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News Releases

International Institute of Wisconsin • Keynote Speech for World Citizen Celebration Awards Dinner
Ambassador Barbara Stephenson
, President, American Foreign Service Association
May 6, 2017

It is an honor to be here, and more than a little humbling to take the stage after hearing the accomplishments of this year’s awardees. From global health and social justice to dance, writing, and the Holiday Folk Fair, you are helping immigrants and refugees, and you celebrate the diversity that makes this country great.

As a diplomat abroad, the easiest part of my job is telling America’s story. People like you are the reason why. Whether hosting participants in the International Visitor Leadership Program on behalf of the Department of State, or helping immigrants and refugees in Milwaukee, you show the world America’s heart. We are a country that welcomes the tired and the poor. We are a country made rich by cultural diversity.

You also show the world America’s smarts. It is smart to stay connected to the world. It is smart to improve our economy and enrich our society by drawing on the talents of immigrants. No one knows this better than Milwaukee, birthplace of Larry Eagleburger, Les Aspin, and George Kennan, not to mention Al Jarreau and Gene Wilder. If ever a city understood how cultural diplomacy and international engagement lead to economic strength and security, surely that city is Milwaukee.

Thank you for being America’s heart and America’s brain; for welcoming the new American from abroad and hosting the visiting foreigner. You not only make Wisconsin and the United States stronger, you also set an example for the rest of the world. As I saw in Iraq and Ireland, those who forge peace in torn societies believe their dream is possible because they see your reality. When you build a diverse, prosperous, and welcoming community, they know they can, too. Thank you Dr. Hargarten, Ms. Jordan, Ms. Douglas, Mr. Richards, and the Marquette University Trinity Fellows Program, and thank you Al and the members of the International Institute of Wisconsin.

If telling America’s story abroad is the easiest part of my job, sometimes the hardest part of my job is telling the story of America’s diplomats domestically. Notwithstanding that 9 out of 10 Americans support a global leadership role for the United States, few know exactly how the U.S. sustains leadership and shapes world events. There is support for a strong defense, as there should be, and for intelligence, but perhaps a lesser understanding of what those of us who don’t go into combat or channel James Bond do. A good part of my job is getting what the United States needs without resorting to the expense and destruction of war. As Secretary of Defense James Mattis said, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

The President and the Secretary of State are asking the Department to rethink how it does business, and to accept large cuts. The first half of the equation is one I agree with. It is always smart to review one’s goals and realign one’s organization to match. We need to make sure the Department of State is organized in a way to best pursue American interests in a changing and dynamic world. I welcome that review, and find incredible opportunity in it.

What we must never do, though, is cede our position in the field. Adversaries who want us to fail are challenging American leadership. We cannot let them succeed. We need to reassure our allies, contain our enemies, and assert U.S. leadership around the globe. If the United States retreats, we leave a vacuum that will be filled by others who do not share our values or interests.

My message to the American people and to our elected representatives is a simple one these days: If you give away leadership, getting it back again would be a daunting and uncertain task.

Strength comes from political, diplomatic, economic, cultural, and military power. As a country, we once were united in that belief. President Kennedy confronted Khrushchev over nuclear weapons, and launched the Peace Corps. Ronald Reagan challenged Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” and negotiated the INF treaty. Decade after decade, America’s strength came from its power, its values, and its people, and America’s diplomats helped America lead by relying on all three—power, values, and people.

America’s people—especially those of you in this room—welcome foreigners, refugees, and immigrants. One person at a time, you build international understanding and create friends for this great country.

America’s diplomats negotiate the treaties and trade agreements, persuade other countries to back our positions, and work for prosperity and peace. When peace fails, diplomats persuade other countries to join us in arms.

I am gratified that so many Americans and Members of Congress support diplomacy. We are exactly the right national security tool for the moment, whether in combatting ISIS, working for free and fair trade, or helping Americans abroad. If restructuring the State Department makes us more effective, I am all for it.

But let me be very frank with you, I am concerned about the large budget cuts proposed. America will not remain strong if it does not continue to hire, train, equip, and deploy a sufficient number of diplomats.

The great Milwaukee poet, John Koethe, wrote in Piranesi’s Keyhole of the urge “To fabricate the world not as it is but as someone imagines it to be.” The world is shifting rapidly as threats arrive in new forms and as technology develops rapidly, changing economies and people’s lives. Not every threat can be contained by a bomb; not every opportunity can be seized by wishing it so. For America to seize opportunity and for America to protect itself, it needs people on the ground who speak the language, know the culture, and know how to win for America. And it needs Americans, one by one, working to promote international connections.

To keep America winning, we need to be sure that our budget priorities do not cut short our critical capabilities. This means hiring and training people. It means investing more in secure and agile communications technology. It means supporting the cultural exchanges that advance international understanding, and the development budgets that not only boost economies and benefit U.S. trade and investment, but also help create stable societies and deny terrorists a foothold.

I want America to keep winning, but I can’t do it alone. You can help. I want to share with you a metaphor Al and I heard at a recent conference from our colleague Anthony Sharp. Anthony told us that most people think lightning originates in the sky, as though Zeus were throwing it down. In fact, the lightning you see is created from the ground up. Lightning doesn’t happen until the negatively charged electrons from a cloud stream to earth and connect with positively charged electrons on the ground. That’s when the powerful, bright streak we call lightning is generated.

What I really like about this bit of science is learning that the positive charge comes from the ground. It’s from the ground that light and power stream. Likewise, it is from the ground, from the grassroots, from the American people that the power of change comes. And that makes sense now that I reflect on it for a minute. After all, I can feel the positive energy in this room. I note with gratitude and astonishment all the positive actions you in this room—and those who preceded you over the past 80 years—have taken.

Can I ask you to make some more lightning? Can you join me in reaching out to your elected officials? They need to hear from you how important it is to properly fund the foreign affairs agencies. America’s power and position in the world depend upon it. Your elected officials need to hear what their constituents believe is important, and learn from your experiences on the ground.

We have always worked closely together, you citizen diplomats here at home, and we Foreign Service officers conducting American diplomacy abroad. We diplomats in the field help identify international visitors, and you welcome them into your homes and show them the best of America. You change their lives; they in turn change their countries.

So many of the things one can say about international ties can sound trite, even if true. We use terms such as “build bridges” or “foster international understanding.” In a vacuum, those words can sound good, moral, and just but they can also lose their power. They can be taken for granted or sound like something nice to do, but not really essential.

However, in two days, we mark the 72nd anniversary of Victory in Europe Day when World War II ended in Europe. What we have done since then—whether as a government, building the international system, or as citizens, building ties abroad one person at a time—has made this world and our country safer and stronger.

You, as citizen ambassadors, are peace-builders and economy-boosters. One person at a time, you build understanding, thereby building the will for international cooperation. You understand, too, the importance of fostering cultural understanding and learning from each other, whether through the annual Folk Fair, telling the stories of refugees resettling in Wisconsin, or finding similarities in Irish and Arab music, thereby reminding us of how connected we are, no matter where we live or what religion we practice. You are the lightning bolts, the positive charge. I am so honored to be here tonight, to share the stage with this year’s award winners, and to be in a room with all of you who do so much to build international understanding.





2017 World Citizen Celebration Dinner

  • International Institute of Wisconsin
  • International Institute of Wisconsin
  • International Institute of Wisconsin
  • International Institute of Wisconsin
  • International Institute of Wisconsin
  • International Institute of Wisconsin
  • International Institute of Wisconsin
  • International Institute of Wisconsin
  • International Institute of Wisconsin
  • International Institute of Wisconsin
  • International Institute of Wisconsin
  • International Institute of Wisconsin
  • International Institute of Wisconsin
  • International Institute of Wisconsin
  • International Institute of Wisconsin
  • International Institute of Wisconsin


International Institute of Wisconsin Presents World Citizen CelebrationAwards Winners:

Sister Edna Lonergan, President of the St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care: World Citizen Award

Christiana Attere and Liliane McFarlane, Community Volunteers: World Citizen Award

Jack Douthitt, Bonsai Artist: Expressive Cultural Heritage Award

Milwaukee Public Television (MPTV): Corporate Citizens Award