informed discussion. Facts and evidence do not dictate policy choices: Such choices ultimately depend on our values. But policy choices that are not based on facts and evidence, as well as values, are doomed to failure.

Fourth, active citizens should build bridges between people, communities, and countries. At the Kennedy School, we believe in the fundamental importance of inclusiveness for people of all races, genders, religions, national origins, socioeconomic groups, disability status, and other traits. We see every day that such inclusiveness is crucial to the Kennedy School’s ability to improve public policy and leadership in the United States and around the world, and we believe such inclusiveness is crucial to the ability of societies to help make better lives for their people. I do not mean that we should pretend differences between people and communities and countries do not exist. I mean that we should work to build bridges between those differences. I understand that more than half of the delegates to this conference come from outside the United States. The bridges you build with people from different countries in the next few days will be important for the rest of your lives. At the Kennedy School, about half of our degree-program students and about a third of our faculty come from outside the United States. One of my colleagues recently pointed out to me that, in our international development program, our students are taught by “three Americans, a Turk, a Pakistani, two Venezuelans, an Indian, a Brit, a Canadian, a Greek, a Cuban, and a Brazilian.” That diversity of background is a source of immense strength for us.

The fifth and last norm I recommend for active citizens is to care about people who are disadvantaged in economic or social terms. That means caring about people whose communities have been damaged by the negative economic consequences of technological progress and changes in international trade. It means standing up for human rights and against persecution of members of minority groups. It means developing policies to reduce urban poverty and rural poverty and poverty in the suburbs, and to give people economic opportunity. And much more. I’ll give one more example. Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia, for “his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end.” In his Nobel Lecture, President Santos said that one of his professors had given him a wise piece of advice: “Whenever you feel discouraged, tired, pessimistic, talk with the victims. They will give you the push and strength to keep you going.” President Santos continued: “It has been just this way. Whenever I had the chance, I listened to the victims of this war and heard their heartbreaking stories.” As we and other active citizens pursue our own paths to help make the world better, let us all “talk with the victims” and use their stories to “give us the push and strength to keep ... going.”

Active citizens who follow these norms will make an important positive difference to the people around them and, in some cases, to people across town, across their country, and across the world.

Making people’s lives safer, more prosperous, and more fulfilling is not easy, but that’s not a reason not to try—that’s the reason to try harder. President Kennedy once said “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.” I believe so strongly in that idea, and I’m glad to see, by your participation in this conference, that you do too. I hope you have a wonderful few days together. Thank you.