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Robert Gates: 'If America Declines to Lead in the World, Others Will Not'

11:11 AM, May 22, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
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Now, to the reason why we are here, the class of 2011: Congratulations.  You have worked hard to get here.  Your parents are full of pride – even if their bank accounts are now empty.  Standing here, I am truly humbled by the fact that I am following six sitting U.S. presidents who have delivered graduation speeches here at Notre Dame.  I am also keenly aware that you may have been hoping for a more entertaining choice for commencement speaker.  As an Observer editorial said, “Robert Gates is not Stephen Colbert.  Nor is he Bono.  He has never appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly or been named one of People Magazine’s ‘Sexiest Men Alive.’”  Like I needed that reality check!

I entered government service 45 years ago this summer and will retire as Secretary of Defense next month, just as you are beginning the next chapter in your lives.  Even though today we mark your departure from this campus, you will always be Notre Dame.  And, as Father Jenkins has said, “even among those who did not go to Notre Dame, even among those who do not share the Catholic faith, there is a special expectation, a special hope, for what Notre Dame can accomplish in the world.”

That’s because, starting with the first graduates 162 years ago, “Domers” have gone forward from this campus with a deep sense of duty, a strong intellectual and spiritual grounding, and a commitment to helping their communities, their nation, and the world.  There is also a long and proud tradition of Domers serving this nation in uniform, going back to the Civil War when Father Sorin sent chaplains to serve in the famed Irish Brigade, and continuing to this day.

During World War II, the school practically turned over this campus to the Navy, which established one of four Midshipman Training Centers here that commissioned more than 12,000 U.S. Naval Officers.  Father Hesburgh’s bold leadership ensured that ROTC continued to have a home here at Notre Dame throughout the tumult of the Vietnam era.  And this weekend, with the commissioning of ROTC graduates from the class of 2011, another 65 officers join the ranks of Domers serving in our military.  I want to thank those new officers for your willingness to come forward and serve our country in uniform during a time of war.  In making this commitment, you've distinguished yourselves in a profound and honorable way. 

But it is the task of all of this year’s graduates to continue this university’s tradition of public-mindedness.  Most of you have already participated in service projects while here at Notre Dame.  Volunteering for a good cause is important, there is no doubt about that.  And as you graduate today, I encourage you to discover for yourself what it is that drives you, what course or career path engages your head and your heart and your passion, and then pursue it with all your energy and commitment.  But I also want to ask you to consider taking an active role in the life of this country by committing yourself to spending at least part of your life in public service.

The problems we as a nation are grappling with are well-known: steep fiscal imbalances and mounting debt, which could develop into a deep crisis for our nation.  At the same time, we face a complex and unpredictable international security environment that includes a major war in Afghanistan, winding up the war in Iraq, revolution throughout the Middle East, new rising powers, nuclear proliferation in Iran and Korea, the continued threat of terrorism, and more.

While the challenges I’ve described are unique to this moment in history, their scale is no greater than others this country has dealt with and successfully overcome.  We have battled slavery and intolerance in our own society, and on the global stage prevailed against Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism.  We have seen periods of painful economic collapse give way to renewed and unprecedented prosperity.  Our progress has sometimes been unsteady, and sometimes too slow.  Winston Churchill purportedly said during World War II, “you can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” 

But our national story has been, and still is, the envy of the world.  Indeed, the death of Osama Bin Laden after a decade-long manhunt by the United States reminded us earlier this month that, as President Obama said, when faced with tough times “we do not falter.  We don’t turn back.  We pick ourselves up and we get on with the hard task of keeping our country strong and safe.” 

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