Vermont Council On World Affairs

. . . . Engage the World 2020

Thank you Tricia, and it is good to be with all of you. 

This is a somber time for our country.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was a towering figure on the Supreme Court, whose decisions changed our society for the better in profound ways, including for generations of women.  She was also a wonderful, kind, and generous person, who Marcelle and I were very lucky to know.

I mention her today not just to remember her, but because of the title of this conference – Engage The World.  To me, as I will say more about, how we engage with the world, and the impact we have, is a function of the principles we stand for as a nation and whether we live up to and defend those principles. 

Justice Ginsberg defined and reinforced those principles in ways that have shaped our lives here at home, but that also resonate beyond our borders.

The Vermont Council on World Affairs has put together an extraordinary program for the next four days.  Any conference that includes topics as varied as race and diplomacy, the refugee crisis, Guatemalan cooking, the coronavirus, Ugandan dance, and climate change is bound to attract a lot of interest. 

So I congratulate you for organizing this conference and for lining up such an interesting roster of speakers.  I think this is exactly what Vermont’s Senator Warren Austin, who became the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and who founded the Vermont Council on World Affairs, would have wanted. 

If Senator Austin were alive today he would not only be proud of what you are doing.  I think he would be doubly convinced of the need for the Vermont Council in a time of rising populism, nationalism, and isolationism – and the fear, xenophobia, intolerance, and disillusionment that underlies them.

I can’t speak to each of those topics in the few minutes I have, but I do want to highlight several points, including the International Visitor Leadership Program.  I was very pleased to learn that several past participants in that program are part of this conference.

The International Visitor Leadership Program is the Department of State’s most important professional exchange program.  It brings current and future foreign leaders from a variety of fields – government, academia, business, and civil society – to experience this country and build lasting relationships with Americans.

I have met several participants in that program – including from Vietnam – and have been enormously impressed by their knowledge and enthusiasm.  It is a program I have strongly supported in the Appropriations Committee for many years.  Once the COVID pandemic is under control, I hope we can expand it so many more can participate.   

The International Visitor Leadership Program is especially important today, when actions by the White House have seriously damaged our reputation, our credibility, and our global leadership. 

At a time when the White House is withdrawing from international organizations and agreements; proposing deep cuts in funding for educational, professional, and cultural exchange programs; treating alliances as if they don’t matter; cutting our contributions to the United Nations; and promoting a so-called “America First” policy that is nothing more than a self-defeating slogan, we need to cultivate relations with the next generation of foreign leaders. 

We want them to understand that this White House is not the same as the American people, and that we need to work together with foreign partners to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

This conference focuses on several of them, climate change being the most daunting.  Our government, and most other governments, have utterly failed to develop effective strategies to curb global warming, and the world is already paying the price.  If this trend continues – and if the wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington are any indication – the consequences will be catastrophic. 

It is analogous to the COVID pandemic.  Years wasted when we should have been preparing for it, followed by denials and obfuscation at the highest levels of government, contradictory and counterproductive statements, politics above science, and no effective national or global strategy. 

The result:  in this country alone, more than 6 million people have been infected and nearly 200,000 have died, and the number of deaths could reach 400,000 by this time next year.  So much of this misery could have been avoided with real leadership. 

What was President Trump’s response?  To shift the blame, ridicule those who wear masks, withdraw from the World Health Organization, defend the Confederate flag, and lobby for the Nobel Prize.  

The record of this Administration on foreign policy is a string of impulsive miscalculations and abysmal failures, North Korea being high on the list.  Did anyone who knows anything about that regime honestly think it would give up its nuclear weapons?  I think the question answers itself.

The President campaigned on a promise to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate agreement.  He did both, and he also promised he would negotiate better deals.  Instead, there are no negotiations, Iran is closer to building a nuclear weapon, and climate change has gotten worse.

We were promised the deal of the century between Israel and the Palestinians that would finally bring peace to the Middle East.  Instead, the White House gave a green light to Israeli settlements and annexation of the West Bank, escalating tensions.  While the agreements between Israel and UAE and Bahrain are positive steps, they do nothing to bring the Palestinians closer to obtaining a state of their own, which is the only way that conflict will end.

I spent years helping to bring about the resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and to begin to address our disagreements with that government and to find areas for cooperation.  That triggered an unprecedented expansion of Cuban private businesses as Americans flocked to the island. 

President Trump reversed all that, claiming that the way to improve human rights in Cuba is to re-impose sanctions, a policy that had failed for 50 years.  As a result, Cuban entrepreneurs have gone out of business after travel by Americans was restricted and air flights curtailed. 

Twenty-two agreements signed by the U.S. and Cuba to cooperate on everything from law enforcement to search and rescue to public health have been shelved, and the human rights situation has not gotten any better.   

There are many other examples.  Through it all, our career State Department diplomats and international development professionals have sought to protect our interests and defend our values, but they are often contradicted or muzzled by the White House.  Some of the best of them have resigned, rather than carry out policies they strongly disagree with.

There have been some positive steps.  I worked with President Obama to begin to address the problem of Agent Orange in Vietnam, and that effort has continued under President Trump.  We have cleaned up contaminated former U.S. military bases, and expanded our programs to assist people with severe disabilities. This has also led to greater cooperation with Vietnam on many issues, including climate change.

Regardless of who wins the presidency and who controls the Congress next year, we are at a defining moment in our history.  In the years immediately ahead we will determine what we stand for, and what we want our role in the world to be.

One would have thought that by the 21st Century the answers to those questions would have been irrevocably embedded in our national identity.  But the statements and policies of the Trump Administration have challenged many of our assumptions and sown doubt and division, confusion and fear – at home and among our allies.  Those doubts have been exploited by our adversaries, by autocrats, and by demagogues. 

Going forward, our ability to remain a global leader, to protect our interests, and to defend fundamental rights, is derived from the credibility that comes from living up to our democratic ideals.

I think our job, as the world’s oldest democracy, is to show that democracy can work for everyone, and that human rights truly are universal.  That has always been our assumption, but today people in many countries – including some in this country – associate democracy with broken promises, inequality, and chaos.  And there are any number of populists and dictators who appeal to that constituency, fanning the flames of disillusionment and resentment. 

The dismantling of democracy, and the trend toward authoritarianism, is often gradual.  It may not be apparent until it is too late, as people are enticed by zealots and despots who insist that even though they are unaccountable, they offer something better. 

We know that isn’t true – unaccountable regimes care far more about their own political and financial interests than they care about the rights and welfare of their citizens.  Repression, corruption, and bigotry are their hallmarks. 

Each of us has a responsibility to defend the democratic principles and structures that generations of Americans and other nationalities have sacrificed to preserve, and that protect the way we choose our leaders and our right to speak freely. 

We must not allow those principles and structures to be undermined, and other democracies – or aspiring democracies – to lose confidence in the United States as a reliable global leader.

It bears repeating:  this is a defining moment in our history.  The past three and a half years have shown how fragile our own democracy is, even after 244 years.  This country is badly divided, and many seem to revel in exploiting those divisions.  The very concept of “United” in the United States of America seems threatened. 

The stakes are enormous – for this country, for each of us, for future generations, and for the world. 

Rather than replacing real policies with empty slogans, lies, and threats; rather than walking away from our alliances and international commitments; and rather than treating our relations with foreign governments as winner-take-all business transactions, solving global problems requires imagining the future and working with other nations, including those we disagree with, to create the future we want. 

That requires rebuilding our alliances, prioritizing the existential threats of global warming and nuclear proliferation, as well as economic inequality and human rights, and leading by example – something the current Administration clearly has no interest in doing. 

The Vermont Council on World Affairs is one of the ways we can do that, by staying informed, sharing ideas, and planning for the future. 

By providing Vermonters and foreign visitors with a forum to discuss the most pressing global problems, to learn about each other’s cultures, and to build relationships between people of different nationalities, ethnicities, races, and religions, the Vermont Council counters the ignorance and intolerance that are the enemies of democracy. 

There is no more important mission, and I thank you for what you are doing, and thank you for inviting me to join you today.

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