Welcome, everybody, and welcome to the Ben Franklin Room in the State Department. I am Rich Verma, the Deputy Secretary of State for Management [and Resources].
Thank you all for coming together, tonight and over the next couple of days, for this symposium on democracy: the promise it carries, the peril it faces – its past, present, and future.
A little over a decade ago, Mount Vernon acquired a stunning artifact: George Washington’s copy of the Acts of Congress. It was filled with the words of the Constitution and the collection of laws enacted by that first Congress in 1789.
Washington made notes in the margins, marking areas relevant to the executive branch – a student not only of the text itself, but of what might be required to perform the duties of the office he held and sustain the new government he led.
Washington knew that American democracy represented a “great experiment” – a challenge to his generation, and every generation since, to prove that placing power, votes, and unalienable rights in the hands of the people is a concept worthy of an exceptional nation.
224 years later, our core task remains the same.
From positions of public leadership, we carry the duty to make our commitment to pluralism; our fidelity to liberty and justice; our freedoms of speech and religion; our independent media and judiciary; our open markets and open society – to make these commitments real.
And from our perch here at State, we view these values – we see our democracy, however flawed and fragile – as a competitive advantage on the world stage.
Yet questions persist about what that means in this century:
How do we defend our ideals in an age of social media, ever-changing technology, rising authoritarianism, and deep polarization?
How do we advance our principles across the globe when those notions are under strain here at home?
How do we uphold our values when some international partners don’t share them?
How do we maintain a sense of hope when our great experiment faces a season of despair?
The answers are not simple. Certainly not right now.
Indeed, none of us have any illusions about how hard it is to match our highest hopes to today’s harshest realities.
As if we needed any reminders, as we sit here, Putin is trying to decimate a sovereign democracy in Ukraine.
Recent coups have shaken the confidence of fledgling democracies in the Sahel.
Hamas is seeking to destroy a neighboring democracy in Israel. And hour by hour, we, at the State Department, are confronting the dark aftermath of Hamas’ vile terrorist attack, the ongoing conflict, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza – all as we can never lose sight of our vision of a two-state solution, with equal measures of security and justice for Israelis and Palestinians.
These events converge amidst what President Biden calls an inflection point – a time to choose the kind of world we wish to inhabit and the type of future we want our children to inherit.
In times of conflict or calm, our instinct, as Americans, is to choose democracy; to tap into democracy’s track record as the system with the greatest capacity to advance peace, dignity, and inclusive growth; to see democracy as the surest course to a planet that is open, free, prosperous, and secure.
When we look at the world, it can be easy to feel discouraged. But we cannot allow hopelessness to get the best of us. Because optimism is a hallmark of democratic governance – and even in the toughest moments, there is always cause to keep faith in democracy’s possibilities.
Thirty years ago, right around this time, I was recruited by the National Democratic Institute to go to Romania.
I saw a country only recently emerging from Soviet oppression.
I worked with members of Parliament, civil society, and everyday citizens for whom the pain, trauma, fear, and wounds of the Cold War were still fresh – who were just starting to witness, practice, and feel what openness and freedom could bring.
Thirty years later, just a few months ago, I returned to Romania as Deputy Secretary of State, and I found a place my younger self would barely recognize: bustling commerce; a dynamic economy; a populace pro-U.S., pro-western, and committed to democracy and all the blessings it bestows.
That experience holds lessons for us in the halls of government:
That harnessing those blessings for ourselves and generations ahead; continuing the forward movement democracy enables at its best; building an America and a world defined by the rule of law, devoted to human dignity, measured by the voices we lift up and the people we empower – these are the true tests of our great experiment.
These are the responsibilities we carry: to determine how our democracy might endure and what role we might play in infusing the principles of our founding into progress for our future.
Thank you, and I look forward to our discussion, and I appreciate all of you coming together.