Ambassador Chris Lu
U.S. Representative for UN Management and Reform
South Orange, New Jersey
May 19, 2023
Distinguished faculty, honored guests, and the extraordinary class of 2023, I am deeply honored to be with all of you today. Congratulations to the graduates and most importantly, to your family and friends who supported you on this journey.
While I’m honored to be your speaker, I’m also feeling a bit sheepish right now. Just two months ago, I was on campus speaking to many of you, and I’m sorry to report this – I pretty much gave you all my career advice the last time I was here.
Another reason I’m feeling sheepish is because all of you now have something I don’t have: a masters degree in international relations. In fact, you’ve actually spent more time studying diplomacy than I’ve spent practicing it.
So, you might want to take what I’m about to say today with a big grain of salt.
Until 16 months ago, my public service career had been focused almost exclusively on domestic policy, not foreign policy. I had served as the Deputy Secretary of Labor helping Americans find meaningful jobs to lift them into the middle class. During my time out of government, I worked at a tech startup that was using artificial intelligence to analyze government data. Now, don’t get me wrong – those were interesting and rewarding roles. But they’re pretty far removed from being a U.S. diplomat at the United Nations.
When the White House asked me to consider taking on this role at the UN, I wasn’t sure I could do a 180-degree shift in my career. It’s not easy moving out of one’s comfort zone and learning a new set of issues.
But after talking with people much smarter than me, I realized that in this interconnected world, what defines a foreign policy issue and what defines a domestic policy issue is not as clear as it used to be.
After all, when migrants arrive at our borders after fleeing repression and hardship in their home countries, is that a foreign policy issue or a domestic issue?
When 100,000 Americans die each year after overdosing on synthetic drugs produced overseas, who is responsible for fixing that problem: the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security or local police departments.
International relations is a complex puzzle, where the pieces of foreign policy and domestic policy are tightly connected – often in ways not immediately apparent. The decisions we make domestically have far-reaching implications on the global stage, while our foreign policy priorities and values shape the way we address domestic challenges.
Just as the distinctions between foreign and domestic policy are less defined, so too has the distinction blurred between what problems should be addressed by government action and what should be addressed by private sector innovation.
Take, for instance, the defining issue of our generation — climate change. We know that we can’t solve this problem unless countries set targets for carbon reductions. That requires agreements negotiated at the UN and legislation enacted by national governments. Yet, we also know that these targets won’t be achieved unless we have private sector investment and innovation in electric vehicles, clean energy technology, energy-efficient appliances, and sustainable supply chains.
Or think about the issue that upended our lives three years ago – COVID-19. A flu-like virus breaks out in another country, spreads like wildfire around the globe, and leads to the tragic loss of 1 million American lives. Ultimately, what freed us from the pandemic wasn’t government-imposed travel restrictions, mask mandates, or social distancing. It was the rapid development of safe and effective vaccines by the pharmaceutical industry, which was supported by federal funding and a massive distribution effort overseen by the White House.
I say all of this to you to make a simple point: the next generation of diplomats, policymakers and advocates – all of you – will need to see these complex interconnections between foreign policy and domestic policy. You will need to understand the interplay between what governments can do in setting policies and facilitating global cooperation — and what the private sector can do through innovation and entrepreneurship.
Today, the degree you are receiving is the culmination of years of elite education. This education will provide you with a formidable set of tools.
But as you embark upon your careers, I want you to keep refining those skills, and constantly strive to develop new skills and perspectives. As good as the education is that you’ve received at Seton Hall, the world is changing way too fast for you to rely solely on your classroom learning for the rest of your careers.
If you want to do your part to solve the world’s problems, all of you will need to master every tool in your toolbox. And you’ll need to develop new tools. As the old expression goes: if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.
As you strive to expand the tools in your toolbox, always seek out new sources of information. Read newspapers and journals that are outside your area of expertise. Watch cable news programs that don’t adhere to your worldview. Constantly seek to expand the network of people who can provide you with different perspectives. Experiment with new technology. Keep an open mind. And always, always question your own strongly held beliefs and assumptions.
Just like a kaleidoscope reveals different patterns when you rotate it, so too can we uncover innovative solutions by examining issues from different angles. If the solution you’ve devised to a problem comes too easily or seems too simple, you’ve probably come up with the wrong solution.
Take it from me, this process of constantly learning and re-examining can be exhausting and unsettling. But after 20 years of high-profile government jobs, I am still exhilarated every day at the UN to be exploring new policy areas, developing new perspectives on how to solve old problems, and learning new tools, while constantly refining some old ones.
And in the end, it turns out that understanding how to help Americans find jobs is a pretty useful skill when you’re trying to help the UN eliminate extreme poverty. As for those years I spent at a tech startup thinking about new uses for artificial intelligence, that experience is coming in handy in a world grappling with new AI tools like ChatGPT.
As you embark on your new careers, don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zones, synthesize diverse perspectives, and draw on your past experiences. That’s how you will ultimately find the most effective and lasting solutions to the challenges facing our nation and our world.
Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” All of you are ambassadors of change – of yourselves and the world around you – and I look forward to seeing how you will create a future that is more just, equitable, and prosperous for all. Congratulations.