Remarks by Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel at the YSEALI Town Hall

Pannasastra University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh
October 27, 2016

Hello Pannasastra! Glad to be here. And Ambassador Heidt thank you so much, Chairman Sereyvuth thanks for the great introduction. I travel around Asia all the time. I accompany President Obama whenever he comes to Asia. I accompany Secretary Kerry and in the past I accompanied Secretary Hillary Clinton but whenever we travel the most fun we ever get to have is whenever we can meet with young people or YSEALI activists who are doing so much for their community.

So I know that you came here thinking you were going to hear a speech, but actually I came to university today to get an education and I’m want to get an education from you so we’ll get to as quickly as we can to the questions and answers so if you don’t have a question to ask me I’ll have a question to ask you. So get ready. The United States is part of the Asia Pacific. We are a Pacific country and our economy and our security is closely tied to that of yours and rest of the Asia Pacific Region. Like Cambodia, the United States is made up of many ethnicities We are an immigrant nation and our culture is enriched by so many people who have joined the US, who have immigrated into the United States including from Cambodia.

Cambodian-Americans are a very important part of our society. But the reason that I’m here and the reason that our Ambassador and our team work so hard isn’t just sentimental, it’s because together we have to try to build the kind of world that you and I both want to live in. That means economic development, that means creating communities and societies that are safe, that means building institutions that are fair and that protect people, protect us, protect the weak. It means creating a political environment in which we all allowed to speak our mind, and where we get a say, we get a vote in our own future.

Now Cambodia had a very difficult road to where you are today. And there is a long road ahead to the future that you, young people will design and will inherit. So let’s talk a little bit and let’s think a little bit together about what that road looks like and where it is that you want to go.

First let me join Vathna in saying a few words about YSEALI, the Young South East Asia Leaders Initiative, because this is a program that President Obama began and that is very close to where his heart is. And I happen to know that this is a program that he going to stay very closely involved in even after he leaves the White House on Jan 20th.

And the basic idea behind the Young South East Asia Leaders Initiative, the YSEALI program is this: That in every one of the 10 Asian countries, in every community within these nations including within Cambodia, there people, young people who have their eye on the future, young people who care about their communities. They’re doing all sorts of things but now we live in a world where communication becomes much easier. now we live in a world in which political borders don’t prevent ideas from moving back and forth.

So YSEALI was developed to build a platform that would connect young people who giving to their community with each other. Maybe one person is involved in promoting community health. Maybe one person is involved in promoting technology and bandwidth. Maybe another person is involved in entrepreneurship and creating business opportunities for rural or agricultural communities. when these three people get together. When they exchange ideas. They can develop a new initiative or a company that no one of them could have done on their own. That’s one connection.

Another connection is the young person in Cambodia who is working on protecting the environment. They can reach out and discover the young person in Indonesia, in Thailand, in Myanmar, or in Brunei who is doing something similar. Suddenly you’re not alone. Suddenly you have a partner. Suddenly you have someone whose own experience becomes a best practice and with whom you trade ideas and get at solutions. Another connection and this is really at the heart of YSEALI is between the young people of Asian. We’re trying to help you build Asian unity, an Asian identity, Asian connectivity.

And the reason is this: We can do more together. We are stronger together. And the natural fit among the ten Asian countries in the region opens the door to consensus around rules, consensus around roles. That principle; we are stronger together, out of many comes one, is the same principle that lies at the heart of the United States. So the connection between a young person in Cambodia. The connection between young people throughout the 10 countries of SE Asia and the connection between Asian and the United States is what we benefit from and something that we are trying to expand.

So I had a lot of fun back in Washington earlier in the year when President Obama hosted the YSEALI summit right inside the White House. We must have had 300 plus representatives, young people from all 10 Asian countries. The President came in, he took off his jacket, he rolled up his sleeves, he grabbed the microphone, he started asking questions, he started answering questions. And he wouldn’t leave. A very good friend of mine is one of his assistants and I could see him in the corner telling the President “Your time’s up, we gotta go, let’s go” and no luck.

He wouldn’t budge. He was having a lot of fun but it’s also because he thinks it’s so important. It’s so important to increase the opportunities to exchange ideas, to communicate, and I know that he is always inspired by the dedication of young people in YSEALI to making their community a better place. So I began by saying that we should talk a little bit about the path to the future and where it is that we are trying to go.

First and foremost we are all trying to create economic opportunity and in the 21st century which is a digital century, a knowledge based century, economic growth is going to follow a different model than it did 50 years ago or 100 years ago. The transformation in manufacturing, the transformation in wealth development creates big opportunities but to take advantage of that opportunity people need education, they need opportunity, they need training, and they need institutions that will protect the property that they generate.

That’s true if their property is a product, it’s true if their property is land, but it is especially true if their property is intellectual property. Is an idea. And right now what we are seeing throughout the world but particularly in the United States the creation of tremendous wealth where none existed before. Where the raw material isn’t iron, or wood, or gold, or fish. The raw material is ideas and a smart phone. Take a company like Uber, take a company like FaceBook, or take a company like AirBNB. It didn’t exist 15 years ago It was made you could say out of nothing and yet, it’s created tremendous employment, tremendous wealth, and tremendous opportunity and spurred innovation. We want to help make that possible.

A second feature of the path forward to the future is security. Now traditional typical security involves soldiers and planes and tanks and ships and look, the United States is second to none when it comes to developing a strong military and using a strong military to prevent war, to avoid war and to maintain stability. That’s something that we’ve been able to contribute to in a major way in the Asia Pacific region over that past few decades. There’s community and local security in the form of police. But there is also security in terms of health, there’s security in terms the form of food, there’s security in terms of water and access to clean air. So the responsibility of governments to keep their people safe is at the crux of what governments need to do.

But there is another kind of security another kind of stability that comes from open societies. That doesn’t come out of the end of a gun but comes out of a book and comes out of the opportunity to speak out and vote. That’s the security of an open society and one of the extraordinary things, one of the beautiful things, in the modern history of Cambodia is that Cambodia of today was founded through the Paris peace talks on the principle of liberal democracy, of pluralism, and of a multi-party system, that multi-party democracy that gives a voice to the people.

This is the principle of government of the people, for the people, and by the people. And that healthy debate, that opportunity for citizens to participate actively in their future and livelihood. The responsibility that governments have to be held to account by the voters is a source of immense strength and is also a source of stability and the United States will always be proud to be supportive of Cambodia’s democratic exercise going forward. Now the United States in our engagement of the Asia Pacific region has tried to ensure that we are contributing to economic growth, tried to ensure that we are contributing to security, tried to ensure that we‘re fostering the political openness and the opportunities that democracy offers. We have in this effort, a secret weapon. I’m not talking about first lady Michele Obama. She’s pretty good.

The Secret weapon that I’m talking about is ties between people. You build trust in the world one person at a time. There is a reason that President Obama and Secretary Kerry chose Ambassador Heidt to represent the United S in Phnom Penh. You heard him speaking in Khmer. You heard how much love he has for this country. His ability to talk, his ability to listen to you, and his ability to make friends is just one example of the close connections that we want to build. The thousands upon thousands of American tourists who visit Cambodia each year, who go to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, The exchange program between our students that allows leaders like Vatana to spend 5 weeks in Montana, one of the most beautiful places on earth. The friendships that get created are the results of the collaboration between our NGOs, between our businesses. That’s the glue that holds us together so it’s my hope that you’ll think of today not as just a speech, not as just a town hall, but as an opportunity to explore the world and to look at the United States as both a partner and an opportunity. The embassy here is issuing visas as fast as they can. We are working with your university through other platforms like YSEALI that create opportunities for you to travel to the US and one of the things that I want to convey to you today is how warm the welcome is for you to come to see for yourself and to make friends. The welcome mat is out for you in the US.

I promised not to make this a long speech and I am going to turn it back to you to see what it is that is of interest to you and see if I can answer some of your questions.

Question: Hi Sir, how different is it for the …..of the US of small nations like Cambodia compared to other big power nations say like China or European countries like France?

Answer: That’s an interesting question and let me think about it. Generally speaking the bigger the country the bigger the problem. Because the relationship and the impact that the behavior of a very big powerful rich country can have on us and have on the world can matter a lot.

So I’ll give you an example. Several years ago, shortly after Secretary Kerry became Secretary of State and I came to work for him on handing Asia, he decided that he would go to China and he was seeing if it was possible to persuade the Chinese to join us in an effort to get the whole world in an effort to reach an agreement on reducing carbon emissions because he believed passionately as does President Obama that the future of the planet is in danger. And the two largest emitters, the two largest producers, the largest polluters are China and the United States.

Well as an expert on Asia I advised Secretary Kerry that this was impossible. As a developing country China, china is relying on coal power, that the Chinese will always side with the developing countries like Brazil or India or South Africa, the BRICs who have a very hostile view toward industrialized countries like the United States who they accuse us of have ruined the world, made our money and having turned and said “now ok everybody has to behave better now that we have already finished getting what we want out of the ground and water and the sky”.

And that was the conventional wisdom frankly of the experts. But he was not convinced and it’s a good thing he wasn’t convinced because by trying, by discussing, and by listening he was able to find out that the Chinese were interested in addressing the pollution because their people were so sick, the people were suffering from the air pollution, the water pollution. He found out they were looking for ways to move out of coal and into renewable energy and that they were hungry for technology that the United States had developed and specialized in. He discovered that as a very big country, they were thinking about their own economic development and they wanted to find ways to reduce the impact of climate change in the future as well as reduce their carbon footprint that didn’t undermine their economic growth.

So ultimately he was able to find common ground, he was able to chart a path that both China and the US could take and he was able to lead by example so that others including India, including South Africa as well as industrialized countries such as Japan and Europe follow too. Now that’s not something that he could have done one country at a time if for example he had started in Laos or Cambodia or Vietnam. He might have gotten an agreement but it wouldn’t have tipped the world. Trying to solve problems by first looking at what the biggest problems is, what the solution might be is one way of ensuring that we don’t just get stuck watching problems but failing to solve them. That is at least one example between. dealing with a big country and a smaller country.

QUESTION: What is your strategy or idea to ensure that all young people in Cambodia can benefit from the YSEALI program?

ANSWER: I think the essence of the answer to your question is this: YSEALI is not my program. It is your program. What is great about YSEALI is it doesn’t belong to the United States. It belongs to the young leaders of Southeast Asia. What we have offered and what YSEALI represents is an opportunity not just about six weeks in the United States or a town hall meeting with President Obama. It is not just about a program for a set of contacts. . It is a network. It is a growing network. There are more than 100,000 young people participating going through in the 10 ASEAN countries and it growing. It is a platform for communication. It is a platform finding like-minded people in your country or a neighbor who are doing something similar or have a concern about an ocean, illegal wildlife trafficking or illegal fishing It is a platform that it is because it is digital. It is internet based and allows a lot of flexibility in pulling together different groups. Yes, we want to ensure that there is for example a database that YSEALI members can use to search of others who are like-minded. Yes we want to ensure there is follow-up and the YSEALI alumni program create access to other programs, scholarships, academic fellowship and other opportunities. YSEALI is what you make it. Why it has become so popular and so powerful so quickly and the reason it is going to continue to grow long after President Obama leaves office next year if just for that reason is that it belongs to you and not to us.

QUESTION: Can I apply for certain YSEALI programs even if I am not yet on the level of being a leader on the level of civil society?

ANSWER: Yes, by all means, you should apply. And how, what, first of all, what is civil society? And what is a leader? Strong institutions include governmental ones like the supreme court, like a justice department, like the military, like the parliament or the legislature, but if non governmental institutions where they are religious and spiritual, whether they are local, or they are issue-based, they are part of our civilization. These are part of our communities. What YSEALI members represent and what we mean by civil society are people who want to make their neighborhood, their province or their state a better place by doing something. You become a leader by telling other people your dream or vision is a good one. You become a leader when other people want to go with you toward a destination. You send a vision. You don’t have to be elected. You don’t have to be a member of royalty. You don’t need a special badge to be a leader. You need to have a dream and you have to be able to act on that dream. The reason that your smartphone or your computer. You can use the instruments of modern communication so effectively now is because that allows people to share a vision or share a goal and do it in a collective way or a constructive way. I would strongly recommend you to try and you can be a leader by deciding what it is your dream looks like and how you are going to get there.

I remember at a town hall meeting when President Obama was asked a question about the secret about becoming successful and what is really important and that was really is at the heart of the point he was making. You will be successful if you pursue that thing you believe is important. There is no one career path to success. There e is no one magic formula to becoming president or chairman of the board or becoming successful. If you have a dream and if you are willing to work at it and if you are willing to put the interests of the community first you will find people will help you, and you will find that your message can carry the day.

It is the same in the relations between countries. Someone asked earlier about the differences between big countries and small countries. There is another point to be made that there is no country so big and so strong and so powerful and so rich it can do everything by itself. There is no country so big that it can afford not to be smart enough to have a friend. So for us or the ambassador or for me or for diplomats in any country, the secret is not to be big and strong, but the secret is to be persuasive and having friends.

And the key to that is having a dream. The United States was founded on a dream that all men were created equal and that they were endowed by their creator by inalienable certain rights. That government exists to serve the common good for the people, by the people, of the people. Your nation similarly was founded against the backdrop of horrible internal war and tragedy. And it was founded on the inspiring principle that you could achieve peace, growth, prosperity by coming together through consensus and a democratic process. That is a dream worth following. Every step you as Cambodians take toward that dream makes not only your own country but the region and the world a better place.

QUESTION: What is the inspiration of the relationship between the United States and ASEAN countries? What does ASEAN have that inspires the United States? What does Cambodia have that inspires the United States?

ANSWER: There are many regions of the world that are suffering from terrible conflicts, deprivation, war, instability, and terrorism. One of the drivers of instability. For example look at the Middle East or look at a few decades ago at the Balkans, among the drivers of conflict and instability are religious differences, different ethnicities that have difficulty getting along, borders that were drawn arbitrarily on the map by colonial powers that cut through natural community boundaries and set up terrible friction points.

Historical grudges and grievances that were unresolved. Territorial differences where people have struggled or fought over who owns the land. Competition for scarce resources like water, the river that is dammed or polluted upstream causing the people downstream to suffer or the lack of irrigation or the lack of fish in the sea. These are drivers of war. They are drivers of instability. They are drivers of frustration and conflict. But when you look at the Middle East. When you look at the Balkans. When you look at Southeast Asia. The same conditions are present in all three areas. So they why is Southeast Asia today not a conflict zone? What happened? Where did that go?

We all know there was not long ago brutal conflicts in Southeast Asia and within Southeast Asia countries, nowhere was that worse than within Cambodia itself. Well the fact is the ability of the first five of the Southeast Asia countries to come together and make political and economic common cause, for that group to grow to 10 countries and to now have made it to its 50th anniversary. The principle of consensus and sensitivity to the concerns and interests of the other members. The push toward connectivity and unity within ASEAN. That is a miracle. That is a great thing. And that proves there is peace through compromise. There is peace through common interest.

The fact that is although some countries like Indonesia are pretty big and some of the ASEAN countries like Brunei and Singapore are pretty small the fact that fundamentally none of them is a major world power that is dominating the other that there is equality is an underlying property of ASEAN that makes it so valuable and so extraordinary That is inspirational to the United States. When President Obama took office in 2009, there was a debate as to whether the U.S. should sign the ASEAN Treaty, whether the US should join the East Asia Summit or the president should travel every year to attend the ASEAN related summits and a lot of people thought it was not worth it. The exception was President Obama. He did not hesitate. He said the development and growth of an institution like ASEAN where countries are making common cause and engaging with outside partners is valuable to us.

We want ASEAN to grow and grow strong. If our strategy is just to sit back and wait until it is perfect we aren’t helping. We have to jump in and be partners and support ASEAN and he decided and he has attended the ASEAN meetings with enthusiasm and with consistency. I have every confidence the next president of the United States will continue that. It is very much in our interest. There is another reason it is in our interest.

The U.S. does not want to be the one big strong rich nation on planet earth with everyone lagging far behind and struggling. We made that decision as a nation after the Second World War when so much of Europe and Asia was destroyed. And the U.S. represented a massive share of global wealth and global power. Instead we invested in helping Europe to rebuild and grow strong. We invested in Japan and the rest of Asia to grow and be strong. We are better for it. It is better to have a beautiful house in a wonderful neighborhood than to have a palace in a desert. So the growth and prosperity of countries of Southeast Asia and the countries of the Asia-Pacific region benefits the United States. The stronger you are, the stronger we are. The richer you are, the richer we are. This is not a zero sum game.

Now in the case of Cambodia it is hard to imagine a more inspiring nation than one that emerged from the horror of the Killing Fields. The tremendous suffering and depravation of the Vietnam occupation and invasion . The bitter feuding and dispute among different faction within Cambodia. And with the help of the UN and the international community that forged a new mandate, a new promise, a new constitution, a new set of principles, a new life for itself and its people that has enjoyed ASEAN and has joined with its neighbors, developing the lower Mekong. Developing in terms of education. Developing warm and good relations with other partners. China. Japan. Australia. The United States. Europe. This is a really powerful story and Americans find it so inspiring. And it’s a story built on the strong, proud Khmer culture. No one can come to Cambodia without falling in love.

QUESTION: What did you want to achieve when you were young? How did you join the Foreign Service?

Answer: If I am going to tell you about my life story it would be better off turning off the camera. My first dream was to become a musician. I studied violin. I went to a very good music school in New York. The New York School of Music. And I love music. I worked pretty hard but not hard enough. I practiced every day for two hours a day. I told my teacher I was practicing double that and he told me he wouldn’t take any student who didn’t practice six hours a day And I would go to school in New York City and there were other musicians who were so much better than me. I stopped playing because I decided the world was made up of more than music and I wanted to study and learn other things.

After that I went to university and I didn’t study international relations. I studied philosophy and ancient Greek. I became very interested in ideas and culture. I eventually went to study at the University of London because that university had these students of a very great philosopher who I was very interested in. If I could study with the people who have studied with him for 20 or 30 years I could really understand him. But what I found that instead of being really inspiring philosophers, they were really boring academics. They weren’t so interested in academics but rather reputation.

So I became discouraged and left school. I got a job working as a carpenter. I moved to California. I moved to Hawaii. And eventually I went to Japan because I had gotten interested in martial arts, and I studied that for a few years. I went back to New York and went back to the U.S. I was looking for work and finally found a job that involved bringing foreign scientists, engineers, and business people to meet and visit U.S. companies and learn from them. As I worked in New York, which is my hometown, many of my friends were working on Wall Street and making a lot of money. But when I looked at my friends all of whom said that when they started to work for the bank and the company and said they would only do it for two or three years, save all this money and then quit and then go back to doing what they really loved to do. Be it an artist. Or working with children. Or something good.

But what I saw is now that five or six years had gone by none of them had been able to stop and they had adjusted to that life style and had bought expensive houses and expensive cars and now couldn’t quit because they were hooked on this very luxurious lifestyle. But I didn’t think they were happy. And they certainly weren’t doing the things they said they loved. I turned down the job on Wall Street but had gotten very concerned that while so many people all over the world were learning English and coming to the United States, Americans didn’t’ seem interested in learning about the world and learning about foreign languages and studying other people’s cultures.

It felt to me that that was dangerous for our country. It’s not enough to see there is a problem. There is not enough to complain or criticize. If I feel strongly about something, I better do something about it. So I took the Foreign Service Exam to join the State Department, and after failing once or twice to get in, I began my career as a diplomat in public service. And I have never looked back. I have never regretted it. I decided if my country was going to be better I had to help. That if the world was going to be better, I had to help. Nobody will do it if you don’t. And that is why it is so important to ask yourself what do I care about? What is my dream? And then to go after it.

I think our dream may be to end this session on time. So like President Obama I want to go on forever. Let me end by saying thank you for welcoming me to your beautiful country.