Monday, May 19, 2014

Integrity, at home and abroad - thoughts on Secretary Kerry's remarks at Yale University

It’s commencement season once again and as they do every year, a few speeches (and speakers) seem to be getting a lot of attention. As I surveyed the landscape of speeches in my own rather unscientific way, I ended up zeroing in on remarks that Secretary of State John Kerry delivered at Class Day at Yale University this past Sunday. With so many thorny problems flooding onto the international stage in the last year, from Syria to Ukraine to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and much more, I was curious to see if he might use his opportunity to speak at Yale as a platform for reflection.

So I found a copy of the full text online on the Wall Street Journal website and began to read. Once I got through the obligatory jokes and graduation-grade bromides, it was actually a pretty interesting piece of text to explore. Centered around the idea of “integrity,” Kerry told the graduating students that “In a complicated world full of complicated decisions and close calls that could go either way, what keeps you awake at night isn’t so much whether or not you got the decision right or wrong. It’s whether you made your decision for the right reasons: Integrity.” It’s an ideal-driven worldview, offered by someone whose work, I imagine, is most often driven by considerations of real politic. 

I imagine there are many people who would argue with the idea that “integrity” drives our foreign policy – some might say that when it comes to international relations the foreign policy which does best is that which does least, and that this preserves our integrity in the world, while others would undoubtedly state that having “integrity” means standing up to the evils and injustices we see happening around the globe each day and that in order to maintain our moral integrity, our moral authority, we need to take a greater role in world affairs. When taken to extremes the former runs toward isolationism, the latter toward hegemony.  

People will fall on different sides of this debate, but Kerry makes another point that perhaps most people can agree on, which is the need to be more engaged in the world on behalf of causes we believe in. In his speech he cites the powerful role played by ordinary citizens willing to speak out when it came to vital pieces of environmental legislation, Title IX and ending the war in Vietnam in order to make the institutions and individuals in power respond to the will of the people.  This is the kind of integrity I believe he was talking about, and it is much too much in short supply today.  

Regardless of where we fall on the partisan divide, it’s hard to ignore someone who has devoted practically his entire adult life to the service of his country and in these remarks Secretary Kerry has thrown down the gauntlet not only before Yale students, but in front of all of us. True, it can be easy to ignore this challenge if we see it as merely a rhetorical device inserted by a speechwriter – but if we take it seriously it’s an idea that can change the societies in which we live.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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