Remarks for Ambassador Barbara A. Leaf
2018 National Day Event
March 5, 2018 / 7:00 p.m. / Marriott Al Forsan Hotel
Your Excellency, Dr. Thani Al Zeyoudi, the Minister of Climate Change and Environment; Ladies and Gentlemen, my fellow Americans;
Good evening and thank you so much for joining us for our celebration of America’s national day — we celebrate it a few months early here, due to the UAE’s very special summer weather, but we celebrate it no less enthusiastically. As many of you know, the celebration of Independence Day in the United States is traditionally a day filled with barbeques with family and friends, small town parades, and fireworks during the hot summer night. It is a day in which the whole of the United States, from east to west, from north to south, is draped in red, white, and blue, much like our gathering this evening. And perhaps most importantly, it is a day that unites all Americans in reflecting on the founding of our great nation and on what America means to us. Tonight, I would like to reflect briefly on that founding and the concept of unity.
As Ambassador of the United States to the United Arab Emirates, I find particular resonance here for our own national story — America’s proud heritage of building a nation from immigrants drawn from around the world, from a dizzying array of different national, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds, and uniting them in one nation, under one flag. At the same time, within our country there have always been differences in the way we view our history and even the way we conceptualize our future. And so it is today. But while our 24/7 media cycle emphasizes those differences in the starkest of terms, I think it is critically important to remind ourselves — and our friends around the world — that the United States of America is a country that has always harbored different and divergent views, and has always been made stronger for it.
Like the UAE, the United States came together as a collection of distinct entities, in our case, states, joined by a higher cause — independence — and the higher concept of unity. United as they would become, the original thirteen states did not easily or naturally embrace the concept of sharing power with the federal government. In the early days of the American project, the thirteen states, all vastly different one from one another, sought to preserve their own authority by exercising powers that today we would associate with a central government. Though it was generally agreed that there was a need for a federal government to oversee defense, the minting of money, and trade negotiations, there was little agreement beyond that.
The ultimate decision by the states to cede power to a federal government, and the subsequent debate over the configuration of that new government was not a harmonious affair. We know that the Founding Fathers engaged in intense, even fiery, arguments about the shape that our federal government should take, on even the concepts fundamental to the establishment of the nation – concepts each state, and ultimately the nation, struggled to embrace and implement. In the end, the 13 states recognized the value in ceding some of their sovereignty for the greater good of the United States as one nation. But the signing of the Constitution did not put an end to the question of governance, and the theoretical battles on power-sharing that consumed the Founding Fathers were not resolved.
Americans have continued to do the work the Founding Fathers intended, engaging in lively debates and continuous interpretation of the Constitution, the basis of our frame of government. In fact, the Constitution of the United States remains a living document, one regularly reinterpreted for the times we live in, amended 27 times since being passed into law in 1789.
And throughout it all, the nation has endured. In making these changes, the people of the United States have realized and put into practice the words of one of the greatest of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson – “Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths are disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.” As times change, so must we.
And as a nation, America has proven itself to be a country that does not just allow for but seeks change and, when needed, self-correction. After all, history has proven that there is no perfect final state. If we can be sure of anything, we can be certain that the healthiest societies and the best governments are those that recognize change – technological, social, economic and otherwise – and allow for institutions to adapt accordingly.
The United Arab Emirates is a much younger nation than the United States of America, with a vastly different history and culture. Yet like his American counterparts of a much earlier era, Sheikh Zayed joined with the UAE’s founding fathers in making a conscious choice to cede elements of sovereignty for the broader good of a new-born nation. It is particularly meaningful to draw to a close my time here as Ambassador during the Year of Zayed, when the nation is celebrating the legacy and achievements of its own great founding father. I have come to look at this country through the eyes of the people who revere him, and in so doing, I have gained a deep appreciation for just how much he set in motion in enabling this country’s remarkable trajectory. In following the course he set, the UAE’s leaders have adroitly and strategically used the copious natural bounties of this country to develop the nation. But they have also recognized that the greatest natural resource is its people, and so have set to work to develop them to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world.
Over the last three years, I have met so many of those in whom this country’s future is vested. The young women at the Mohamed bin Rashed Space Center, engineers making the giddy leap to space scientists; young diplomats learning the splendid tradecraft of representing their country abroad; artists, poets and poetesses, and filmmakers, crafting their singular stories for the wider world; young entrepreneurs taking momentous risks to bring their dreams to fruition; young managers and engineers and technicians living in a remote desert landscape to become the UAE’s civil nuclear energy pioneers; dynamic young social media influencers providing a distinctly Emirati voice to the global conversation. Everywhere I’ve been in this great country I’ve met the next generation’s pioneers, and oh, what bright promise they hold in their hands.
So what wisdom does a not-so-young country like mine have to impart to this very young one? I turn to the words of another wise man, President Teddy Roosevelt, speaking to American troops as they prepared to leave for France in 1917 to help our great allies in World War I. His words still resonate today for me and my fellow Americans, and they are as apt for Emiratis: “Much has been given us, and much will rightly be expected from us. We have duties to others and duties to ourselves; and we can shirk neither. We have become a great nation, forced by the fact of its greatness into relations with the other nations of the earth, and we must behave and be seen as a people with such responsibilities.”
Let me close by returning to the question that underlies my remarks this evening: What holds America together? What makes America, a country of seemingly countless contradictions, continue to succeed and prosper? What makes my quarrelsome country still hold together towards a common national purpose? For this I will turn to, not an American, but to a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, much-admired for his early insights into our national character at a point when we hardly knew ourselves. He, too, pondered this question. His answer — worth recalling, especially in these discordant times — is one I embrace fully, and I know that my fellow Americans do as well:
“I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers – and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce – and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution – and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”
My friends, I cherish those words more today than ever. And here are the others I cherish, and that we live by today – “We the people, to form a more perfect union,” the most powerful words from our “matchless Constitution,” that give shape and purpose to our national dream.
We are a great nation, and we are a good nation. That sense of mission and purpose — towards our friends, towards those we hope to befriend, even towards those who cannot be counted friendly, towards those in need, to higher purpose and on behalf of a larger community than our own, a global community — that resides in us still. You have but to travel the 50 states and talk to my fellow Americans to know that it remains a cornerstone of our national identity.
I remain an optimist, precisely because I am American. I share that optimism with this great country here, which is defining its purpose, its mission before our very eyes. And to the degree it can also be a beacon of hope, of inspiration for this oft-troubled region, which I so love, the UAE will reaffirm that it, too, is a great and good nation.