Dr. Victor Davis Hanson gave the following keynote address at IWP Commencement on May 14, 2022.
Thank you very much to The Institute of World Politics, and congratulations to all the graduates today. The nation and the world are in dire need of you graduates, Class of 2022 – your expertise, your commitment, your common sense. You are custodians of ancient wisdom proven through the ages, but it has been forgotten, with catastrophic results as we see now all about us.
You are graduating into a world that suddenly, unexpectedly, seems unfamiliar, strangely so, perhaps even apocalyptic.
In Ukraine, we are witnessing the first land war in European history involving directly a nuclear power – one whose leader, Vladimir Putin, talks openly of the use of nuclear weapons. Such loose and dangerous talk has not been heard since 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Governments representing a majority of the world’s population did not sanction Russia, in part because they were wholly dependent on Russian energy exports, but also in part because they were waiting to see whether Russian aggression ultimately proves advantageous for Vladimir Putin or contrarily whether the furious Ukrainian resistance sends a warning to autocrats about the dangers of attacking free and united peoples.
China talks openly about the absorption of Taiwan. Beijing assumes the world must concede that a free Taiwan’s end is a matter of only when and not of if.
Nuclear North Korea baits South Korea and Japan as if they deserve such bullying and are failed states without recourse to deter its nuclear-tipped missiles.
Iran postured to the world that its most difficult task is acquiring nuclear weapons, and not using them against Israel once they possess them.
The common denominator with all these frightening scenarios is that none of these aggressive nations believe in the sanctity of international laws and norms, territorial integrity, national sovereignty, or rules of any sort in general, and they trust that there are no consequences should their actions follow their incendiary talk. They gauge aggression not on its legality, much less its morality, but only on its practicality and profitability. And they assume most of the world won’t be bothered by assaults and invasions and will make the necessary moral adjustments if they prove successful.
Our world, unfortunately, is no calmer at home. Americans are currently paying record prices for energy, especially gasoline and diesel fuel – the stuff of modern movement. Inflation threatens to devolve into 1970s-style stagflation… the frightful memories of those who lived through those economic doldrums. Our southern border, for all practical purposes, is no border at all. It has ceased to exist, undermining the most cherished American ideal of legal, diverse, and measured immigration. Crime is on the rise, and yet the law in response is not being applied equitably and blindly – or even enforced. As a result, our law enforcement system – the bulwark of the republic – has lost all deterrence.
We are warned of 100 million cases of some mutated new Covid variant looming in the fall. Our resistance, vaccinations, boosters, social distance, masking, and therapeutics have yet not stopped the pandemic as once was envisioned. And now we fear the real likelihood that some of our remedies of forced lockdowns prove worse for the republican psyche than the evil malady of the virus itself.
All these military, economic, political, social, and cultural threats of our generation will put to the test a 233-year-old republic.
It is your task, today’s graduates, to school and lead the nation, to teach us about the ancient rules of deterrence, the timeless nexus between military and economic power, the unchanging nature of humankind across time and space, and the historical and vital link between eternal unity, cohesion, and purpose, and the projection of power abroad.
These are dark times. They are also the stuff of what makes history. Our dilemmas are exactly those that gave rise to the Greek city-state following their incredible victory at Salamis. They are the same that focused the world on a defiant, alone, and outnumbered Britain of 1940 – incomparable by land, incomparable by sea, incomparable by air. And they were the same that saw the rise of the post-war America that for 45 years kept the free world from global communist oppression.
Graduates, never forget as Americans, you play a critical role in these tumultuous years and you have inherited formidable assets and advantages. You are citizens of the oldest and most stable democratic republic in the world today – the desired destination of most of the immigrants on this planet. Our constitutional system of free expression and critique; legislative, executive, and judicial checks and balances; and peaceful changes of power – while under assault – remain intact after twelve generations. It is from this ancient, tested system that we can gain the strength to address our current crisis.
Remember also that our current disasters were not fated. They were not the result of poverty. They were not the result of a want. They did not result from an underpopulated resource for America. The fault is not in stars. The fault is in us. We are the source of our crisis, and that is oddly a reassurance that then we alone can be our own deliverers.
Remember, America has the largest aggregate reserve of coal, natural gas, and oil in the world. Our agriculture is the most productive and efficient in the world. Our major research universities, for all their politicization and ideological intolerance, still rank as global leaders in math, science, engineering, and technology. The U.S. military remains the most lethal in the history of arms. In the matter of the stuff of life – food, fuel, security, stability, and knowledge – no nation can match the United States.
And because our problems are self-induced – again, results of choice on faith – so, too, they can be remedied by leaders such as yourselves. Comfortable with both pragmatic and intellectual wisdom and with modest confidence that America does not have to be perfect to be good and is far better than all the alternatives.
So, we are not suffering in America because of foreign invasions, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, even a reoccurrence of Covid… Instead, our own hubris convinced us that we could borrow to spend what we do not have and that we can live lives of sophistication and comfort without plentiful fuel, building materials, and food, and without much concern with those in the shadows who so expertly produce and provide them all to us.
So, graduates, take up this challenge to ensure that we use our national wealth to ease the burdens on middle-class America while giving the nation strategic options that can only arise from independence and self-sufficiency. We must confront repression, censorship, and efforts to curb free expression everywhere we encounter such counter-enlightenment forces, whether they come from Ph.Ds., J.D.s, or MBAs, or without the freedom to say or write what one pleases, there is only darkness and decline ahead.
We should take more confidence still that national recovery can come as quickly as it will unexpectedly, but only if there are inspired and trained leaders who take nothing for granted and pledge to leave their country richer and more powerful than what they inherited from their hallowed parents.
History is full of such renaissance that can guide us. The era of Caligula and Nero was felt to have wrecked the Roman Principate of Augustus until the Flavians and the so-called Five Good Emperors immediately gave the Rome and the Mediterranean world a century of calm progress – or what the historian Edward Gibbon said famously, “the era when the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.” When the Roman Empire collapsed in the West and the world entered a new dark age, civilization endured in the east at Constantinople. Within a century, Byzantium would give the world the Justinian Law Code, the ancient basilica of Sancta Sophia, and a thousand years of civilization in Asia.
In our own history, many doubted the survivability of the United States in 1861, 1929, and 1941. Perhaps the perfect storm in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s – the radical cultural revolution, Vietnam, and Cold War nuclear brinkmanship.
Yet in all these cases came not just Abe Lincoln and FDR or a JFK or Reagan, but millions of Americans out of the shadows with skills and training such as your own and as determined as you will be to refresh the country to become stronger and morally superior than at any time in its history.
So let us be thankful for such a country, and let us be thankful to be alive in such times of crises and this rare opportunity to put your talent, your hard work, and your training to ensure an American resurgence.
Thank you very much.