July 21, 2024

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Commencement Address

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Commencement Address

Tomb Field, New York

Good morning.

I must admit that it is daunting to stand in front of a sign that says “Acta Non Verba” – deeds not words – and then come up here and offer you a bunch of words. But I will do my best.

Vice Admiral Nunan.

Deputy Secretary Trottenberg.

General Smith.

Rear Admiral Phillips.

Congressman Souzzi.

Friends, family, and faculty.

And most importantly, the midshipmen of the Class of 2024.


It is an honor be here with the newest generation of Kings Pointers.

I did not time that flyover, but I’ll take it.

To be honest, being your Commencement Speaker is a daunting task.

What can I say about duty – to a class that’s already crewed 167 ships around the world?

What can I say about determination – to a class that’s won the Secretaries’ Cup against Coast Guard for the 5th time in a row?

What can I say about boldness – to a class that convinced their Superintendent to let them wear Choker Whites in the middle of December?

You have much to be proud of.

And the path you’ve chosen is a tremendously honorable one.

As soon-to-be ensigns and second lieutenants, assistant engineers and third mates – you will crew ships that are essential to our nation’s security.

And you’ll spend a large part of your life at sea, so your fellow Americans can live safely at home.

You’ve come so far – and you have so many great things ahead – thanks in large part to the people who’ve always been right behind you, and are right behind you today. Your parents and grandparents, your brothers and sisters, and everyone who loves and believes in you.

So before I go any further, let’s give them a huge round of applause.

Now, as the President’s National Security Advisor, I see the impact of the U.S. Merchant Marine every single day.

In the Atlantic, you’re making sure that ammunition reaches Ukrainian soldiers fighting for their freedom.

In the Pacific, you’re deterring aggression and upholding freedom of navigation.

In the Red Sea – as Admiral Nunan and Administrator Phillips referenced – you’re facing down unprecedented attacks against international trade in one of the most vital waterways in the world.

At ports, on decks, and in engine rooms around the globe, the “blue and grey” help keep our people safe and our country strong.

And in return, we owe it to you to keep the Merchant Marine strong.

And that’s why President Biden is taking historic steps to spur investment in ships made in American shipyards, built with American supplies, and crewed by American mariners.

We’re working with labor unions to investigate actions by China that may unfairly undercut our shipbuilding and maritime industries.

And we are committed to building America’s fleet of the future – from undersea construction vessels to warships to icebreakers – leveraging our nation’s unparalleled innovation and the unparalleled skill of our workforce.

I know – and the President knows – how critical American sea power will be in the years ahead.

And you know, the work you do is challenging, and will be challenging.

Those ships will take you far from your family.

Those tankers and transports will bring you to distant, often dangerous places.

You’ll face high winds, bad storms, and rough waters. 

But you made it to this Academy because you showed toughness and talent.

And now you’ve made it through this Academy because you proved you have what it takes.

You’ve spent months underway, earning your “sea legs” and completing your “sea projects.”

You’ve dealt with blackouts, malfunctions, even fires – giving a whole new meaning to your class motto, “Light after Darkness.”

You braved the cold waters of Long Island Sound during rescue survival in February.  Some of you went the extra mile and earned your “Blue Nose Certificate” in the Arctic.

And all of you studied hard to earn your Coast Guard license, so you could ring the bell and attend June Ball.

I’m told that there are those of you may have had a bit too much fun at the Ball last night. And others may have gotten a bit rowdy at BHT and Benny’s over the years.

So I made a point of speaking with President Biden before coming here today.

And he wanted me to let you know – in keeping with the long-standing tradition as Commander-in-Chief – that he is hereby waiving the infractions of all midshipmen “stuck” or “on restriction” for minor conduct violations.

I’ll let your Superintendent clarify what “minor” means.

Looking ahead, all of you will be leaders. And people often speak about leadership in absolute terms.

They say, it’s about confidence. Or vision. Or results. And it is about those things.

But that’s the Wikipedia summary.  As the nation’s future leaders, you’ve got to read the book.  And I suspect you’ve already begun to see that leadership is not about clinging to a singular attribute. It’s about cultivating equal and opposite attributes, and learning how to put that tension to use. Holding seemingly opposite ideas in your head, and still finding clarity and purpose.

For example, to be a good leader, you need to be high-ego and low-ego.

Patient and impatient.

Focused on the big picture and the small details.

Holding fast to your convictions, and staying open to new ideas and new arguments.

Let me take a few minutes to explain what I mean.

First: you have to be both high-ego and low-ego.

Believe in yourself. You matter. Speak up. Take yourself seriously. Raise your hand for big assignments, which all of you have already done. Fight for your ideas. No one is going to advocate for you if you do not advocate for yourself.

But also – know that there are so many things are more important than you. Like your crew. Your shipmates. Your country.

To do right by them, you’ll need to put others ahead of yourself. Sometimes get behind someone else’s plan, when it’s the better way. Compromise.

In the White House Situation Room, I sit at the head of a table that brings together the President’s national security cabinet, including the Secretaries of State and Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Director of National Intelligence. It’s my responsibility to set the agenda – not to dominate the conversation and make everyone listen to me, but to guide the discussion so that, as a team, we deliver for the President the best counsel on the toughest issues imaginable.

In your careers, have the confidence to sit at the tables where the decisions are made. And have the humility to recognize that other people’s contributions are as valuable as your own – sometimes more valuable.

The best people I work with know how to balance these dueling impulses. They never fail to shine. But they are – to the bone – team players. Always humble.  Always ready to champion someone else. Always ready to pitch in, and get the job done.

Be like them. Know your value, but see other people’s value, too.

Second: be impatient, and also patient.

Don’t wait for change – make change as fast as you possibly can. You’ve got to seize every moment. Set bold goals – and achieve them with relentless urgency and drive.

But also – be patient.

When I was in my 20s – couple years older than you guys are now – I randomly sat next to Joe Nye, the great foreign policy thinker, on an airplane. We got to talking, and he could tell I was a young person in a bit of a hurry. And he said, “Everything doesn’t have to happen tomorrow. You have time to make mistakes, time to explore, time for trial and error. You don’t always need to be in a rush.”

Now that I’m older, I can attest to how right he was.

He wasn’t saying, let life pass you by.  He was saying – see things through. Plant seeds and let them grow. Cultivate them. Wait for the right moment to harvest. It’s worth it — to take the time to figure things out and get them right.

All of you guys are going to be out there on missions – some of you already have – where speed and urgency are the name of the game. Where you’re in a crisis, every minute counts. But even then, you’ll handle those moments better if you’ve patiently prepared for them, as this Academy has taught you to do.  

And good leaders master another kind of patience, too – patience in how they deal with other people.

You’re about to hold high-stakes jobs. Take it from me: those jobs can spend your patience down fast. After years of being easy-going, you can become quick to frustration. Not your best self.

When that happens, you’ve got to find a way to replenish.For me, that means taking long walks with my wife Maggie, some Tim McGraw, some ESPN, some time with friends.  Find what works for you. It takes discipline to be patient in jobs that rapidly drain the patience out of you.

You do not want to get into a place in your career that you’ve always dreamed of, and realize that somehow you became a jerk along the way. The people in your life deserve your grace. And that’s something that you have to work at.

Third: You got to focus on the big picture, and also sweat the details.

Every day, I hold a meeting on Ukraine, in my office in the West Wing where I bring together the military, economic, and diplomatic experts from across the staff of the National Security Council.

We never lose sight of the ultimate strategic objective – that Ukraine prevails, that Russia’s invasion fails, that NATO remains unified. We never take our eye off that ball.

And, for those who are willing to give it up for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity I think that deserves a round of applause as well.

But every day in that meeting – in excruciating detail – we go through Ukraine’s monthly supply of 155 ammunition – much of which is being delivered by the Merchant Marine.

We discuss how many Patriot interceptors they’re getting, how many auto transformers to help rebuild their energy grid after it gets hit by Russian missile strikes.

We talk about how to make sure the weapons are actually getting to the front-lines – because those aren’t just details to the people fighting in the trenches. That’s a matter of life and death.

Now if you’re grinding it out every day on ammunition supplies and not connecting it to the larger strategy, you won’t succeed.

But if you’re just sitting around talking about the larger strategy and not giving any thought to the ammunition, you also won’t succeed.

Never assume someone else has crushed the details. You’ve got to crush the details. You got to see the forest, but you also have to care about the trees.

And fourth: Hold fast to your convictions. And also, be open to changing your mind.

The lessons we learn through our faith, our families, our teachers – including here at the Academy – comprise the compass that guides us through life.

If you stay true to your deepest-held values – if you refuse to betray what you know to be right – you can always hold your head high. And you can always go home to your family and tell them, I made you proud.

But your bedrock principles are just that – a bedrock.  They only tell you so much about how to solve the particular problem in front of you.  Staying true to your beliefs does not mean closing your mind to different ways of solving that problem.

If you rarely update your thinking – even when you learn new information, or hear a compelling alternative case – that’s a strong indication that you’ve stopped learning. Stopped listening. And that’s something to correct fast.

Your ability to lead will depend on whether you can hear new evidence, new arguments, new ideas, and take them seriously.

This just doesn’t happen enough in the places where important decisions are made. A lot of people see refusing to budge as conviction and strength. But often, it’s just stubbornness and ego. Real strength lies in being able to say, “You know what, I learned something new, and it made me change my mind.”

Think about it. What are the odds that you’re just right all of the time? A lot of people may assert that, but what are the odds?

Not high. In his best year – sorry to make a Boston Red Sox reference – Ted Williams got a hit 4 times out of 10. The ultimate Hall of Famer. Let’s say you’re twice as good as that. That means that 2 times out of 10, your first swing at a problem doesn’t connect. You didn’t get it right. You can’t be paralyzed by that fact, but you should account for it.

So talk to people who disagree with you. Acknowledge the strength of their arguments. Acknowledge the weak spots in your arguments. Thinking through hard problems is not a zero-sum game. It’s a team sport.  

This is one of many things I admire about working for President Biden. He gathers his staff almost every day in the Oval Office, grilling us kindly but mercilessly on every detail of a policy. And if he senses that someone in the room is biting their tongue, he never fails to say, “Don’t hold back. I want to hear your concern. What is wrong with the course that we are on?”

It’s a rare leader who invites dissenting views, much less in the Oval Office. But that’s the right disposition – not just for leaders but for everyone.

It’s never been easier than it is today to live in an echo chamber, only listening to those who agree with us and reflect our worldviews back to us.

But that represents the end of personal growth… and in many ways, it risks the end of progress for our nation. 

Don’t compromise on your core values – but do build a practice of adjusting and sharpening your point of view.

Members of the Class of 2024 – what I’ve described here adds up to a habit of the mind.

Holding competing thoughts in your head at the same time. Balancing them with purpose. And putting them to effective use. 

And from complexity, finding clarity.

I’ve named a few examples of this, but there are many more. And you will see them in your careers, and I see them in my job every day.

The United States must compete vigorously with geopolitical rivals and the United States must cooperate with partners to solve the great challenges of our time.

We can support Israel’s right to self-defense and the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and dignity.

We can stand with Ukraine in its fight against tyranny and deter and prevent World War III.

We can stand up to China, and we can engage in responsible diplomacy with China.

Now some of those positions won’t make for a great soundbite or satisfy a certain class of D.C. pundit. But they’re what I believe. They’re what the President believes. And they represent America at our best in the world – strong, commonsense, intelligent, and unafraid.

Graduates: you will be leaders at a pivotal time. America is counting on you to do your duties – as you have done in your years at Kings Point – with honor, with integrity, and with skill. I can’t promise it will always be “fair winds and following seas.”

But I can promise it will be a life of consequential work. And after the exceptional training you’ve received at this Academy, you are more than ready for what awaits you. We know that you will make us proud.

So class of 2024, congratulations – and Godspeed.


Official news published at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2024/06/22/remarks-by-national-security-advisor-jake-sullivan-at-u-s-merchant-marine-academy-commencement-address/