Planetary Problem Solver: Bill Clilnton

Jon Meacham
Monday, December 21, 2009; 9:00 AM

The 42nd president of the United States hasn't silently retired. Through the William J. Clinton Foundation, he has focused on world philanthropy and problem solving. Clinton spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jon Meacham. Excerpts:

MEACHAM: What are the issues you think are the most important right now? And what do you think Americans should be thinking about in the next year or two?

CLINTON: Well, first, I think [it's] important to get the framework right. For me it starts with acknowledging that this the most interdependent age in human history. It goes way beyond trade. The rich world was as trade-dependent before World War I as it was in the 1990s, but we didn't have the Internet, we didn't have so much travel, and we didn't have so much immigration and so much diversity, so much shared scientific research. We're linked in so many different ways that we can't get a divorce. Our actions impact each other, whether it's in an obvious place like the Middle East or why we should care about what happens in a borderless area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Interdependence could be good, bad, or both, and today it's both.

My simple premise is that the mission of the 21st century is to build up the positive and reduce the negative forces of interdependence. If you ask me my position on anything, I may give you the wrong answer, I may make a mistake, but I think I have the right filter. I'll ask myself on any profound issue: will this increase positive interdependence or reduce negative interdependence? If it will, I'm for it. If it won't, I'm against it. I really believe creating a shared intellectual framework--not just for policymakers and business leaders and labor leaders and education leaders, but for real people who intuitively know this is true--is a precondition for not only the United States, but others making good decisions going forward.

Now, the main negative forces of interdependence fall into three categories. There's too much inequality in economic opportunity, health care, and education both around the world and within most--not all, but most--wealthy countries. And the inequality has been increasing roughly since the 1970s. Now, we had a four-year period in my second term where the bottom 20 percent's income increased in percentage terms more than the top 20 percent, but [that progress] went away again. And so that's a problem everywhere.

The second big cluster of problems is the instability problems: terror, WMD, ethnic conflicts, avian influenza, the global financial crisis. All these things can spread like wildfire because borders don't mean much.

The third cluster of problems is really rooted in global warming. The world is not sustainable. And I don't think that the truncated e-mails from the University of East Anglia undermine the fact that [the world is getting warmer].

People say all the time that President Obama is working on too many things at once. He may be--we all have limits to our supply lines--but the problem is you want him working on the economy unless your kid can't get a swine-flu shot, in which case you want to know why there's not more swine-flu vaccine, you know. Or if you're a park ranger at Rocky Mountain park and the beetles are eating up your trees and have never been that far north in the history of America, you want him working on climate change.

It's really fascinating to see the inner relationships of all these issues. Think about health care. Whether you care if everybody is insured or not, it's fundamentally an economic issue. You can't just keep, in effect, spotting the competition $900 billion a year. We're almost [at] 17 percent [of] GDP for health care. The next most-expensive country is Switzerland, at 11 and a half [percent]. They're older than we are and more remote, so their delivery-system costs should be much higher than ours per person. And then Canada is next, at 10 and a half [percent], and then all our major competitors are between 9 and 10 [percent]. So if you average it out at 6 percent difference, that's $900 billion we just spot the world in competitive costs up front. So to me it's an economic issue, as is education.

I see these problems clustered, all these issues--instability issues, the unsustainability issues. If you look at how to deal with them in poor countries, obviously just direct aid doesn't work. You have to build a capacity for people to support themselves. Is corruption a problem? Yes. But my experience is that corruption basically flows into the vacuum created by incapacity and that there's corruption in places that have capacity. Bernie Madoff was an American. In the Korean system, when it was going like crazy, you had a certain amount of corruption, but the point is that once you had capacity, since most people are honest, they made the most of it.

In the wealthy countries it's a question of becoming more flexible. Arguably the best-performing European economies before the crash (which changed things, depending on how they were organized) were Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and the U.K.--the only four out of the 44 that signed Kyoto that ever made their targets. Because in changing the way they produced and consumed energy, they increased the job base and did well. Deutsche Bank, hardly a left-wing green affiliate, just did a study of the results in Germany of their conversion to solar energy and wind energy and concluded they added 300,000 jobs. That would be 1.2 million if the United States had done the same thing. And that's just in solar and wind production.

Denmark has 25 percent of its electricity from wind, and you say, "Not everyone can do that," but the Bush administration did a study that said that America could do at least that much if we built a transmission system that connected the wind to electricity use. I was real disappointed in the way that transmission-money part of the stimulus was distributed. Really, the two compelling places we ought to spend it is in the Northeast, where the transmission system is old and inefficient, so you get real savings out of doing it there, or anyplace else where it's old--upper Midwest maybe, the old industrial cities in the upper Midwest

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