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Deputy Secretary's Speech


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Friday, June 29, 2007


Commerce Deputy Secretary David A. Sampson Commencement Address, Corvinus University
Budapest, Hungary

Thank you very much for that introduction.

Let me be the first to congratulate you upon the occasion of your graduation from one of the premier universities in Europe. You should be proud of your accomplishment, and I know your family and friends are too.

I’m deeply honored by the invitation to address you on this very special day, to be, as Winston Churchill said, “. . .in academic groves. . .where knowledge is garnered, where learning is stimulated, where virtues are inculcated and thoughts encouraged.”

It has not gone unnoticed by me the irony of my speaking to you, a group of distinguished international students, in a free Hungary at a university that was until recently called Karl Marx University, in a grand hall graced by his dour presence. From a bastion of communism to a bastion of freedom…it is a powerful visual reminder of the 20th century's hard struggle for freedom and opportunity.

As I celebrate my 50th birthday next week, I have found myself reflecting on the past and thinking about the future. As I pondered my 50 years—half of a century—I came across a quote John F. Kennedy delivered 50 years ago this summer. He described, on the first anniversary of the Hungarian uprising, the spectacle of Hungary’s torment as the “. . .iron grip with which a Communist regime seizes a nation's schools, and churches, and press, and above all the mind of its youth who recall no better day or other way, these men despair of ever restoring the light of freedom to that dark side of the continent.”

His words made me think not only about President Kennedy's legacy but of those who will shape the next century—your century—and the incredible potential you have to advance liberty and create opportunity.

The 20th century saw the proliferation of creativity and the application of energy into many endeavors and inventions. Technological innovations are morally neutral. They can be used for good or ill, however inventions and discoveries such as mastery of flight, the discovery of penicillin, and the harnessing of nuclear energy have positively and radically transformed the world and our perception of our place in it. During the past century we have expanded our horizons by looking inward into the world of atoms, repairing our bodies, and delving into the deepest oceans. At the same time we have lifted our eyes toward the heavens, explored the edges of the universe and taken the first steps towards the permanent settlement of outer space.

In this place, in this city, in this country, there is no need to remind you that this past century has also been one of tragedy, inhumanity, sacrifice and transformation.

Twice, the long arm of destiny reached across the Atlantic to involve the United States in two world wars to liberate Europe. Fascism and Communism were causes and contributors of these events which scarred the continent. They both tried to obliterate the uniqueness and dignity of man, the individual forsaken in the distorted interest of the powerful, the few, and the state.

And here in Hungary a valiant people fell behind an Iron Curtain. In the face of all our challenges of the 20th century, the United States never gave up on the dignity and spirit of the individual to triumph. This was expressed in the long Cold War, the Marshall Plan, Berlin Airlift and our commitment to one day see Hungary and all of Europe free and united.

Fifty years after the uprising here, another American president, President George W. Bush, stood on Gellert Hill in a free Hungary and said that, “The lesson of the Hungarian experience is clear: liberty can be delayed, but it cannot be denied. The desire for liberty is universal, because it is written by our Creator into the hearts of every man, woman, and child on this Earth.”

The U.S. has always weighed in on the side of liberty, freedom and opportunity all over the world, and now Hungary stands with us in advancing that noble cause.

We have now entered a new century, a time of unparalleled opportunity. As the invention of the electric light, the internal combustion engine, movies and the telephone at the end of the 19th century foretold of a new era in the 20th, the Internet, cell phones, and miracle drugs invented at the end of the 20th century are harbingers of the 21st.

Accompanying all of these technological miracles has been a dramatic movement away from controlled, closed economies and the spread of free markets in which the individual can prosper, choose and contribute. Not only has Central Europe moved in this direction, but so has Russia, India and China. All told, there are about three billion new participants in the world economic system than 20 years ago, effectively a doubling of the world’s economic population.

In less than a generation, more people in China and India have been pulled out of poverty than at any other time in human history. These trends have the potential to advance mankind in ways both unseen and even unimagined at the beginning of my lifetime.

Yet we are never far from the specter of threats that seek to deny the human race its dignity and individuals their freedom. As with Communism and Fascism in the last century, we have our own extremist, often violent ideologies to contend with today seeking to impose their will by force and terror on both individuals and on societies.

This is the world which you are now entering. It is a time where the perils and the promise are greater than ever before. And in this environment the stakes are high for all of us.

The challenges foreseen by British author and philosopher C.S. Lewis more than 50 years ago, whom you might know from his The Chronicles of Narnia, are upon us today. He wrote of how “Man’s power over nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with nature as its instrument. . . . [The] man-moulders of the new age. . . can cut out posterity in what shape they please. . . . It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all. . . . . [They] have stepped into the void.”

This is a void that must be filled by leaders who have a vision of a better world of freedom where dignity is safeguarded. I believe that whatever your academic discipline, whatever your country of origin, whatever your career choice you have an opportunity to elevate the dignity and freedom of man through your personal leadership.

Indeed, a contemporary of C.S. Lewis who helped rescue the world of the 20th century from Nazi tyranny, Sir Winston Churchill, said that ". . .the dominant forces in human history have come from the perception of great truths and the faithful pursuance of great causes.”

I believe there is no greater cause today than developing strong civil societies, expanding economic freedom, and elevating the dignity and worth of mankind.

The question you have to ask yourselves is: do you have the skills, desire and ability to lead in this "great cause"? This will require you to cultivate skills and characteristics that may not have been part of your formal studies, but which I have noticed are common traits of uncommon leaders.

Let me share with you four characteristics I have seen in great leaders that I have known:

The first trait is a will to lead. Leaders want to lead. And they embrace the opportunity to do so.

Second, I have found that great leaders are willing to make the difficult decisions—the tough decisions that no one else wants to make. Great leaders never pass the buck to a future generation. They confront the brutal realities. They meet them head on. They don’t ignore them. They address them as best they can. It’s a matter of honor.

Third, great leaders believe in something bigger than themselves. People want to follow those serving the greater good. If people see a leader focused on self-interest alone, they will not follow. At least they won’t follow as far as they are being asked. They won’t go the extra mile.

People search for someone who is willing to look at the bigger picture, to serve a transcendent good. And so, while it runs against the conventional wisdom, great leaders are also the greatest servants. Great leaders lead by serving because they believe in something greater than themselves.

And finally, I have observed that great leaders have a sense of humility about themselves.

Ironically, those who accomplish the most are often the ones who brag the least.

In this new era where transformative change occurs with a rapidity never before experienced in human history, your responsibility will be great and the need for your leadership in the decades ahead will be even greater.

While we cannot be blind to the threats, dangers and challenges ahead, as you graduate and pursue your chosen field of interest, there is every reason to be optimistic about this still new century.

The story of the 20th century is the resilience of the human spirit and the yearning of people to experience freedom. The story of the 21st has yet to be written. . . but you will be its author.

Today, your professors, your family and your friends are proud of what you have achieved. But don’t let this be the best thing that happens in your life. The future is yours. The door is open. Make a difference. Be a leader in a world that desperately needs your leadership.

Good luck to you all and God bless.