2010 Atlantic Council Awards Dinner - Distinguished International Leadership Award
Bill Clinton, 42nd President of the United States
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
BILL CLINTON: Thank you very much. I want to thank – (laughter) – thank you. I want to thank Gen. Jones for that amazing introduction and once again proving the validity of Clinton’s third law of politics: Always be introduced by someone you have appointed to high office. (Laughter.)
And, I mean, you know, he got his four star and then he was the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and sort of the brains of the Pentagon as we always said. I can only imagine what his introductions of President Obama will be like in a few years. (Laughter.) General, I thank you. I thank you for your service. I’m delighted you’re at the National Security Council and I thank you for the relationship you have with the secretary of state who respects and admires you so much.
I want to say thanks to Frederick Kempe and to all the people at the Atlantic Council and especially to Sen. Chuck Hagel, who called me about this some months ago. I know there are many United States senators here: Sen. Reid, Sen. Leahy, Sen. LeMieux.
I saw Sen. McCain; I hope he’s still here because this is not only the 15th anniversary of the Dayton Accords and the end of the war in Bosnia and the 15th anniversary of the ceasefire in Northern Ireland, which was the beginning of the end of the conflict there. This is the 15th anniversary of America’s long-delayed reconciliation with Vietnam. And it never would have happened if it hadn’t been for John McCain who made it possible. (Applause.) And I just wanted to thank him for that from the bottom of my heart.
And I want to thank you for honoring both Gen. Abrial and Gen. Mattis and I thank them for their service, for NATO’s mission and for its out-of-area commitment in Afghanistan. We began that whole process of defining a 21st century mission for NATO as has been said earlier when I was president. It was continued under President Bush and that policy has been continued under President Obama. And I think that’s the ultimate validation of a policy: if it’s embraced by people of both parties because it’s good for America, good for the world and good for the future.
I would like to thank Dr. Josef Ackermann. And I am glad you gave me that award, but I am personally very grateful to Deutsche Bank. They have been a great partner of mine in much of the work I have done around the world and promoting microfinance and trying to help promote energy efficiency.
And I just want to say one thing and show my bias because the Congress is about to take up the debate on energy, which I consider to be an issue of supreme importance. And one of our Atlantic partners – one of our most important Atlantic partners, Germany, leapfrogged the United States last year to become the number-one consumer of electricity generated from the sun in the entire world, even though the sun shines in Germany on average as much as it does in London. (Laughter, applause.) So to get there, they had to have quite a little subsidy.
Deutsche Bank – not Greenpeace, Deutsche Bank – did a study of the German solar program. And they said, even if you discount for the drag of the subsidy, Germany netted 300,000 new jobs, which by population would be 1.2 million new jobs if we did it and if you take account of the various – our capacity to generate electricity, it would be more like 3 million jobs. (Applause.) And so I thank you, Dr. Ackermann, for that study and for proving that Germany is right. And parenthetically, their unemployment is a lot lower than ours today.
I thank Baaba Maal for singing and I asked him if I could come to Senegal and hear him once. I showed him a picture on the way in of his native land. He said, I remember your whole tour to Senegal in 1998 and I remember you went to a village. And I have just come here – the reason I’m a little late: I came from a memorial service for Dr. Dorothy Height.
And one of the things Dorothy Height did long before it was popular is to involve the African-American community in nongovernmental work beyond our borders. She was teaching people in rural Indian villages decades ago and she was organizing women’s leadership groups in rural African villages.
So I brought Baaba Maal a picture of me holding a goat in a Senegalese village with Hillary in 1998. The goat was the newest born thing in the villager and I named the goat Bill Clinton. (Laughter.) Not the first time I have been the goat. (Laughter.) And so I explained to him that I had used this picture – I waved this picture in Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., tonight because that was Dorothy Height’s goat. She gave them – the United Council of Negro Women gave them the money to build the well which saved the village on the edge of the desert and made life possible there in ensuing decades.
And I say that to make a larger point about why we’re here: Why is – I’ve been told at least that President Saakashvili of Georgia is here, that former President Alexander Kwasniewski of Poland is here, a long-time friend – and my friend and former colleague, former prime minister of Spain, José María Aznar and Carl Bildt, who went through the whole thing in the Balkans with me. And I thank you. Former Prime Minister Aziz of Pakistan, Han Duck-soo, former prime minister of South Korea.
For all of you, you’re here tonight because you know that we need to organize ourselves to reflect the reality that our destinies are entwined, no less than they were in the Cold War. I was the first president to serve his entire term after the Cold War. And there were many people who were saying, well, we ought to just reduce our international involvements. America was having a tough economy. And we just – we really don’t need to be doing this.
So for example, let’s just look at what happened in 1995 when I – and the Bosnian conflict had been heavily publicized and I had been trying for two years to get international support to get involved and to stop it. By then we had a quarter of a million dead, 2.5 million refugees. The slaughter in Srebrenica finally triggered what we needed to get the support of our NATO allies and everybody else to go into Bosnia. When we did it, a majority of the American people were still opposed to it. When we went into Kosovo later in my second term, the majority of the American people were opposed to it.
Nineteen ninety-five (1995) was also the 15th anniversary of the Mexican peso crisis. And let us not forget that Canada and Mexico are also Atlantic powers and very important to our future. And I took about five minutes to decide minutes to decide we had to help Mexico, but my younger staffers thought I had literally lost my mind. We had just lost the Congress because guys like Joe Scarborough – (chuckles) – gave such great speeches. (Laughter.)
Joe and Mika and I had a good time backstage. (Laughter.) While you were all being sober and very deliberate, we were gigging each other a little bit. I like Joe Scarborough. I think he’s good; he’s a nice leavening factor on media. And I like her because he’ll be funny and she knows what she’s talking about. (Laughter.) It’s a great – (applause). I will never live this down. He will get even with me one way or the other. (Laughter.)
No, anyway, we were talking about this. We forget about all these things. It’s the 15th anniversary of the Mexican peso crisis, the financial crisis in Mexico. And Bob Rubin told me that, said, you know, Mexico’s got two hours to live and if we don’t give them a loan guarantee, they’re going to go belly-up tomorrow.
And the leadership of the Republican and Democratic parties had previously promised to support me in Congress and Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole – this was one that was a straight-up deal. We didn’t have a political fight. They came and said, we can’t deliver any votes because there had been a poll in the paper that morning which said that by 79 to 18, the American people were against – strongly against my giving financial assistance to Mexico.
And so they came in; we had a little debate. Bob Rubin made the case. Somebody made the arguments against it. I said, this is not close. Give them the loan. And all the younger people there in the room literally thought I should be given immediate psychiatric care. (Laughter.) They said, look, we just lost the Congress. You just got your brains beat out once. Now you’re doing something that 79 percent of the people are against. Are you out of your mind?
I said, okay, let’s don’t do it. Let’s don’t do it. Let’s tell him, sorry. Then a year from now when Mexico is still reeling, when people have been hurt south of Mexico, when we have another million illegal immigrants, when there are more narcotics coming across the border, when every Mexican hates our guts because they think we’re greedy and selfish and uncaring about our neighbors and people ask me what in the daylights are you doing letting this mess develop, my answer is going to be, well, on the day I could have stopped it, there was a poll saying 79 percent of you were against it. And it quieted all the opposition.
I said, look, people hire presidents to win for America and to win for the world and to look around the corners and you’re either right or wrong; you got to live with it. But you can’t worry about what’s popular at the moment you do it because by definition on foreign policy as opposed to many domestic issues, you actually have more information than most people do. And if you ask anybody to do anything that’s got any inherent risk at a time when everything is not hunky-dory at home, they’ll always be against it.
I say that not to be self-serving, but to point out that one of the things that has held the world together since the end of the Cold War is a generalized understanding that whether we’re fighting or working together – when the Berlin Wall came down and revealed a lot of new conflicts – ugly ethnic conflicts – it also proved that our destinies were more intertwined than ever before. This is the more interdependent age in human history.
These things that were talked about tonight by Gen. Jones are relevant today only because the world needs more of them. He talked about, you know, our efforts to destroy the nuclear missiles and to contain the nuclear materials and getting all the nuclear weapons out of Belarus and Kazakhstan and Ukraine and we just about secured all the loose nukes except about – I think I read 2,000 more have to be done.
This conference that President Obama hosted the other day with the secretary of state and the secretary of defense and the others – this was another step down that journey – a recognition that if there are 2,000 loose nukes in Russia that have not been secured or destroyed, that affects our security. If there are hospitals all over the world that have trace elements of nuclear materials that can be made – that can be weaponized if you can amass enough up. There are laboratories – university laboratories, government laboratories and others – all over the world where this happens.
So I was elated when all these people came to America with all their different political perspectives to talk about what we could do to secure the nuclear stocks of the world – in power plants, in labs, in hospitals and these few weapons that have not been secured.
We live in an interdependent world. It has three huge problems: It is too unequal. It is too unstable. And because of the changes in the climate, it is not sustainable. And so I submit to you that whether you’re honoring someone like my friend Bono who sang in the rain at my library dedication or generals in a joint command for NATO or pushing the Afghan mission or a great banker who also believes that we can change the way we produce and consume energy – every one of them in different ways is involved in affirming our common humanity and reacting to the realities of the time by trying to make the world less unequal or less unstable or less unsustainable.
And that’s why the Atlantic alliance is relevant today. That’s why the Atlantic Council is relevant today. That’s why we should really care about our friends in Greece. It’s a great country. They made a mistake. I remember pleading for help for Argentina when they got in trouble not long after I left office. And one of the members of the second President Bush’s administration who was a very good friend of mine – a man I respected then and I respect now. We had a heck of an argument over this.
He said, why should we help them? They screwed up. I said, yeah, they did. (Chuckles.) I said, do you ever need any help when you didn’t screw up? (Laughter.) I said, last time I checked, that’s when we all need help. (Laughter, applause.) If we went around life perfect, none of us would ever need any help from anybody else. Of course, they need – you know.
So I say that to drive home why I’m honored to be here, why I think the Atlantic Council is important, why I think the Atlantic institutions are important, why I think this nuclear cooperation is important. If you ask me my position on anything – and I mean anything – a little switch in my mind goes on and I ask myself, will this build up the positive forces of interdependence and reduce the negative ones? If it will, I’m for it. If it won’t, I’m against it. We all need a framework like that.
It needs to – look, there’s still argument for – there’s still plenty of room for Joe Scarborough and me to have an argument over what’s a center-right or a center-left way to deal with inequality and instability and unsustainability. But we’re not out there in la-la land pretending that we are not interdependent, pretending that we don’t have to care about what happens to our friends in the Balkans, that we don’t have to care if all of that could go for naught if Greece fails, that we don’t have to care about what the ultimate resolution of this teetering relationship with Turkey is right now – that we don’t have to care about these things. I think we do.
And make no mistake about it, it’s just like what I told all those young people in the White House that night when we had the Mexican debate. You can reach out and try to do it right or you can decide it’s too much trouble and walk away from it. But a year from now, two years from now, five years from now, for good or ill, we are going to eat our interdependence. And if it’s going to be a good meal, it better be positive, not negative.
All it means is is that divorce is not an option. That’s all interdependence means. We cannot get away from each other no matter how distasteful we might find the fact. (Laughter.) And I say that – (chuckles) – we’ve got to – you know, we need to get over this.
And I think it is profoundly– you’re laughing, but I want you to laugh so you’ll – the reason I’m saying all – I realize I am preaching to the saved here. Otherwise, I mean, why would you show up, unless you’re related to one of the honorees and have to. But I want you to think about that, because the danger for people in this room is, if you’re not in public office now, you will think only in traditional terms about what the politicians’ and the militaries’ jobs are.
And the truth is, that’s why I was delighted that Joseph Ackermann and Bono and I were recognized, because we’re not in politics or the military; we’re in the nongovernmental and the business world. And basically, the business model that large institutions follow is profoundly important in making the 21st-century Atlantic world. And there’s always a space between what the government can provide and the private sector can produce that the nongovernmental sector has to try to occupy. And that’s more important than ever before.
We had a million foundations in America before the financial downturn, and half of them were established in the last 12 years – stunning. India has more than a million foundations active in India, about half of them domestic. China has, probably, 400,000, registered and not registered. Even Russia, where they’ve received the cold shoulder, has got a couple hundred thousand. So this nongovernmental movement – the things Bono talked about – these things are important.
And when you look at the inequalities – just take the inequalities within Europe. If you look at the problems in the aftermath of this Greek crisis; if you look at the challenges our friends in Spain are having because of the impact of the financial bubble there, there’s plenty for people to do in the nongovernmental sector there. So that’s the one point I want to make. We all have something to do to sustain this Atlantic alliance, because it’s pivotal to building up the positive and reducing the negative forces of interdependence.
The second point I want to make is, if you believe what I said – if you believe we’re interdependent and you think the roadblocks to a more positive life are inequality, instability and un-sustainability, then it requires us to think about the way we do our business differently. I tried to get a good relationship with Russia. I did everything I could to help them financially in my first year as president. But that was popular, compared to Mexico. When I helped Russia, only 76 percent of the people were against that. (Laughter.)
But why did I do that? Because I knew we were going to share the future with them, one way or the other, and I knew they had been a great country before and they would be again. And it hurts to get – when whatever you’re doing doesn’t work anymore. Even if it’s good for the world, it hurts. And I didn’t want them to define their greatness – ask the president of Georgia here – I did not want them to define their greatness in 19th-century, imperial terms. I wanted them to define their greatness in more positive terms.
You know, every year, lots and lots of universities enter a global contest with teams solving computing problems – really advanced. Last year, two of the top three finishers in the contest were universities in Russia – in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The other was Chinese. Our highest finisher was the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, where the Westinghouse Scholars go. But the point is, I’d like for them to take a lot of pride in that and define their greatness that way, not whether they’re fighting with Georgia or anybody else.
Most people see geopolitics as a zero-sum game. There has to be a winner and a loser. And we, Americans – we really like those zero-sum games. (Unintelligible) – pro basketball playoffs now. You watch these things. If they tie, we’ll make them play all night long until there’s a winner and a loser. (Laughter.) If every third player breaks a leg, we’ll still make them keep playing. And we do it in football, and we do it in soccer until we have a kickoff. We hate tie games. We hate games where both sides win.
But we need to get used to games where both sides win in real life. As a matter of fact, it needs to be our operating principle, that we can find a way for everyone to win. I’m not trying to help the Haitians rebuild their country after that horrible earthquake and four horrible hurricanes in 2008. And one of the things that I’m doing my best to do – I had a long meeting with the prime minister today – is to try to help build an ethic by every single thing we do so that there will be a set of values that wants everybody to come out of this ahead – wants everyone to be better off. That we don’t have to beat somebody down to lift somebody else up.
And if you think about what the Atlantic community went through in the 20th century, from World War I to the Great Depression to World War II to the Balkan wars, and if you think about the courage it took to unify Germany – for Germany to reach out to Russia, for the European Union to reach out to Russia, to take a chance on the euro, to have a European Central Bank, to deal with all these political integration issues, really, the Atlantic community, including our southern neighbors, ought to take the lead in building a world where we can increase the positive and reduce the negative forces of interdependence.
And we can do it because none of us have to win at someone else’s expense. The best example of this on earth that I have encountered is in Rwanda, where I do a lot of work. They’re the most amazing people I ever saw.
When I went there after I was president the first time and I was working on setting up their AIDS program for them, a reporter from America went there and said, aren’t you mad that Bill Clinton’s here working? I mean, he said himself that he should have acted in 1994 to stop your genocide and it’s one of his great regrets.
And the cab driver says, no, I’m glad he’s here. And he said, how can you say that? I mean, the guy was really frustrated, because he was supposed to write a bad story. But the cab driver said – didn’t have anything to do with me; it was about what was in his head – the cab driver said, “First, he did not make us kill each other. We did that all by ourselves. And second, at least he came here and apologized; no one else has. And right now we’re looking at the future and we need all the help we can get.” In other words, this guy did not have a zero-sum ethic.
When I helped them personally and with my foundation to finish their genocide memorial, which is the most amazing three-tiered crypt with the bones of 300,000 victims of the genocide buried and registered in a roll of honor and I went back to see it, I got this tour from this really handsome young man who was just calmly taking me through and going through just like, you know, he was giving you a tour of the Museum of Natural History or something. And I said, did you lose anybody in the genocide?
He said, oh, yes. He said, my mother, my father, my brother and my sister-in-law, and he said, well, if you stop at my uncles, my aunts and my first cousins, 73 people. And I said, isn’t this hard for you? He said, oh, no, it’s therapeutic. And he smiled. He said, “We have to face the past so we can let go of it and get on with the future.”
So I said, you know, the first time Hillary and I came here in ’98, I met with six genocide survivors, and one of them reminds me of you. She was a woman whose husband and six children were murdered and she awoke in a pool of her own blood. She miraculously survived. And she said, first, she’d screamed out to god in anger that she had survived. And then she realized there must have been a reason that couldn’t be something as mean as vengeance. So this woman started an adoption service and a foster care home. And she took kids in without regard to their ethnic group and she placed them in families without regard to their ethnic group.
So this kid starts smiling – this young guy – and he says, well, I should remind you of her. She is my aunt. They’re amazing people. Two years ago – I always send out, at Christmastime, gifts – crafts gifts from – to my supporters of my foundation from the countries where I work. So two years ago, I sent out Rwandan baskets. They’re great basket-makers. And one of the coops we bought from was run by a Tutsi woman named Pskasi (ph), who’d lost seven children and her husband in the genocide.
She had 10 kids. Seven of her 10 kids were murdered and her husband. And she had to start again. She was 50 years old. Her kids were grown. They were in the military, was the only reason they didn’t get killed. So she goes out and finds this Hutu woman that’s in the other camp, if you will, who was a good basket-maker and said, look, we’ve got to make a living. We can’t be eaten up by this. We’ve got to start again.
So they start making baskets. And pretty soon, they’re on sale all over Kigali, and pretty soon, they’re on sale at Bergdorf Goodman at New York. (Laughter.) I mean, these women were amazing and they did so well training women in basket-weaving that young men began to show up and ask to be trained. And about a year after they started taking young men, this 26-year-old man asked if he could see the boss, Pskasi.
And he went to see her and broke down in tears. And he said, “You have been wonderful to me, but I can’t live with myself any longer. I murdered one of your sons.” And he said, I know you have three older children in the military. Send for one of them to come and kill me. That would be justice. And I will stay here and work for you every day until he comes. And this woman, who had lost seven of her 10 children, said, “What good would that do? I forgive you. Get up and go back to work.”
Now, could you do that? Could you? I don’t know if I could. But I know one thing: Every time I start feeling sorry for myself, I think about that. And I say that because everybody’s got a legitimate beef. It’s kind of like Argentina messing up. Most of your resentments are based on something that’s real. Most of your identity that drives you to have to have a loser in order for you to be a winner is based on something that’s real. It may be real, but it is not sustainable in the 21st-century world.
So anytime you doubt that we can work our way through the still-thorny problems of the Balkans – we are not out of the woods yet – anytime you doubt – you think, oh, this Northern Irish thing – it was a special moment in history. It probably can’t be replicated. You think about that woman losing seven kids and telling that boy, who wanted to be killed because he killed one of them, that she forgave him.
That woman may have little education and little in common with you, and she may have never crossed the Atlantic Ocean, but she is a citizen of the 21st century because she thinks her common humanity is more important than the interests in differences which darn near destroyed her country.
If we can fight non-zero-sum games in a way that embraces the positive and reduces the negative, and none of us escapes our responsibility, we’re going to be just fine. Don’t bet against America; don’t bet against the Atlantic community. Everybody that’s done it so far, in the end, has lost money. Thank you and God bless you. (Applause.)
Transcript by Federal News Service, Washington, D.C.