Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bill Clinton and the World

Bill Clinton gave us a treat at this year's World Business Forum: his framework of the world.

Unlike other speakers at this year’s Forum, Clinton did not use a teleprompter or projected slides. And his paper notes? Apparently just for show – he rarely looked at them. This was the stuff of Bill Clinton legend – speaking off-the-cuff about complex issues in understandable terms. Unfortunately, Clinton fell short of legend this time inside Radio City Music Hall in New York; he meandered and had difficulty staying on point. But his content – why we should care about AIDS in Africa, bombings in the Middle East, and climate change – was no less compelling.

Clinton’s worldview starts with the premise of globalization – although he prefers to use the word “interdependence.” While Clinton rejects the idea that interdependence leads to peace and security outright (See The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War I), he believes it’s possible, if we address three persistent global challenges: inequality, instability, and unsustainability.

Challenge #1: Inequality. “The world is too unequal.” One billion people live on less than $1/day; Half the world population lives on less than $2/day. While people in the developed world live a long time, a quarter of the world still dies from either AIDS, malaria, or bad water (80% of them are children aged five or younger). If global warming proceeds at its current rate, water will become even more scarce, and the developing worlds’ problems aggravated.

“We can be made more secure by eliminating inequality,” Clinton said, citing “10-20 countries in eastern and southern Africa… many of them Muslim… who love the US.” This, at a time when the US has lost significant credibility elsewhere in the world. In these countries, many of which Clinton has visited, nobody has been thinking about Al Qaeda. Why? Because “we have cared whether their kids live or die.”

The lesson is simple and powerful. Focus on the basics and see positive results. In this case, the more we care, the more secure we are.

Challenge #2: Instability. “The world is too unstable.” What seems real one day is gone the next – money, health, security.

In cases, small and large, that span the globe, wealth has diminished like at no other time and to such a degree, since the Great Depression. A local police station in England had to fold because their pension investments in Iceland vanished in the country’s bankruptcy. China, in a short period of time, went from having plenty of cash ($2 trillion in reserves) to not enough (post-crisis they “had nobody to sell to”).

In a more interdependent world, a virus in one part of the world can cause more than just isolated deaths, but also widespread panic and disruption. Swine flu has wreaked havoc in both real and perceived terms. It’s closed down school districts in the US, halted the tourism industry in Mexico, and taken the lives of many. The world is, for lack of a better term, freaking out about it. And with every new report of another well-known person contracting it (e.g., President of Costa Rica and Colombia, Tony Blair’s wife, Harry Smith of the CBS Early Show, Landon Donovan of the US National soccer team), the threat feels more real and the worry continues to worsen.

Terrorist organizations remain a major destabilizing force internationally. Post-9/11, they have managed to hit Madrid, London, Bali, and Bombay, not to mention the countless spots in the war-torn regions of the Middle East and Central Asia. At the same time, as counterintuitive as it seems, “we’re more secure because everyone’s working together.” Without collaboration in the intelligence and law-enforcement communities – that is, positive interdependence – several calamities might have occurred: Al-Qaeda in the Balkans, the millennium attack out of LAX, hi-jacked plane(s) from Indonesia to the US, Holland and Lincoln tunnel bombs in New York.

Across the various sources of global instability, the way to address it is the same. The more vigilant and cooperative we are, the more secure we become.

Challenge #3: Unsustainability. “The world is too unsustainable” because of climate change. 95% of “serious scientists” believe that if we don’t cut CO2 or methane, then temperatures will increase, oceans will rise, and 100 million people in coastal regions will become climate change refugees by 2050, having been forced to uproot by Mother Nature and settle elsewhere. In Australia, Conservatives and Liberals are debating, not about whether the problem is real, but rather how to best solve it… everyone agrees it’s a problem.

Clinton also focused on sustainability in the US. He painted a rather dire portrait of where the country is headed if income continues to decline, college costs continue to outpace income growth, and healthcare continues to cost more while covering less (and also outpacing income growth). He cited the need for a new source of jobs every eight years to remain competitive. Solving climate change, Clinton believes, is the way to do that (e.g., “green” jobs and projects). He’s not shy about the size and difficulty of the task at hand, saying that if done right, it “would be the greatest thing since we mobilized for WWII.”

In the challenge of unsustainability lies a significant opportunity for positive change. The country or company or individual willing to invest in it, could save the world’s future, if not own it.

The world in which we now live is vastly different than the one in which Clinton took office. Then, in 1992, there were only 50 websites worldwide. Today, more than 50 new websites were created during Clinton’s speech at the Forum alone. Our world is much more connected. What we do affects others more so now than ever before. The more we understand that, the more willing and able we are to address the challenges of global interdependence… and experience the peace and security associated with it.

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