President Bill Clinton at Robert S. Brookings President’s Lecture: “There’s a Lot of Good Going on in this World”

President Bill Clinton at Robert S. Brookings President’s Lecture: “There’s a Lot of Good Going on in this World”

“Our goal was to build the forces of global integration and reduce the forces of global disintegration or at least try to confine their destructive impact,” said President Bill Clinton yesterday, describing his time as president of the United States, in the inaugural Robert S. Brookings President’s Lecture. Mr. Clinton, 42d president of the United States and founder of the Clinton Foundation, engaged with Brookings President Strobe Talbott and the audience in a conversation about the role of non-governmental organizations in the world, global development and growth, and the importance of cooperation and networks.

Reflecting on his time in office, President Clinton said that, “it was obvious that at the end of the Cold War, we were living through a period that had to be brief, where America was the world’s only economic, political and military superpower” and thus we were “going to have to be more and more competitive and we’re going to have to decide is this global economy going to be a race to the bottom or a race to the top. Can we create shared prosperity?”

That’s why, President Clinton explained, when he left office he wanted to “do things and not just talk.” Thus he began the Clinton Foundation.

Watch full video of this event:

On three dramatic forces working against great shared opportunities and prosperity

President Clinton said that inequality in many areas; global instability; and climate change are forces working against increasing global interdependence.

I have concluded from all this work we’ve done since I left the White House that what I was trying to do when I was president was right, but it’s harder now and more important. That is, the world is more interdependent, growing more so every day, and power is more diffuse in ways that are both positive and negative. So we should be trying to build a world with greater shared opportunities and prosperity and greater shared responsibilities at a time when there are three dramatic forces working against that.

The inequality in access to education, health care, capital to start a business, and jobs that earn incomes, in many cases for young people around the world, jobs all together. …

This inequality is a terrible constraint on growth and prosperity and it feeds into the next problem, which is there is too much instability that’s coming in two ways. One obviously from the threat of political upheaval from non-state actors, but also from the alienation people feel from organizations that otherwise we would rely on to organize our affairs and reach good outcomes and share the future. …

Identity becomes constricted in the face of fear and want. And we’re all more vulnerable to want to hang with our crowd if we think that the world beyond our crowd is a hostile one to our aspirations and our children’s future. …

And finally, climate change and the destruction of local resources.

“If you ask me what my position is on anything,” President Clinton said, “I will immediately ask myself, will this increase the positive forces of our interdependence and decrease inequality, instability, and the climate-related problems? If it will, I’m for it. If it won’t I’m not.”

“We have got to deal with these three challenges together,” he said. “The only thing that works is an extraordinary effort at creating cooperation.”

After citing the examples of Lebanon’s and, in South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s inclusive governments, following years of bitter conflict, President Clinton said that “If you look everywhere in the world where there is a genuine commitment to shared decision-making, good things are happening.”

On the weary mood of Americans regarding the world

… what people really hire you to do [as president] is make things work. And in foreign policy if you know that something is necessary for the well-being of America you have got to do it.

Yes people are tired, but they are tired because they are worried about their own affairs. So we have to explain to them that a lot of these things are necessary to do to create opportunities for Americans and keep our own system going. …

Yes they are world weary, and yes we should be wary of large military commitments, but there are other ways to deploy our power and influence other than having the kind of deployments that were required in Afghanistan and that we decided to put into Iraq. And we still have to, I think, be vigorously involved. We have to keep trying to put the world together [because] there are plenty of people working to tear it apart. And if we don’t do, it we’ll pay a terrible price for it. And we don’t have to win every time.

On Ukraine and Russia

The real debate in Ukraine, as opposed to the power grab, was really rooted in how Russia sees its greatness. I think President Putin believes if he can form an economic and political union all along his southern underbelly, as far east as he can reach and as far west as he can go, then he thinks they will be more secure and they will be more prosperous … and he’s not particularly concerned about the actual lives of people in those other countries. …

I never met a single Ukrainian who wanted to have a bad relationship with Russia. … What they wanted was not to be under the thumb of Russia. And they believed that if they could build a modern state … they could be a bridge between Europe and Russia. And that it would benefit both Europe and Russia and obviously, in the process, Ukraine.

President Putin didn’t like that bridge deal much. He thought it was the west moving closer to Russia’s border, as if in economic and geopolitical terms it was refighting the Napoleonic Wars or Hitler’s invitation. And as long as he’s got plenty of oil and gas money he can play this, in effect, 19th century great power card.

… I remember when Mr. Medvedev went to Silicon Valley … and he said we ought to have a Silicon Valley in Moscow. I think that’s a better prescription.

On “nation-building” at home

I think we need a far more serious and sophisticated effort to deal with the dislocations in our own country. We’re not very good at nation building in rural West Virginia, or southern Ohio, or southwest Pennsylvania, or north Arkansas, or the Mississippi Delta, or south Texas, or the Native American reservations. And we’ve got lots of options. And we just decided, at least in our divided political climate, that we have no intention of exercising those options.

President Clinton talked about the potential of harnessing wind energy from the Dakotas to Texas, and Google spreading high-speed broadband in places like Kansas City, and Chattanooga reinventing itself as a health and IT center.

On clean energy

President Clinton talked about the advances made on one of the Canary Islands to be 100 percent energy independent. He also spoke to the cost of power in the Caribbean, including a wind power farm in the Dominican Republic, and the Clinton Foundation’s work in Los Angeles to replace 140,000 street lights, saving the city millions of dollars a year. He gave an example of how financing structures can be detrimental to solar projects and favorable to coal and nuclear:

In America the real money is still in building retrofits, and the quicker payback. And we just scratched the surface of it because we need government financing to effect an orderly transition. Why do we need that? Because everything is organized here around centralized power stations with coal or nuclear primarily, although there is some natural gas. And if you build a coal-fired power plant, you don’t have to worry about the financing because under state law you can get 20 years to finance it. In most states if you build a nuclear plant you get 30 years to finance it. There is no solar array that I am aware of now that can’t be paid off in 15 years. But people say, oh it’s not economical. Why? Because you’re supposed to pay for it all up front and everybody else gets to pay through the nose for 20 years for another alternative.

Concluding thoughts

“There’s a lot of good going on this world,” President Clinton said. He continued:

It’s good to isolate the problems. It’s good to be worried about them. It’s good to try to mitigate them. But in a world with power as diffuse as it is you can’t spend your whole life playing whack-a-mole. You have got to try to minimize and contain the problems but you have to spend time on the opportunities. …

But do not spend all of your time defining the 21st century-world in terms of what didn’t work out in a second-and-a-half in the long sweep of history. Most of this stuff is staggering in the right direction and we need to spend at least half our energies trying to make more good things happen faster for more people and the other half trying to keep bad things from happening and mitigate those that do.

Named in honor of Brookings’s founder, the annual Robert S. Brookings Lecture Series was launched in 2014 to provide a platform for a leading public figure to address major governance issues. While Brookings experts work on the full breadth of policy issues locally, nationally and globally, all of the Institution’s work focuses on governance.