Closing his two-day trip to Athens on Wednesday, after visiting the Acropolis and its museum, US President Barack Obama delivered a spirited valedictory speech praising democracy, noting the threats that it faces, and urging the world’s citizens to work for solutions in the future.
Speaking at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center on the capital’s southern coast, Obama addressed the world, noting that this was his last foreign trip as president. But he also addressed Greece, noting the suffering and sacrifices caused by the economic crisis. Above all, however, Barack Obama stood before history and presented his understanding of a world which he helped shape over the past eight years and which is now at a critical point, demanding solutions to pressing problems that many nations face – alone and collectively.
Here are excerpts from his speech:
As many of you know, this is my final trip overseas as president of the United States, and I was determined, on my last trip, to come to Greece – partly because I’ve heard about the legendary hospitality of the Greek people – your philoxenia, partly because I had to see the Acropolis and the Parthenon, but also because I came here with gratitude for all that Greece – “this small, great world” – has given to humanity through the ages.
…We’re indebted to Greece for the most precious of gifts – the truth, the understanding that as individuals of free will, we have the right and the capacity to govern ourselves. For it was here, 25 centuries ago, in the rocky hills of this city, that a new idea emerged. Demokratia. Kratos – the power, the right to rule – comes from demos – the people. The notion that we are citizens – not servants, but stewards of our society. The concept of citizenship – that we have both rights and responsibilities. The belief in equality before the law – not just for a few, but for the many; not just for the majority, but also the minority. These are all concepts that grew out of this rocky soil.
Of course, the earliest forms of democracy here in Athens were far from perfect – just as the early forms of democracy in the United States were far from perfect. The rights of ancient Athens were not extended to women or to slaves. But Pericles explained, “Our constitution favors the many instead of the few… this is why it is called a democracy.”
Athenians also knew that, however noble, ideas alone were not enough. To have meaning, principles must be enshrined in laws and protected by institutions, and advanced through civic participation. And so they gathered in a great assembly to debate and decide affairs of state, each citizen with the right to speak, casting their vote with a show of hands, or choosing a pebble – white for yes, black for no. Laws were etched in stone for all to see and abide by. Courts, with citizen jurors, upheld that rule of law.
Politicians weren’t always happy because sometimes the stones could be used to ostracize, banish those who did not behave themselves.
But across the millennia that followed, different views of power and governance have often prevailed. Throughout human history, there have been those who argue that people cannot handle democracy, that they cannot handle self-determination, they need to be told what to do. A ruler has to maintain order through violence or coercion or an iron fist. There’s been a different concept of government that says might makes right, or that unchecked power can be passed through bloodlines. There’s been the belief that some are superior by virtue of race or faith or ethnicity, and those beliefs so often have been used to justify conquest and exploitation and war.
But through all this history, the flame first lit here in Athens never died. It was ultimately nurtured by a great Enlightenment. It was fanned by America’s founders, who declared that “We, the People” shall rule; that all men are created equal and endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.
Now, at times, even today, those ideals are challenged. We’ve been told that these are Western ideals. We’ve been told that some cultures are not equipped for democratic governance and actually prefer authoritarian rule. And I will say that after eight years of being president of the United States, having traveled around the globe, it is absolutely true that every country travels its own path, every country has its own traditions. But what I also believe, after eight years, is that the basic longing to live with dignity, the fundamental desire to have control of our lives and our future, and to want to be a part of determining the course of our communities and our nations – these yearnings are universal. They burn in every human heart…
Now, democracy, like all human institutions, is imperfect. It can be slow; it can be frustrating; it can be hard; it can be messy. Politicians tend to be unpopular in democracies, regardless of party, because, by definition, democracies require that you don’t get a hundred percent of what you want. It requires compromise. Winston Churchill famously said that democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others. And in a multiethnic, multiracial, multicultural society, like the United States, democracy can be especially complicated. Believe me, I know.
But it is better than the alternatives because it allows us to peacefully work through our differences and move closer to our ideals. It allows us to test new ideas and it allows us to correct for mistakes…
And so here, where democracy was born, we affirm once more the rights and the ideals and the institutions upon which our way of life endures. Freedom of speech and assembly – because true legitimacy can only come from the people, who must never be silenced. A free press to expose injustice and corruption and hold leaders accountable. Freedom of religion – because we’re all equal in the eyes of God. Independent judiciaries to uphold rule of law and human rights. Separation of powers to limit the reach of any one branch of government. Free and fair elections – because citizens must be able to choose their own leaders, even if your candidate doesn’t always win.
We compete hard in campaigns in America and here in Greece. But after the election, democracy depends on a peaceful transition of power, especially when you don’t get the result you want.
And as you may have noticed, the next American president and I could not be more different. We have very different points of view, but American democracy is bigger than any one person. That’s why we have a tradition of the outgoing president welcoming the new one in – as I did last week. And why, in the coming weeks, my administration will do everything we can to support the smoothest transition possible – because that’s how democracy has to work.
And that’s why, as hard as it can be sometimes, it’s important for young people, in particular, who are just now becoming involved in the lives of their countries, to understand that progress follows a winding path – sometimes forward, sometimes back – but as long as we retain our faith in democracy, as long as we retain our faith in the people, as long as we don’t waver from those central principles that ensure a lively, open debate, then our future will be OK, because it remains the most effective form of government ever devised by man.
It is true, of course, over the last several years that we’ve seen democracies faced with serious challenges. And I want to mention two that have an impact here in Greece, have an impact in the United States, and are having an impact around the world.
The first involves the paradox of a modern, global economy. The same forces of globalization and technology and integration that have delivered so much progress, have created so much wealth, have also revealed deep fault lines. Around the world, integration and closer cooperation, and greater trade and commerce, and the internet – all have improved the lives of billions of people – lifted families from extreme poverty, cured diseases, helped people live longer, gave them more access to education and opportunity than at any time in human history.
… The world has never, collectively, been wealthier, better educated, healthier, less violent than it is today. That’s hard to imagine, given what we see in the news, but it’s true. And a lot of that has to do with the developments of an integrated, global economy…
What we’ve also seen is that this global integration is increasing the tendencies towards inequality, both between nations and within nations, at an accelerated pace. And when we see people – global elites, wealthy corporations – seemingly living by a different set of rules, avoiding taxes, manipulating loopholes – when the rich and the powerful appear to game the system and accumulate vast wealth while middle- and working-class families struggle to make ends meet, this feeds a profound sense of injustice and a feeling that our economies are increasingly unfair…
… In advanced economies, there are at times movements from both the left and the right to put a stop to integration, and to push back against technology, and to try to bring back jobs and industries that have been disappearing for decades. So this impulse to pull back from a globalized world is understandable. If people feel that they’re losing control of their future, they will push back. We have seen it here in Greece. We’ve seen it across Europe. We’ve seen it in the United States. We saw it in the vote in Britain to leave the EU.
But given the nature of technology, it is my assertion that it’s not possible to cut ourselves off from one another…
We cannot sever the connections that have enabled so much progress and so much wealth. For when competition for resources is perceived as zero-sum, we put ourselves on a path to conflict both within countries and between countries. So I firmly believe that the best hope for human progress remains open markets combined with democracy and human rights. But I have argued that the current path of globalization demands a course correction. In the years and decades ahead, our countries have to make sure that the benefits of an integrated global economy are more broadly shared by more people, and that the negative impacts are squarely addressed.
And we actually know the path to building more inclusive economies. It’s just we too often don’t have the political will or desire to get it done…
These are the kinds of policies, this is the work that I’ve pursued throughout my time as president. Keep in mind I took office in the midst of the worst crisis since the Great Depression. And we pursued a recovery that has been shared now by the vast majority of Americans…
Now, I say all this not because we’ve solved every problem. Our work is far from complete. There are still too many people in America who are worried about their futures. Still too many people who are working at wages that don’t get them above the poverty line. Still too many young people who don’t see opportunity. But the policies I describe point the direction for where we need to go in building inclusive economies…
Here in Greece, you’re undergoing similar transformations. The first step has been to build a foundation that allows you to return to robust economic growth. And we don’t need to recount all the causes of the economic crisis here in Greece. If we’re honest, we can acknowledge that it was a mix of both internal and external forces. The Greek economy and the level of debt had become unsustainable. And in this global economy, investment and jobs flow to countries where governments are efficient, not bloated, where the rules are clear. To stay competitive, to attract investment that creates jobs, Greece had to start a reform process.
Of course, the world, I don’t think, fully appreciates the extraordinary pain these reforms have involved, or the tremendous sacrifices that you, the Greek people, have made. I’ve been aware of it, and I’ve been proud of all that my administration has done to try to support Greece in these efforts. And part of the purpose of my visit is to highlight for the world the important steps that have been taken here in Greece…
At the same time, I will continue to urge creditors to take the steps needed to put Greece on a path towards sustained economic recovery. As Greece continues to implement reforms, the IMF has said that debt relief will be crucial to get Greece back to growth. They are right. It is important because if reforms here are going to be sustained, people need to see hope, and they need to see progress. And the young people who are in attendance here today and all across the country need to know there is a future – there is an education and jobs that are worthy of your incredible potential. You don’t have to travel overseas, you can put roots right here in your home, in Greece, and succeed.
And I’m confident that if you stay the course, as hard as it has been, Greece will see brighter days. Because, in this magnificent hall and center – this symbol of the Greek culture and resilience – we’re reminded that just as your strength and resolve have allowed you to overcome great odds throughout your history, nothing can break the spirit of the Greek people. You will overcome this period of challenge just as you have other challenges in the past.
So economics is something that will be central to preserving our democracies. When our economies don’t work, our democracies become distorted and, in some cases, break down. But this brings me to another pressing challenge that our democracies face – how do we ensure that our diverse, multicultural, multiracial, multi-religious world and our diverse nations uphold both the rights of individuals and a fundamental civic adherence to a common creed that binds us together.
Democracy is simplest where everybody thinks alike, looks alike, eats the same food, worships the same God. Democracy becomes more difficult when there are people coming from a variety of backgrounds and trying to live together. In our globalized world, with the migration of people and the rapid movement of ideas and cultures and traditions, we see increasingly this blend of forces mixing together in ways that often enrich our societies but also cause tensions…
So, just as we have to have an inclusive economic strategy, we have to have an exclusive political and cultural strategy. In all of our capitals, we have to keep making government more efficient, more effective in responding to the daily needs of citizens. Governing institutions, whether in Athens, Brussels, London, Washington, have to be responsive to the concerns of citizens. People have to know that they’re being heard.
Here in Europe, even with today’s challenges, I believe that by virtue of the progress it has delivered over the decades – the stability it has provided, the security it’s reinforced – that European integration and the European Union remains one of the great political and economic achievements of human history. And today more than ever, the world needs a Europe that is strong and prosperous and democratic.
But I think all institutions in Europe have to ask themselves: How can we make sure that people within individual countries feel as if their voices are still being heard, that their identities are being affirmed, that the decisions that are being made that will have a critical impact on their lives are not so remote that they have no ability to impact them?…
In closing, our globalized world is passing through a time of profound change. Yes, there is uncertainty and there is unease, and none of us can know the future. History does not move in a straight line. Civil rights in America did not move in a straight line. Democracy in Greece did not move in a straight line. The evolution of a unified Europe certainly has not moved in a straight line. And progress is never a guarantee. Progress has to be earned by every generation. But I believe history gives us hope.
Twenty-five centuries after Athens first pointed the way, 250 years after the beginning of the great American journey, my faith and my confidence, my certainty in our democratic ideals and universal values remain undiminished. I believe more strongly than ever that Dr King was right when he said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” But it bends towards justice not because it is inevitable, but because we bend it towards justice; not because there are not going to be barriers to achieving justice, but because there will be people, generation after generation, who have the vision and the courage and the will to bend the arc of our lives in the direction of a better future.
In the United States, and in every place I have visited these last eight years, I have met citizens, especially young people, who have chosen hope over fear, who believe that they can shape their own destiny, who refuse to accept the world as it is and are determined to remake it as it should be. They have inspired me.
In every corner of the world, I have met people who, in their daily lives, demonstrate that despite differences of race or religion or creed or color, we have the capacity to see each other in ourselves. Like the woman here in Greece who said of the refugees arriving on these shores: “We live under the same sun. We fall in love under the same moon. We are all human – we have to help these people.” Women like that give me hope.
In all of our communities, in all of our countries, I still believe there’s more of what Greeks call philotimo – love and respect and kindness for family and community and country, and a sense that we’re all in this together, with obligations to each other. Philotimo – I see it every day – and that gives me hope.
Because in the end, it is up to us. It’s not somebody else’s job, it’s not somebody else’s responsibility, but it’s the citizens of our countries and citizens of the world to bend that arc of history towards justice.
And that’s what democracy allows us to do. That’s why the most important office in any country is not president or prime minister. The most important title is “citizen…”