Remarks: 2012 Indiana University Law School Commencement

(The following speech was given at the 2012 Indiana University Law School Commencement, where Ambassador Carden was the keynote speaker.  To see the video of Amb. Carden’s speech, visit

Acting Dean Buxbaum, Law School Faculty and staff present and past, members of the Board of Visitors, Graduates, the parents and friends of all attending, the Carden-Riley and Gregg families, my brother Doug, and also the ghosts of this great institution who helped me and some of you on your way, welcome and thank you for giving me the honor of speaking to you on this wonderful occasion.

Like all of you, I’m from both here and away. I was born in Speedway Indiana, attended DePauw University and graduated from the Law School in 1976. I practiced law for 34 years all over the world. I’ve spent time in dozens of countries and lived for sustained periods in Athens, Chicago, New York, Rhode Island, London, Hamburg, Naples, Paris, San Juan, Monaco and Jakarta. Currently I’m the U.S. Ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, which is why I expect I’ve been given the privilege of addressing you. ASEAN is a multilateral grouping of ten countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. XXX of the ten ASEAN countries are represented among you.

Some of you may know that yesterday I gave the Commencement Address at the ceremony for the Graduate programs at the University. I mention this to make sure you know I’m giving a different talk today, although there is some necessary overlap since on both occasions I was asked to speak because of my current day job. For better or worse, I wrote this speech for you, not someone else.

But there’s something we all need to do together before I begin. No one gets where they are going alone. My debt to the School of Law is great, as is my debt to those who helped me along the way to this day. The same is true for you. So while we are assembled here to celebrate you, it is only right that we begin by celebrating those who got all of us here–our parents, siblings, partners, professors and friends among us and those who could not be here today. Find them if you can; catch their eyes and hold them. Say a silent thank you in your hearts and applaud their lives and love.

I have a confession to make. I wrote the Graduate Schools’ Commencement speech first, believing it would be harder for me to do since I never was enrolled in any of their programs and the graduates were from so many different disciplines, and because my son was one of the graduates in the audience.  But I was wrong. It was much more difficult writing what I wanted to share with you today.

Why should this be so? After all, I know this place. I sat in the same chairs you occupied these last three years. Remarkably, I had some of the same professors. My nightly visit to Nick’s notwithstanding, I learned at least some of what you learned. Nor are you strangers. It’s not that I know your names. It’s that I know what you have been trained to do and so I should be in a better position to offer thoughts as to what you might do in the world beyond these walls. So why do I find it more challenging to speak to you today than to the Graduate students yesterday?

Perhaps it’s because I’m going to ask you to do something that I believe in very deeply and am concerned that I’ll fail to convince you of its importance.  Today you are my Supreme Court. Oscar Wilde observed that those who tell the truth burn with the desire to convince, while those who tell a lie have ampler leisure to study the result.  If my desire to persuade you of what I am about to say is any measure, I will be telling deep truths indeed.

I want to talk with you today about our need to change the world and the way we live in it. Now you know why I was concerned that I might have a big job persuading you. Soon you will understand why I care so very much that I do.

The world I encountered when I left here no longer exists, and the one that has taken its place is making different and more difficult demands. It’s this new world I want to speak about today. My professional and personal past, and most especially my current day job, have given me the opportunity to learn a lot about this new world and what living in it will require of each of us.

Why am I starting here when some of you are more concerned about getting a job and others worried about doing well in the one they have gotten? The answer is this. Those who have jobs want them to be here tomorrow. Those without jobs will get them, and will then have the same concern. It is a long road you are about to walk. These first steps are important, to be sure, but not nearly as critical as the miles ahead, which are either in serious disrepair or in need of serious construction. I know. I have a shovel in my hands every day. So I’m here to ask you to help; to care whether and how the future is built. To focus on tomorrow as well as today. This is what we try to do at The U.S. Mission to ASEAN in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The agenda of our ASEAN Mission includes most of the borderless opportunities and problems that are shaping our world and that will define yours. They know no geographical and few temporal limits. Here are some of them: responding to climate change and reversing the degradation of the planet; healing our oceans and preventing the unsustainable exploitation of its resources; managing the transition to an equitable and rules based global economy; preparing for and responding to global pandemics and natural disasters; anticipating and responding to water and food scarcity; redressing the effects of corruption and lack of institutional development; solving the many problems created by poverty; facing the challenges of our cities and population growth; meeting the issues arising from an aging population and abandoned houses and towns throughout the world; refusing the limitations we have accepted in the past concerning non-existent or inadequate education; promoting human rights;  managing conflict and the need to develop architecture to facilitate its resolution; preventing or at least minimizing environmental degradation and the inefficient use of our critical natural resources; promoting the importance of our most valuable resource, our human capital; defusing religious tension and conflict; preventing deforestation and the destruction of biodiversity; saying no to the heartbreak of human and wildlife trafficking, to mention a few.

It is a world where many of the natural and human systems upon which we rely are undergoing unprecedented change. Some believe the health of many of these systems, including the global economy, our oceans, forests, fields, skies and streams, is at serious risk. Other systems, such as our schools and healthcare providers,  aren’t performing for all who need their benefits. Still others, such as our legal system, to which most of you will dedicate your professional lives, is overburdened here and at best underdeveloped in many parts of the world. All of these systems need our commitment and protection. So too those who cannot protect themselves. All of this is global and personal justice writ large. It is justice in the service of survival.

You have been uniquely trained to do what needs to be done to protect and develop these systems so that they can cope with the changing world. The last three years you have been dedicated to learning how to solve problems. For example, you know you aren’t entitled to your own facts; that you have to justify your opinions; that some things that do not always seem related are, in actuality, causally dependent upon one another; that you have an obligation to care for the lesser among us; that the past informs the present and the future depends upon both. The law, this law school, these law professors, are all change agents in the service of the future we need to find together. I ask you to join them. You understand the role of rules in solving the problems we are facing.

During and after World War II, during which the world came to understand what it means when some live without rules, the United States and its allies acted to organize a rules based international order to minimize the possibility of future global conflict and to facilitate the beginning of a new, international community bound together by finance, trade, and the rule of law. The various conventions of the United Nations, the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, aka Bretton Woods, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT, which has since been replaced by the World Trade Organization, shaped the world with the goal of promoting peace and the safety and prosperity of its people.

Now, after over 60 years, ours is a world once again in search of rules.  Those that have served us well still exist, of course.  But new participants have emerged to challenge certain aspects of previously accepted past wisdom.  Globalization has happened so quickly that there hasn’t been time to shape fully its emergence everywhere.  So now we are behind the curve.  Faced with exploding population growth, environmental degradation on an epic scale, scarcity and depletion of natural resources, the mass extinction of species and the challenges in developing a fair, equitable global economy, we need rules all are willing follow and which serve all who follow them.  If we fail to develop them we are at risk of failing our own futures.

The good news is that wise people everywhere understand our need to have such rules.  They are working hard in every country to help make and manage the case for their adoption among their own citizens, many of whom have been and will be hurt in the short term by the enforcement of old agreements and those that have been and will be proposed going forward. They are making the case for new and more equitable arrangements even when special interests want things to stay as they are.

Unfortunately, other people are not supportive of the enforcement of old rules or the adoption of new ones. They are content with a less lawful landscape. They are those who profit from corruption, protectionism, nationalism, religious fanaticism and unrestrained plunder of the planet. They are the beneficiaries of an order untethered from rules and institutions. They cut down rain forests, fish the oceans unto emptying, traffic in human beings and wildlife, and resist the emergence of a free and fair economic landscape.   They are the modern highwaymen of old, content to live as they alone see fit.  Years ago I watched as one of their number prepared to travel to an African nation with a briefcase containing $1 million dollars to purchase the privilege of cutting down the rainforest. I said what many of you would have said and tried to talk him out of going.  His response was to say, “don’t be so naïve David.  It is unbecoming.  We both know someone will cut down the forest.  It may as well be me.”  I heard that he did exactly that.  And every day since someone else does the same somewhere in the world.

We need to renew the global effort to shape a rules based world to protect our human and natural systems. But to do so we need more than diplomats on the field and attorneys at their desks.  We need people of wisdom, energy and good conscience from all walks of life.  We need businessmen, educators, students, governments, NGOs and anyone else who understands we need to remake the world if both the world and we are to survive.

How can you help? I have a few suggestions.

First, don’t ever do just your job.  It’s hard to begin and sustain a career. Your employer will expect 110%.  You will give 120% to make sure you are doing enough. It will be like your first semester in law school when you didn’t know how hard you had to work to do what needed to be done to succeed. Once you had figured it out you likely worked less hard than you had that first semester.  I know I did. I’m here to ask you to work as hard from now on as you did during your first semester in Law school.  Now is not the time for you to measure your effort against a metric that no longer applies in the new world that has emerged.

Second, use what you have learned about the law somewhere other than where you are employed.  Think of the law as your work, not your job.  You have developed an arsenal for justice, have learned the discipline necessary to develop solutions to problems others may believe cannot be solved. Use them. You won’t always win, but you will be made more by the effort, and so will the world. And your example will encourage others to participate. I can’t stress enough how much all of us can be models for engagement among our friends and acquaintances. The world watches what each of us does.

Third, don’t ever stop learning.  You have an obligation to know what you are talking about when you speak.  Read the words written by serious people writing about serious things. Listen to others who know more than you do.  Above all else don’t walk the world based on conviction, custom and habit. They are the enemies of truth. Find your way with the tools you have developed here. Join those who are trying to win the future. And remember, to do so you will need to engage politically, as unpleasant as that may sometimes seem. Politics is our messy way of making necessary things happen or preventing things that would do us harm.

But for all of this to be successful there’s something else you need to do. As wonderfully trained as we all have been, we will not find the future we need unless we live in the world differently than we have lived in it in the past. We need to change the way we live; to pursue lives that are in the service of the future as well as the present. The future will be the present soon enough for all of us and for those we love.

Wendell Berry, a poet, writer and farmer who lives not far from here, has suggested a way to live in the world which illustrates what I mean: “We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.”

To Berry’s wise observation about how we need to change our relationship with the planet, I’d add one of my own. Too many have lived their lives as though what is good for them and their families is good for the world. They, too, have been wrong. They need to change their lives to make it possible to live by a contrary assumption; that what is good for others will be good for them. This requires us to know others and understand what they need. We cannot afford to be strangers to our neighbors.

I’ve known hundreds if not thousands of lawyers. Few ever told me they are happy doing what they do. Of course they were grateful for being able to provide for themselves and their families. Some have mentioned they like the prestige of being a lawyer. Some have mentioned the money. Still other clearly have enjoyed others things–litigation as therapy, trials as combat, deals as competitions. But few have ever told me that they love being a lawyer because they were able to help make the world a better place.

More need to try. The most rewarding work we can do will be to use our love of the law to help solve the global challenges facing all of us, to find and prosper communities and places that need us to do what we have been trained to do. That surely is the real work of the world. When Leonardo was dying he apologized to his god and to his fellow man for leaving so much undone. Since that time others have carried on. In the end they also had to make the same apology.  So will you.  But until then, do all that you can to make one unnecessary.