The United States has been and will continue to be viewed as a positive force in the changing world as long as its society remains open, General Colin Powell (Ret.) said to a packed Palestra on Saturday at the Meliora Weekend Keynote address. The speech attracted demonstrators who opposed the University’s conferral of an honorary degree to Powell.

“In this challenging world we live in, we always have to be reaching higher. We always have to be setting a higher standard and supporting a higher standard,” he said.

Since resigning from his position as Secretary of State and retiring, Powell has traveled around the country and the world speaking to groups and individuals, seeking to understand their views of the future.

“The future is certainly flat, and they understand all of that,” Powell said. “And the people I see all around the country are dealing with that.”

Seeing ordinary people deal with the changes in society by making adjustments to their lives, believing in their institutions and having hope for a prosperous future has given Powell a great sense of optimism.

“I only wish I could bottle up what I see in the countryside, bring it back to Washington and pour it over the heads of all our politicians,” he said.

Powell maintained that certain measures are necessary to ensure that society can remain open. He recounted a trip by plane where he arrived late, paid in cash and did not check luggage – factors that raise suspicion at airport security.

The security officer – who recognized Powell – still took the time to screen him, which he initially thought was a waste of time until he realized its purpose.

“It was a system that annoys all of us, and it’s an inconvenience, but it’s necessary,” Powell said.

Our administration, however, has not been as committed to openness – one of America’s greatest strengths – as Powell would like it to be.

While Secretary of State, Powell oversaw the changing of the visa system. Since its enactment eighteen months ago, the new system has made the country less accessible to foreign students and led them to study in other countries. This loss of students, Powell said, was “too high a price for [our] security.”

Providing foreign students with an education in the United States, according to Powell, gives them the skills they need to “start their people moving up the ladder for economic and social success” or to stay here and contribute to American society.

More importantly, it instills in them an affinity for America and American society that they bring home with them and share with their countries.

“[Foreign students] go back home with a different view of America, a view of America that is a very positive one,” Powell said.

Despite the ubiquitous threat of terrorism, Powell urged that America must not isolate itself from the rest of the world.

“Terrorism is a problem and we’ve got to fight it,” Powell said. “But the greatest single weapon we have to fight terrorism – and the one they can’t do anything about – is for us to remain an open and welcoming nation.”

Powell saw the value of openness when former President Ronald Reagan sent the then National Security Advisor to the Soviet Union to talk with Mikhail Gorbachev. Within two years of that meeting, Gorbachev had introduced his openness and market reform policies and the Soviet Union had fallen, to be replaced with freer states.

“In diplomacy you just don’t talk to your friends – you talk to your enemy,” he said.

Our government’s lack of communication and consideration of allies and enemies alike, Powell said, has tarnished our standing in much of the world.

“We have gotten a reputation of being too unilateralist and too arrogant in our approach to the rest of the world and I think that has to change in order for us to start recovering what we were,” he said.

Powell encouraged talking to Iran and Syria and excluding military intervention to resolve our conflicts with those countries and help restore our reputation.

But despite these setbacks, Powell said that America has not fallen from its position as a leader in the free world.

“Even if we are going through a period of unfavorable ways, we can be recovered,” he said.

The proof for that, Powell explained, is that people still stand in line in front of U.S. embassies to try to get permission to come to America and that foreigners in this country appreciate the opportunity that America’s openness offered them.

Powell ended with the story of a hot dog vendor in New York City. The hot dog vendor refused to let Powell pay because Powell represented the country that “had already paid him.”

“This is the same America that welcomed my parents here 80 years ago. As long as we don’t lose that, we will prevail,” he said.

At the beginning of the address, UR President Joel Seligman and Chairman of the Board of Trustees G. Robert Witmer conferred an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws to Powell, a move that drew criticism from some members of the University community.

Last week, posters were hung and flyers circulated around the River Campus encouraging people to sign a petition to the University that opposed granting Powell the degree.

A group of about 20 demonstrators – including professors and students – gathered in front of the Palestra before the speech began to protest.

They held signs reading, “Speak out U of R” and “No degree for fake WMD” and chanted “No blood for oil, U.S. off Iraqi soil.” Their chanting could be heard inside the Palestra as President Seligman and Chairman Whitmer presented Powell’s degree.

Nevertheless, alumni who attended seemed to enjoy the speech and praised Powell’s oratory skills.

“[He was a] very impressive speaker… though I didn’t agree with everything he had to say,” Ed Gold ’73 said.

Brian Harding ’62 was even more impressed.

“If he [Powell] was running for president, I would vote for him,” he said.

Fleming is a member of the class of 2010.

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