Analysis | For a meaningful career in public service, Sec. Blinken says to look to lessons from the past

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers the commencement address at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service on May 21, 2022. (Image: Secretary Blinken on Twitter)

On Saturday, May 21, Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered the commencement address for Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. The Institute for the Study of Diplomacy’s Director Amb. (retired) Barbara Bodine introduced him, praising his demonstrated commitment to transforming structures and institutions to better serve the American people and the world. In particular, she focused on his commitment to increasing the diversity of the U.S. Foreign Service and promoting innovation at every level of the State Department.

“He understands that our diplomats, by right, must reflect who we are if we are to bring our very best to the table,” Bodine said. “He understands that this troubled world needs ideas, innovation and a value on thought entrepreneurship led by women and men who embrace change and a leadership that allows and encourages that to happen.” She also reminded the audience of Blinken’s long, distinguished career in public service and of his many accolades.

But when Blinken took the stage, he turned the focus away from himself and onto three of his predecessors, Secretaries Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, and George Shultz, reminding the graduates that they were picking up the baton from those who had come before and building on their legacies. Drawing from their examples, he offered four words of advice to those aspiring to a career in public service:

  1. Remember where you came from. “No matter where you go or what cause you serve, try to hold on to what’s shaped you,” Blinken said. He spoke of how Powell drew inspiration from the diversity of his childhood neighborhood in the South Bronx as a model for “America at its best.” He talked about Albright’s childhood as a refugee and how she drew on that experience when calling on “countries to stand up to tyrants and open their arms to the displaced.” And he told the audience about how Shultz would call outgoing Foreign Service Officers into his office before leaving on their assignments, asking them to point to their country on a globe. When the FSOs would set their fingers on their new postings, Shultz would gently redirect their hands back to the United States, “reminding America’s diplomats that no matter how far they traveled, the people that they served were still here.”
  2. Always be a student. “Learning from others is a way of showing respect,” Blinken said. “It tells people that you see them, that you value them.” He talked about Albright’s commitment to learning from her students at Georgetown, often quoting them in her books and speeches. He spoke of Shultz’s habit of meeting with desk officers when trying to understand a critical policy issue, rather than only hearing from the same inner circle of senior officials and political appointees. “[He] knew that these desk officers had information that no one else did,” Blinken said. He also talked about Powell’s trips to the State Department’s lowest ranks– including the parking garage– to hear from the perspectives of employees he would otherwise never meet. “This openness, this curiosity, meant that [Albright, Shultz, and Powell] were always stumbling across new ideas and new ways of seeing things,” Blinken said. “And it meant life never stopped being interesting.”
  3. Don’t worry if you get lost along the way. “It’s incredibly tempting to see the lives of the super-accomplished as somehow following a straight line that led all the way to the top,” Blinken said. “But in real life, it rarely goes that way.” He reminded the graduates that Powell was forced to switch majors from a degree in engineering– which his parents very much wanted for him– to a degree in geology, after struggling with the advanced coursework. He spoke about how Albright battled setback after setback as a professional woman and working mother in the 1960s. And he talked about how Shultz failed his eye test when he tried to enlist in the Royal Canadian Airforce following the attack on Pearl Harbor– and chose to get a tattoo of the Princeton mascot on his rear end out of despair. “We assume that giants like them always had it figured out,” Blinken said. “But they went through times when they felt profoundly lost. Everybody does. If you have no idea what’s next for you, even though that’s probably what everyone is asking you today, don’t be scared. That’s okay. That’s the way it is.”
  4. Stick with it for the long haul. “There’s not really any doubt in my mind that all of you will find a way to serve,” Blinken said. “That’s why you’re here. That’s who you are. But to make a real dent, you’ve got to stick with it. Progress takes a long time. It can feel like you’re getting nowhere. Don’t give up.” He spoke about how Albright, Powell, and Shultz all kept fighting for progress, despite setbacks. “They endured because they learned to take the long view, to accept that every cause worth fighting for would actually outlive them; to aim for the big wins, but also to savor the small ones,” Blinken said. “That’s the thing about this kind of work. It will always outlast us. So what we leave behind matters. We need others to pick up where we left off.”

He concluded his speech by reminding the graduates, in Albright’s words, that “there is not a page of [the School of Foreign Service’s] hundred-year history of which [we’re] proud that was [authored] by a chronic complainer. We are doers.” And he welcomed the graduates to the “ranks of the doers,” reminding them that “everything you need to serve — to serve with purpose — is right here.”

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