An official website of the United States Government Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.


Thank you, General Walters.

Cadets, thank you for welcoming me to the Citadel.

I’ve just come from meetings with Mayor Tecklenburg at City Hall and Senator Lindsey Graham up at the Charleston Passport Center.  I love being here in South Carolina.  My family and I have been coming to Charleston for about 15 years in a row.  Our holiday card picture is of our three kids in the same location on King Street, every year, for 15 years straight….they’ve gotten a bit bigger over that time, and I, well, I’ve just gotten older.  My wife’s family settled in the Columbia area in the 1830s….so the roots run deep with this great state and its people.

More directly to the Citadel, I’m so honored to be here with all of you.  I understand you’ve all got quite a women’s volleyball team – congrats on an undefeated season!

I’ve walked across your campus many times in the past, and I have known many of your graduates, including my late brother-in-law, Britt Poston, class of 1986, who hails from Pamplico.  Britt loved the Citadel, and the Citadel loved him.  His freshman and sophomore year roommate, Jeff Miller, said Britt was the most loved member of the class – everyone looked up to him, and so appreciated his great spirit, love of the Citadel and love of country.

The sense of HONOR, DUTY, and RESPECT Britt learned here at the Citadel stayed with him throughout his life.  He was so proud of Hotel Company, his unit here.  Britt would go on to be one of South Carolina’s most accomplished business leaders, running the Zaxby’s restaurant franchise with his brother Jimmy Poston.  Britt had such an impact and left such a legacy.  And the Citadel helped make all of this possible.  But Britt’s life was cut short far too soon when he passed away from sudden cardiac death following a mountain hike in Wyoming exactly three years ago today.  We miss him dearly, but I am so grateful to be here with all of you today to remember him and celebrate him too.  And I especially want to recognize Britt’s wife, Elizabeth, my sister-in-law, and her son, Cooper Poston, who are here with us today.

The State Department

In both my meetings this morning we talked about how the Department of State works on behalf of the American people by facilitating travel and tourism, protecting Americans overseas, and spurring economic cooperation.  This work contributes billions of dollars each year to local economies across the United States, including right here in South Carolina, where the State Department employs over 1500 people working on passports, budget and various aspects of our operations.

But that’s not all the Department of State does. We also work closely with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the military, and other parts of the national security establishment to promote and defend U.S. interests globally.  Each part of what we call the “three D’s — diplomacy, development, and defense – plays a vital role.  I saw that firsthand not only in my military service in the Air Force…. but when serving as the US Ambassador to India, where I got to know well our Marine Security Guard Detachment that would guard our Embassy and its people each day.  They put their lives on the line each day in India, and around the world, so we could do our jobs.

At the State Department, we are some 70,000 people deployed to over 270 locations around the world.  From war zones, to virtually every global capital, to institutions like the United Nations, where I had the pleasure of being last week, the Department of State deploys diplomatic instruments of power, using the words, ideas, foreign assistance and partnerships to reduce the prospects for conflict and to shape our world.

As another four-star Marine General, former Secretary of Defense Mattis once said, “if you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ….the more we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget….”

Like our military colleagues, State Department officials swear an oath to protect and defend our Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, just like some of you will one day and some of you already have.

Many of us take this oath because we are, in our hearts, optimists. My optimism springs from my American story, which is also an immigrant story.  My parents came to this country from India in the 1960’s with, as my dad says, only a bus ticket and $14 in their pockets. They settled down in a little town called Johnstown in Western Pennsylvania. But my parents also gifted me their deep optimism about our new country and its freedom-based values.

Learning the Lessons of the Past

Optimism can be tough to come by today.  The world – and your generation – faces challenges.  It will take discipline, knowledge, and skill to address those challenges, and leadership to find and seize the opportunities that are often hidden in the toughest questions.

I’d like to take you back to 1985 to talk about one time we saw a leader find opportunity in a challenge.

I realize 1985 was well before you Cadets were born.  Britt Poston was a junior here.  And I was a junior in high school.  Back to the Future was the number one film; and a gallon of gas was about $1 dollar.  It does seem like a long time ago!

But in 1985 we were also about 40 years into our Cold War with the Soviet Union.

And although it wasn’t a hot war, by 1985 the Soviet Union had more than 39,000 nuclear weapons and the United States had more than 23,000.

It would take only a handful of those to destroy both countries.

During the Cold War, even an optimistic, patriotic kid like me could go to sleep worried about the possibility of nuclear war.

It was therefore a big deal when in 1985, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to meet and talk about ways to reduce the risk of an accidental nuclear exchange.

At one point during the Summit, the two leaders took a break from the official meetings and ceremonies and took a walk, alone.

During that walk, Reagan turned to Gorbachev and asked him a question.  A question that may have changed the course of history.

He asked Gorbachev if the Soviet Union would help defend America if we were attacked by aliens from outer space.

And Gorbachev, the leader of our greatest foe for nearly forty years, immediately said “yes, we would.”

Gorbachev then asked Reagan the same question.  Would America help defend the Soviet Union if it were attacked from space. Reagan immediately said “yes, we would.”

This conversation remained secret for years.  Gorbachev talked about it only in 2009, about 5 years after President Reagan passed away.

There have been articles and books written about the conversation since then.  Some have questioned why Reagan – a President often referred to as “the great communicator” – would ask Gorbachev such a question.

We’ll never know the exact reason, perhaps he was joking, perhaps Reagan thought he could remind Gorbachev that the fate of humanity was more important than the political differences between our two nations.

Whatever his reasons at the time, Reagan did what diplomats and leaders must do: He saw an opportunity to develop a relationship with, in this case, a foe.  An opportunity to make America safer.

Can we say for sure that Reagan’s alien question was the catalyst for what came next?  No. But we do know that Reagan and Gorbachev met again in Iceland in 1986.

In 1987, they met again, this time at the White House, where they signed the first-ever treaty to reduce nuclear arms.

They met again, in 1988, in Moscow, where they signed two more arms control treaties.

Yes, Reagan and Gorbachev built a meaningful and world-changing relationship.

Looking back, the late 1980’s were a time that President Biden might call an inflection point.  A time when the world was changing fast.  A time when leaders, including Citadel Graduates that went out into the world with my brother-in-law, Britt, needed to find ways to set a better course for the next chapter of history.

And that’s what happened. Just a few years after Reagan asked Gorbachev about an alien invasion, the Berlin Wall fell, the Cold War ended, and the Soviet Union dissolved.

Diplomacy, leadership, strength, resolve, and, perhaps, the right question at the right moment, ended a forty-year war and significantly reduced the threat of nuclear war.

The Challenges of Today

That was the late 1980’s and we’re now nearly forty years on.  Since that time, we’ve faced global financial crises, a massive terrorist attack in our own country, sparking wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and a global war on terror.  We’ve seen Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine, and we see a fierce competition with China, and our vigorous defense of a rules-based international order.

In many ways, the world is more complex today than it was in the 80s.  More nations are competing for more power on the world stage than ever before.  Authoritarians are seeking a comeback across the globe, and international institutions are struggling to keep up.  But there is, in my view, another significant challenge that we and all of you must confront and try to solve in the years ahead….and that is this growing category of challenges that actually knows no boundary.

These are the problems that transcend regions and continents; the problems that can’t be bombed or intimidated into submission; the problems that will spiral out of control without international cooperation.

This is a growing category unfortunately but let me mention three threats in particular that keep us especially busy at the State Department.

The first is what we just all lived through the past three years, and that is global health security, and pandemics and disease in particular.  COVID crushed economies, and brought devastation upon so many, causing some seven million deaths.  The unfortunate truth is, we weren’t ready, and even more so, the global community wasn’t prepared to work together.  There were different rules for travel; supply chains were shut down; each country developed its own standards; we didn’t work together well on research and vaccine deployment.  I could go on.  We have to do better, and we can’t assume this was a one-off.

A second challenge we are facing is in the cyber domain – as the Internet become so essential for people’s livelihoods and for economies and education and so much more, we see every growing threats.  Cyber theft, cyberattacks, potential misuse of artificial intelligence, the intentional spread of disinformation designed to inflame and divide….and so much more.  Again, this is a challenge that permeates the cyber-domain; a domain we cannot see or touch, yet one that has such an outsized impact on our lives.

A third challenge is one you know well being a coastal state, and that is climate change.  The severity and intensity of weather events is measurable, it is real, and it is getting more intense.  The last eight years have been the hottest since they started keeping records in the 1800’s.  And this last summer is on track to be the hottest summer ever.  Now, we can all get distracted in political debates on this topic, which some like to do, or we can put our heads and hearts together, with our partners around the world to figure out a sustainable way ahead.  One that protects our planet and our livelihoods.  This will take enormous advances in science, but also incredibly dynamic international cooperation.

These borderless threats have real consequences.  And, in the first six months on the job, I’ve seen these impacts firsthand, as I’ve traveled to 15 countries, from Ukraine, to the Middle East, to the Western Indian Ocean, to Latin America.

We see societies being disrupted; significant food insecurity and food shortages; massive flows of migrants fleeing violence and desperate economic conditions, some 20 million people on the move in this hemisphere alone; and we’ve seen a democratic decline as well, as authoritarians are filling the void, offering false hope to people in despair.

I offer this view of the world, not to make you all depressed.  But to lay out a set of challenges that will require your know-how; your knowledge of science and economics; your commitment to service; your understanding of history.  The world is waiting for you.

Though I know many of you are destined for the military, I’m hoping some of you will consider using your skills and training to sharpen the diplomatic instrument of power.  To that end, our recruitment coordinator for South Carolina, Saul Hernandez, is here with me today.  I’m hoping some of you will stay after the Q&A to meet him.

And rest assured, you can do both.  After a great career in the military, you can consider the State Department.  In fact, we have more veterans at the State Department – 19% of the workforce – than any other executive agency outside of the Department of Defense.

And I’m actually greatly excited for all of you and what lies ahead…. if we don’t get distracted here at home.  A country that has such a long and proud history of being a world leader can’t be bogged down in the smallness of divisive politics – the world and the American people expect so much from us.  A country that can’t approve military promotions, confirm Ambassadors, or fund the government is something that concerns me.  I know it would have concerned President Reagan.  We can and must do better.

How We Are Meeting The Challenges of Today

Enough about our domestic challenges, let me tell you what we are doing about our ever-changing and dynamic world at the State Department.

The Secretary of State likes to say “the world doesn’t organize itself.” It needs organizations, alliances, and partnerships to address global challenges.  Building the right capabilities and bringing the right people and organizations together is one key to addressing shared global challenges.

With this principle in mind, we are aggressively modernizing our department so that our mission set keeps up with these new challenges:

  • At the Department we’ve redoubled our efforts on global health security; we’ve stood up a new bureau focused on health diplomacy; and in virtually every bilateral dialogue, health cooperation is now a central tenet.  This will undoubtedly be a challenge all of you will have to continue to help shape and improve.
  • We have a new Cyber Diplomacy bureau and a new Ambassador and diplomatic team to handle cyber and tech issues; we are also working internationally like never before to ensure there are uniform rules; accepted principles and codes of conduct, but also enforcement for violating the cyber rules of the road.  We are really at the beginning – again, we are going to need your expertise and commitment to get this right, especially as the technology changes, and billions more people get on-line.
  • And on climate, we’ve forged important new agreements limiting greenhouse gas emissions; we’ve committed billions in new investments; we’ve pushed for advanced research into the energy transition; and we’ve trained our diplomats in climate diplomacy because, again, without the world working together, tackling this challenge will remain out of reach.

Let me mention two other areas that help us well beyond these transnational threats….and help improve our standing globally:

  • The first is we are investing here at home like never before, because a strong America helps us compete around the world.  That’s something Ronald Reagan knew well as he entered those discussions with Gorbachev.  Peace through strength.  It wasn’t just a catchphrase.  It was a mode of operating.  And it wasn’t just about strength in our military – it was our economic strength, our science and innovation, and our yes, our moral voice and courage to shape and lead.  Strong at home, strong abroad.  That’s why it’s been so important to make historic investments in our nation’s infrastructure; last year, the Administration made the single largest investment in renewable energies here at home; and we moved aggressively to develop semiconductor and advanced chip manufacturing here at home; we’ve taken care of our veterans, and, as I noted, we’ve been working aggressively to modernize our State Department.  All of these steps help us globally.
  • One final point I would make about the efforts we are taking, including and especially at the Department, is that we are making sure the work we are doing is directly serving America’s and American’s interests.  That means making the lives of the American people, at home and around the world, safer, more secure, healthier and more prosperous.  We have to demonstrate a vision of a foreign policy that helps address what’s top of mind: food and gas prices, free and open markets for a fair trade in goods and services; advancing a democratic vision in the world; and tackling those threats abroad before they materialize here at home.  It’s not a small challenge, but that’s what we are obligated to do – and that is what we are doing each day.


I’ve gone on too long, and I really look forward to your questions.  I appreciate you letting me reminisce about the ‘80s and to talk about the State Department.  I tell you these stories about the ‘80s not to suggest everything was so great, and so we can go back in time.  That’s not what we should do.

We’ve had so much discovery and innovation since that time; people are living longer; we are learning more; we carry around super computers in our pockets; and global development is moving in the right direction.  You will have far more opportunity than when Britt and I graduated in the 1980s.

But I mention those times for a reflection on the power of diplomacy, the power of words – yes, even about aliens – and the power that comes with an America that is united.  Strong at home; strong abroad; and led by strong minds and leaders like the ones here at The Citadel.

Thank you, General. Thank you for giving me this opportunity. I look forward to your questions.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future