October 1, 2022

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Secretary Antony J. Blinken Opening Remarks at a Conversation at University of Melbourne With Students and U.S. Government and Exchange Alumni 

5 min read

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Melbourne, Australia

University of Melbourne

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, good morning.  So wonderful to be with you today, to start the day in Australia, to start the day here at the University of Melbourne.  And I was particularly looking forward to this event, having an opportunity to have a conversation, to hear from you, to exchange some thoughts.  And as the vice chancellor said, there are a lot of reasons why I’m here in Australia, and we can get into those.  But there are a couple of particular reasons why I’m here at the university, on this campus at this time.  One of them has to do with the fact that I really wanted to engage with some of the sharpest and youngest minds in the country and talk about the future that we have, I hope, together between our countries.

But as the vice chancellor said, there’s also something profoundly personal about this for me.  As he noted, my late stepfather, Samuel Pisar, was an alumnus of this institution.  And without going into too many details, let me say this, because I think it resonates profoundly over the years:  He was born in Bialystok, Poland and born before the Second World War.  Bialystok, Poland was a thriving center of Jewish life in Poland before the war.  But he turned out to be the only member of his immediate family to survive.  There were about 900 kids in the school in Bialystok; he’s the only that survived from that school.  His mother, his father, his sister perished in the Holocaust.

He himself, after enduring Soviet occupation of the ghetto, was shipped off to work camps and concentration camps – Auschwitz, Dachau, Majdanek, and others.  After the war though, as it was ending and he was on a death march out of the camps, he made an escape for it and somehow managed to escape, to survive, to be rescued by American GIs, and to be brought back into the world.

But the reason he was brought back into the world was ultimately because of Australia.  He had an aunt who had left Poland before the war to go to Paris, two uncles – Lazar Sokolofsky who came to Australia – and they ultimately brought him in.  And he had had, of course, no education for four years.  He was 16 years old by the time he got to Australia.  And as he put it, as he told us, as he told the family for years, Australia remade him.  It remade him as a person, it remade him as someone who followed intellectual pursuits, it remade him into a human being.

And this institution was fundamental to that.  Sir Zelman Cowen, who was referenced, was his great mentor.  After being here, after going to the law academy, Sir Zelman managed to help him get a scholarship to Harvard Law School in the United States.  He wound up being an advisor to President Kennedy, had an extraordinary career as a writer and as a lawyer.

But for him and thus for our family, Australia has a particularly special place.  It showed, after a demonstration of how humanity is capable of the worst, it’s also capable of the best – literally bringing someone back to life in every aspect of what that means.

And I want to say too, he somehow escaped from the horrors of that time with his best friend, Ben Kaufman, and Ben too came to Australia.  My stepfather insisted that his uncles bring Ben as well.  And Ben stayed in Australia, built an extraordinary life here in Melbourne, a family.  I think somewhere out here is his son Paul Kaufman.  Paul, are you here?  (Applause.)  Ben, his wife Bebka, Paul, Molly, his sister – we’ve all been mates for life, and so good to see you, my friend.

And that brings me to today.  Our countries too, our people too, in an incredibly challenging time I think are also mates for life.  And there’s a simple reason for that.  Despite the vast distance between us geographically, the distance that I traveled yesterday, there’s virtually no distance between us when it comes to our basic outlook, to our basic values, to our basic interests.  And at a time when so many of those values and interests are being challenged, I think there’s more of an imperative than ever that our two countries be together, work together, tackle these challenges together.

And I’ll just say this before we get into the conversation, which is from the perspective of the United States:  As we’re looking out at the things that truly have an effect on all of us, all of our citizens in different ways every day, whether it’s the changing climate, whether it’s this pandemic that we all continue to live through, whether it’s the impact of emerging technologies that are literally shaping our lives, what we know in the United States, half a world away, is that we cannot effectively deal with these challenges alone.  Whatever our power, whatever our resources, whatever our capabilities, we simply can’t do it.

When it comes to climate, we’re 15 percent of global emissions.  Even if we did everything right at home, we still have to deal with the other 85 percent of emissions that are coming from other countries.  So we have an imperative of finding ways to work together.

COVID, as we’ve all been living through – we know this – it may – it may become a cliché, but it is profoundly true.  No one is safe until everyone is safe, and as long as the disease is percolating somewhere and a variant could pop up, you might get a variant that defeats everything you’ve done.  And so we have a profound incentive together in making sure that the world is vaccinated.

And these technologies that we’re all dealing with every day – the phones that I see on everyone’s table, that are in my pocket – we know that the way they’re used – the rules, the norms that shape the way they’re used, are either going to help them be technologies that advance the good in humanity or do the opposite.  And there again, we have a strong incentive in coming together to determine what those rules will be, what those norms will be, what those standards will be.

And that all starts with likeminded countries, countries coming from the same basic value set, the same (inaudible), putting their resources together, putting their thinking together, putting their energies together to try to advance and make progress.  And that’s fundamentally what this relationship between the United States and Australia is all about.  That’s at least what I believe it’s about.  But I’m anxious to hear from you what you think it’s about – what we’re doing right, what we’re doing wrong, and how we should be thinking about it.

So I’m really grateful to start this trip here, to start it with you, and I welcome the conversation.  (Applause.)

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