SNF Nostos 2023: Barack Obama says “The Spirit Born in Athens Inspires People Around the World."

SNF Nostos 2023: Barack Obama says “The Spirit Born in Athens Inspires People Around the World."

Former US President Barack Obama delivered a speech at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Nostos Conference 2023, which took place in southern Athens on Thursday. The conference, hosted at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, brought together researchers and activists to discuss the advancements made in the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Initiative and address topics like loneliness and its impact on mental well-being.

As part of the conference, Obama engaged in a dialogue with SNF Co-President Andreas Dracopoulos, focusing on the reinforcement of democratic values and the importance of investing in the next generation of leaders. Obama emphasised that democracy has the potential to succeed if given an opportunity, while acknowledging its challenging nature due to the necessity of coexisting with individuals holding differing viewpoints.

Obama underscored the danger posed by extreme-right populist parties in Europe and the United States, noting their tendencies to prioritise winning elections at any cost, which can involve dismantling norms and manipulating voting regulations.

This marks the second consecutive year that Obama has participated in the SNF Nostos Conference.

The main theme of Obama's speech at the SNF was the ways to strengthen democracy and the importance of supporting the next generation of leaders.

"It is the duty of those who have a platform and resources to encourage young people, to pass the baton to them, to start becoming active citizens in a time of challenges," said former US President Barack Obama speaking at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation in framework of SNF Nostos 2023 on Mental Health, and with a key theme of ways to strengthen democracy and the importance of supporting the next generation of leaders.

He spoke about the strong Greek element in the US and especially in his hometown of Chicago, mentioning that the spirit born in Athens inspires people around the world.

He also underlined that the USA has the uniqueness of being able to live within the country of people from different cultures, religions and nationalities and to be able to coexist harmoniously, saying, "What makes the US unique is that we have multiple races, religions and we got along […] we can live together, the central idea of ​​the US is that we can live together and respect each other."

At another point in his speech he noted that "I am convinced that we have different experiences, but also some basic commonalities to build alliances, Democracy can work if it has a chance."

"Democracy is a harsh form of government," the former US President pointed out. “Because it means you have to live side by side with someone who has not only different ideas than you in some cases, but a completely opposite worldview.

What is particularly dangerous is that we see some of the far-right populist parties in Europe, and in the United States, giving the impression that they will do anything to win and they will break down the norms, the barriers, they will manipulate the voting rules, he pointed out.

Young people are disillusioned but still believe in democracy

It is a difficult undertaking around the world – noted Mr. Obama – due to environmental challenges, the widening of inequalities accelerated, in many cases, by new technologies, immigration. He noted that one of the reasons the Obama Foundation focuses on young people is that they still believe in democracy, but have become disenchanted with institutions, politics, the media, and now need to be reformed so that they can function effectively in the current environment.

"Our biggest task right now is to encourage this new generation of leaders and give them the baton so they can start this very difficult time."

"Because many democracies, including my own, are so deadlocked and polarised, there are some who say 'why don't we just adopt the China model?' It is more effective. Freedom is overrated. Right now we just want to make sure that everybody has food and that we're growing economically fast,'" he noted, adding: "We've heard those arguments, that 'the trains run on time,' I think that's what Mr. Mussolini.

"I don't think we can deny that there are times when authoritarian governments can get things done faster. They may appear to be more effective. But it is important to know that in human history, so far, we've never seen mass starvation in a democracy – we generally don't see genocides in democracies, where everyone has a voice. It can be frustrating, it can be slow, but because the system itself insists that everyone has value and dignity, it creates a regulatory effect. And in the long run, I think it's the most promising path for demand. It's worth fighting for."

"We are never going to achieve perfection in democracy. We can do better and it's this slow process: getting better every time there are setbacks with failures, but then keep moving forward," he pointed out. "It's this process that ultimately is a great responsibility for all of us, but it's also a remarkable privilege to make it work."

"This," he noted, "is something I was thinking about when I visited the Acropolis: that this is a reminder, that yes things are destroyed, but then they are rebuilt.

"And that's what democracy allows us to do. Sometimes we're going to have tough times, but if we see the genius in all the people and the work of all the people and come together and be willing to work together, then we can rebuild it."

Concerns About Artificial Intelligence

Obama also emphasised that inequality is accelerated, in many cases by new technologies.

"Business leaders who design artificial intelligence are very proud and say don't worry, but this is the first time that the designers of these models are expressing concerns and reservations," Barack Obama pointed out.

He also said, among other things, that artificial intelligence will revolutionise medicine, will replace lawyers, and estimated that the modern shift in work will help people do their jobs on the one hand, but will also neutralise some jobs. Code will write code," he said emphatically.

It should be noted that the Niarchos Foundation has supported both the construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago and the implementation of the "Obama Foundation Leaders" program.

This is the second time that Barack Obama is visiting the Cultural Center, after his last international visit as part of his administration in 2016, when he delivered a landmark speech for the ideal of Democracy from the stage of the National Opera.

The event was attended by the president of New Democracy Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the president of SYRIZA Alexis Tsipras, the former President of the Republic Prokopis Pavlopoulos, the former prime minister Antonis Samaras, the US ambassador George Tsounis and others.

The event was also attended by notable VIPs and celebrities such as Glenn Close and Nia Vardalos. 76-year-old Hollywood star Close and Nia Vardalos, the star of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" movies arrived at the SNFCC early on Thursday, June 22, where they were captured by camera upon entering the building and whilst at the conference.

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