Juan Manuel Santos: 2023 Commencement Address

Author: Sue Lister

Dear Reverend Jenkins and members of the Board of Trustees; distinguished members of the faculty, honored alumni, students, family members, friends, and—most importantly—dear students of the Notre Dame Class of 2023:

What a joy and what an honor to be with you today to celebrate the graduation of a new generation of young people ready to build a better world!

To all of you, members of the Class of 2023, congratulations!

Personally, I have many reasons to be grateful to this prestigious university with more than one hundred and eighty years of history.

First, your well-known Kroc Institute for International Peace, whose head is my compatriot, Josefina Echavarría, has been and continues to be a fundamental ally in the process of not only making peace but also building peace in my country, Colombia.

As many of you might know, during my term as president, I worked to achieve peace with the oldest and most powerful guerrilla group in the Western Hemisphere: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC.

It was not an easy task. Making peace never is. In fact, making peace is much more difficult than making war. And I know this because I have made both.

For six years, from 2010 to 2016, we held very difficult negotiations until we were able to sign a peace agreement that put an end to the oldest armed conflict in the Americas and transformed this guerrilla group into a political party.

That is the goal of any peace process! To turn from weapons to words, from bullets to ballots, and from violence to freedom and democracy.

The Kroc Institute is helping to monitor the agreements, its effects and its implementation, and it’s not an easy job because, according to its own assessment, it is the most ambitious and comprehensive peace agreement ever signed.

Quite true. It is the first peace agreement to include an ethnic chapter —and also a gender chapter. It is the first to put the rights of the victims at the center of the negotiations. And it is the first to include a special transitional justice system in accordance to the Rome Statute. I am proud to say that the Colombian peace agreement is a model for many nations that continue to suffer from the effects of conflict and war.

And today, I come to the University of Notre Dame to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your contribution to peace in Colombia.


And allow me to give you a first piece of advice for your lives, for your future…

No matter where you are, what you are working on… BE PEACEMAKERS.

Whatever it takes, at all times, for the sake of this world… BECOME PEACEMAKERS.

To become a true peacemaker, first you must be at peace with yourself, at peace with your own conscience.

So, here is my second piece of advice. Whenever you have to choose between being at peace or proving yourself right, choose the way of peace.

We have too many wars, conflicts, deaths, victims, and violence because human beings insist that only they, not their fellow humans, know the correct course of action.

It is better to be at peace than to prove to anyone that you are right.

Work with peace in your heart, find peace in your soul, and everything else will follow.


I am also grateful to this university because last year I had the privilege of becoming a fellow and a visiting professor here at the Keough School of Global Affairs. Thank you, Dean Appleby.

This gave me the wonderful opportunity to interact with students, faculty, and the staff on this beautiful campus.

And perhaps, just perhaps, I was able to bring a bit of luck to your flagship team, the beloved Fighting Irish.

When I came here last year, the Irish were going through a rough patch, having lost the two previous football games.

In one of the lectures I gave as a visiting professor, I said that 52 years ago, when I was a student at the University of Kansas, I was invited to the Superbowl in Kansas City when, for the first time ever, the Chiefs became champions.

And, by pure coincidence, fifty years later, in 2020, I was in Miami and I was again invited to the Superbowl. The Chiefs won their second Championship. By the way, this year they won again. With these credentials, I then had the audacity to say that maybe I could bring some luck to the Fighting Irish.

I was, of course, invited to the game the following Saturday, September the 17th, and in this very same stadium I had the joy of witnessing the Fighting Irish beat California in a nail-biting match.

The excitement was so contagious that I almost ran over to the student section for some touchdown push ups!

And, after that, the Fighting Irish went on a winning streak that placed them back in its historic position of excellence!

I don’t know if I brought luck to the Fighting Irish last year, but I can assure you, dear members of the Class of 2023, I will be wishing you all the luck in the world as you leave this wonderful university today.

So… Go Irish! Go Class of 2023!


Dear friends and students,

Moving on to a different subject, let’s talk about today’s existential threats.

I have the honor of being part of The Elders, an organization founded by Nelson Mandela, and archbishop Desmond Tutu, to bring together world leaders working for peace, human rights and climate justice.

As an Elder, I was invited earlier this year to Washington DC to witness the unveiling of the so-called Doomsday Clock.

Back in 1945, Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer, and the scientists at the University of Chicago who had helped develop the first atomic weapon for the Manhattan Project, founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to monitor this formidable but horrific development.

Two years later, they launched the Doomsday Clock, a powerful symbol to represent the urgency of acting to avoid humanity’s extinction. Every year since, the clock points out how close we are to midnight in the history of the world, meaning how close we are to bringing about our own apocalypse.

In the beginning, the clock was set at seven minutes to midnight, mainly because of the nuclear threat. It has changed 27 times.

This year, after evaluating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the increase in the nuclear arsenal around the world, the climate crisis we are all now already suffering, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the threats brought by biosecurity and disruptive technologies, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reset the clock hands from 100 to 90 seconds—the closest it has ever been to midnight.

We must therefore realize that we are living at a decisive time in which we must all act swiftly and responsibly.

We face immense challenges ahead, as humanity always has.

There are countless conflicts across the planet. Not only the war on Ukraine, but also the wars in Asia and Africa. Today we have more than 100 conflicts, often overshadowed by the war in Europe but no less serious, such as the ones in Ethiopia and Sudan.

World leaders, like raving madmen, continue to bare their teeth at each other and some even threaten to use nuclear weapons that we thought were far, far from our reality.

Countries that were characterized by an anti-war culture are beginning to re-arm to contain this threat, and the funds that should go to fix social problems or create prosperity are once again financing an arms race.

Climate change has gone from being a sensible warning from a few scientists to a real existential emergency that threatens the survival of our planet and our kind.

It is sad, sad to see how, despite the world meetings held and the speeches made, the most powerful nations refuse to take concrete, measurable actions that protect the air and the water we all need to survive.

And now, we have a new existential threat straight out of science fiction. Many experts are warning us about Artificial Intelligence and its real dangers to humankind. Many scientists have even asked for a moratorium in its development, cautioning us that we must first learn to master A.I. before it masters us.

This threat is so real that one of the godfathers of A.I. resigned from Google recently because the tech giants, with their uncontrolled competition, are creating a monster that might very well devour us.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists saw this coming. They had included disruptive technologies as an existential threat four years ago.

Of course, A.I., like all technological breakthroughs, can be harmful or can be beneficial. It depends entirely on us and on our wisdom in using it.

The end of the world might seem closer than ever. So, is it time to despair? Should we abandon hope?

No! By all means, no! Humanity has overcome existential crises in its hundreds of

thousands of years on Earth, and I am certain, certain that we will be able to overcome the current ones.

Why? Because I am convinced that you are a generation of young people who have prepared yourselves to serve not only your country but the planet, not only your people but all people.

Like I said in my Nobel Lecture, in December 2016: When progress is based on exclusion, it is fragile and will ultimately disappear. However, when progress is based on inclusion, when we understand that everyone’s life is as valuable as our own, then that progress is lasting and real.

If we understand this, if we work together and are convinced that what happens to one happens to all the rest, we will one day see the hands of the Doomsday Clock move backward.

Because the present, not just the future, belongs to you.

Act with love, always with love, the greatest force in the universe.

Act responsibly and with empathy. Be aware of the privilege of your education and return to the world the gifts you have received.

And act with moderation, as your founding father George Washington recommended in his celebrated Farewell Address, remembering as he urged us to “cultivate peace and harmony with all.”

Be compassionate, be tolerant, and be simply good people, because out of compassion, tolerance, and kindness, a better world will be born.


I am grateful for the immense honor of being conferred an honorary degree by this great university. Today, like you, dear colleagues at the University of Notre Dame, I wear the colors and insignia of this campus.

Let’s raise our arms like Touchdown Jesus and say it, say it once again, with all our enthusiasm…

Go Irish! Play like a Champion! Go Class of 2023!

Congratulations and many thanks!