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Annan Compares Science, Diplomacy at Graduation

By Carina Fung
Associate News Editor

Applause resounded through Killian Court as United Nations Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan SM '72 stepped up to the podium on June 6 to speak to the graduates taking part in MIT's 131st commencement exercises.

Laughter rippled throughout the audience of more than 2,000 degree recipients and 8,000 of their friends, relatives, and guests, as Annan began his speech by addressing the students' new status as graduates and alumni. "Now you are free," he said, "Free of the pressure of exams, free to begin the next stage of your life, and free to pay back your student loans. I wish you well."

Science and diplomacy similar

Annan, a native of Ghana who received an master's degree in management from the Sloan School of Management in 1972, is serving a five-year term as secretary-general. He noted several parallels between the goals and tactics of international diplomacy and those of scientific research.

Both fields, he said, use reason to engage the forces of unreason. To illustrate his point, Annan first listed the tragedies of the century including the two World Wars and the Holocaust. He then noted the progressive steps achieved under the auspices of the United Nations, such as the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Biological Weapons Convention.

"And so, as this century draws to a close, we are justified in concluding that international organization has helped tilt the balance toward the domain within which the power of human reason prevails," Annan said.

Both fields are also experimental, and knowledge is often gained by trial and error. International organization is "an experiment in human cooperation on a planetary scale," he said. "We at the United Nations are working hard to firm up the grounds on which the project of international organization rests. And we are doing so by recognizing its experimental nature and embracing the imperative of inventiveness that this implies."

The last similarity between the two fields is that both "speak a universal language and speak universal truths," Annan said. These universal truths, which in the arena of international affairs include human dignity, fundamental equality, and a yearning for peace, are steadily making themselves heard, he said.

Internationalism should be goal

Addressing the degree recipients, Annan said, "I call upon you to work indefatigably to anchor the [United States] to the course of internationalism, to its historic mission as an agent of progressive change and the rule of low, equal opportunity, and the irreducible rights of all individuals. The need is pressing; the moment is now."

Annan, who has devoted his career to the United Nations, serving in Ethiopia, New York, Geneva, and Egypt, said he would announce reform plans next month that would "compare favorably with any such reforms yet undertaken by any public sector organization, anywhere. We seek a United Nations that will view change as a friend- not change for its own sake, but change that permits us to do more by doing it better."

MITbuilt intellectual confidence

Annan fondly remembered his days at MIT between 1971 and 1972. "At the outset, there was intense competition among my cohorts. Each was equally determined to shine and to demonstrate his leadership qualities. I say his' because there were no women among us. I am certainly glad that has changed." Annan's statement elicited spirited cheers and applause from the many female graduates in the audience.

Annan told of a revelation he had had in the middle of his first term at MIT while reflecting on how he could possibly survive in the group of over-achievers in his class. "And the answer came to me most emphatically," he said, "not by playing according to the rules. Follow your own inner compass,' I said to myself. Listen to your own drummer.' To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there."

"What I took away from MIT, as a result," he said, "was not only the analytical tools but also the intellectual confidence to help me locate my bearings in new situations, to view any challenge as a potential opportunity for renewal and growth, to be comfortable in seeking the help of colleagues, but not fearing, in the end, to do things my way."