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In Fulbright´s Honor

Ræðan sem hér fer á eftir var flutt í hófi sem haldið var á Hótel Hilton, 13. 11. í tilefni af 50 ára afmæli Fulbright stofnunarinnar.

This is a rare event. We have come together here tonight to honor the memory of a good man, senator William Fulbright of Arkansas. He was that rare phenomenon – a visionary politician – a man of ideas and a man of action. Those qualities seldom go together in the same person – something we have been reminded of with a vengeance, recently.

When the second world war came to an end in 1945, the United States of America stood at the apex of its power and glory. The other combatants, Europe, the Soviet Union, Japan and China, lay in smouldering ruins. The US accounted for more than half of the world´s GDP, at the time. The spectre of international communism – expected to thrive in the breeding ground of misery – haunted the newly anointed leaders of the new world. From the elevated point of view of Capitol Hill, Washington D.C., the destiny of the western world seemed to hang in the balance.

Well, now – more than half a century later, we know the rest of the story. The heirs of president Roosevelt – the political hero of my youth – rose to the occasion. The Marshall plan – massive economic aid to hasten the reconstruction of Europe – is a splendid example of how shrewd self-interest – helping others to help themselves – can benefit all. The purpose was to make the world “safe for democracy”.

Senator Fulbright’s big idea – to use the price exacted for the superfluous inventory of the US military overseas as investment in educating prospective leaders of the developing world – was of the same genre as the Marshall plan. The idea was to help others to help themselves; to enable them to get acquainted with and to understand the virtues – dare I say the magic – of democratic governance.

I don´t know how many bright young people from all over the world were helped by Fulbright – and that´s perhaps not the point. The point is how many nations were helped on to the path of sustainable developement and democratic governance by those priviledged Fulbright scholars, over the next few decades.

In my youth I sought asylum within the ancient walls of Edinburgh University – in Adam Smith´s old department of political economy – to search for answers to a persistent question, which has been bothering me my whole life: How can we eradicate poverty? How can mankind be liberated from the shackles of poverty to enable every man to participate freely in “the pursuit of happiness”, as the framers of the US Constitution put it?

Well, when you ask impertinent questions you tend to get confusing answers. Anyway – gradually I came to similar conclusions as had Senator Fulbright in his day: You have to educate’em, stupid! So, I went back home from Edinburgh to my humble fishing village, where I founded a college in order to set the next generation of my people off on the right track.

When the job was done I felt I had to think deeper about the existential question: How to cast off the yoke of poverty? That is why, when I had the opportunity, I accepted an offer of a Fulbright scholarship at Harvard to do some research in the field of “comparative economic systems”. In reality it is the same old question, which Adam Smith started pondering in Edinburgh in the 18th C, when writing “An Inquiry into the Causes of the Wealth and Poverty of Nations”. Put differently the question remains: Which economic system is best suited to create wealth and to distribute it fairly, in order to maximise freedom?

I still remember vividly my first stroll along the campus at Harvard in the autumn of 1976, when Americans, incidentally, were celebrating the 200 years anniversary of their declaration of independence. My guide was a young member of the Bahai religious sect, who had spent a semester in Ísafjörður and taught for a while at my college. He was an Arabic scholar, super intelligent and writing his Ph.D – dissertation in farsi, on the interaction of Persian and Arabic cultures in the Middle Ages.

As we walked along Harvard Square, many of the passers by seemed to be preoccupied in their own private world, enwrapped in their thoughts, talking and even singing to themselves, totally oblivious of their environment. I asked my companion hesitantly, if there was a special institution around to take care of those perturbed souls. “Sure”, he said, matter-of-factly: “It´s called Harvard”.

Most of the time in Boston this winter I spent at table E118 in the Widener library, which contained at the time some 18 million volumes of wisdom. I was mostly persuing my own study-plan. What did I learn, that I could pass on to others?

Well, I came to the conclusion that whereas the US model was good at creating wealth, it was not so good in distributing it fairly, since the tax system favoured the super-rich, there was no national health system and the trade unions were too weak.

The Soviet system was good at neither production nor distribution. It could be aptly described by the old East-European joke: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us”. Foreseeably, it would sink from under the burden of its own bureaucratic weight and finally be relegated “to the dustbin of history”, in Trotsky´s famous phrase.

This unenviable prospect somehow passed the notice of the CIA. Lamentably they were utterly taken by surprise, when the Soviet Union actually collapsed, live on TV, on November 9th, 1989, with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Its ultimate demise was confirmed in December 1991, when the once proud Soviet flag, with its hammer and sickle, was lowered for the last time over the golden spirals of the Kremlin.

Finally, my earlier observation was confirmed about the originally Nordic, but by then the European social model, that whereas it was perhaps not as efficient in production as the laissez-faire model of America, it was much better at distribution, due to its tax- and welfare system, and thus more conducive to maximizing freedom and “the pursuit of happiness” by the many.

Unfortunately, Michael Gorbachev never was a Fulbright scholar. Although he was well meaning in terms of freedom (glasnost) he got the economics or restructuring (perestroika) wrong – which landed Russia in total chaos and corruption, from which it has not yet recovered.

Deng-Xiao-Peng, the other historical figure facing the same fateful question (how to eradicate poverty) had not been offered a Fulbright scholarship either. But But Mr. Deng made up for it by working on the assembly lines at Renault in France in the interwar period. There he learned the hard way that markets are useful servants in creating wealth, but intolerable rulers, causing disruptive crisis and unsustainable inequality, if left to their own whims.

By harnessing the profit-motive for wealth creation, but maintaining social control, Mr. Deng managed to liberate more people from poverty than any other leader in history. By doing so he enabled hundreds of millions of Chinese to participate in the precious “pursuit of happiness”. Justifying this deviation from Marxist orthodoxy, Mr. Deng famously declared that “he didn´t care if the cat was black or white, so long as it hunted the mice”.

As for my humble self I returned home from Harvard, established myself as the editor of the “People´s Daily” in Reykjavík – surely one of the most exclusive missionary papers in Christendom – and during the course of the next three years published 750 leading articles, propagating the program thought out at Harvard. Later I entered Althingi, took over the leadership of the social democratic party and managed to force my way into the government for a period af 8 years.

I used my brief spell as minister of finance to push through a thorough reorganisation of Iceland´s system of taxes and tariffs, making both more business friendly. My considerably longer spell at the foreign ministry I used to drag my countrymen, literally kicking and screaming, into the EEA, thus making them, irreversably I hope, part and parcel of the European social model. On the side we gave a helping hand to the struggle of the Baltic nations in breaking free from the Soviet prison of nations – a defiant act in 1991 which turned out to be the coup-de-grace of Lenin´s heirs..

Looking back at this sequence of events I hope that the micro-portion of US military inventory, that went into financing my Fulbright scholarship, has turned out to be justifiable investment by the American tax-payer.

One lesson I learned at Harvard was sort of “extra-curricular”, but still painstakingly relevant.. My next door neighbour in the post-graduate residence turned out to be the last minister of finance of his Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie of Abbisinia, alias Ethiopia. We got to know each other while sneaking into the bathroom at night to wash our underwear in the sink – although strictly prohibited. After the Soviet-inspired coup d´état in Addis Abeba , my friend escaped in the nick of time from a gang of murderous thugs, who razed his village to the ground and killed several members of his family. Many an evening – sometimes late into the night – we sat up pondering the question: How to eradicate poverty and set people free?

In spite of our different backgrounds and experience, we seemed to be thinking on similar wavelengths. He told me that the essence of the problem was unlimited power. Unlimited power leads to unlimited corruption. Every single powerholder in newly liberated Africa – with the single exception of Julius Nyerere of Tanzania – had, according to my friend, turned out to be a usurper of power, a thug and a thief. They all abused their military power to exploit their people and to siphon off vast funds into their Swiss bank accounts or onto mysterious offshore islands.

This was, he said, invariably being done in cooperation with or under the direction of the big-wigs of international corporations. “They learn the tricks of the trade from their Western business partners”, he said. As long as predatory behaviour of this kind is allowed to go on, the people are doomed to endure poverty and hopelessness. This friend of mine had accepted a Fulbright scholarship to study developement economics – in the hope that he could change things. I wonder where he is now?

In the early nineties of the last century the US ambassador at the time, Mr. Charles Cobb, jr., asked me to contribute a short essay to be included in a publication to commemorate an anniversary of the Fulbright-program. I gladly consented and composed a short piece in which I tried to sum up my Harvard experience.

In due time I received in the post a collection of essays by a gallery of powerful potentates from all around the glope who, despite all their differences, had one thing in common: They had all been Fulbright scholars at one time or another. Among them were presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, ministers of finance, central bank directors and military leaders as well as CEOs of corporations etc., etc.. As I skimmed through the pages and looked at their faces, I couldn´t help wondering, how many of them had helped solve the problem of poverty of their people, and how many had themselves turned out to be part of the problem – but not a part of the solution.


Senator Fulbright was right: The power of education has been proven beyond doubt to be a potent force – but for both good and evil. We are faced with Einstein’ s old dilemma, when his students noticed that he had put before them the same exam-questions as the year before. Since they thought the old genius had become senile, they politely pointed out his presumed mistake. He told them not to worry: Although the questions remained the same, in the meantime he had hinself changed the answers.

(The author was the leader of the Icelandic Social-Democratic Party 1984-96, a member of Althingi 1982-98, Minister of Finance 1987-88, Minister for Foreign Affairs

Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson

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