The U.N. General Assembly may have failed this week to come up with a stirring plan to combat the world's ills. But there was former president Bill Clinton -- once said to have harbored an ambition to become secretary general -- assembling his own mini-General Assembly of presidents, prime ministers, kings and other pooh-bahs on Thursday to devise specific plans for addressing poverty, global warming, religious conflict and better governance.
The inaugural meeting of what he has dubbed the Clinton Global Initiative will stretch over three days of seminars and speeches, bringing together 800 movers and shakers who paid $15,000 each for a seat. If the opening session is any guidepost, the meetings resemble the gabfests at Davos, the annual global economic summit held in Switzerland, or the Renaissance Weekends that Clinton attended as president. But Clinton added a catch -- each of the attendees is required to commit to doing something to improve the world.
"This is more than a photo op, more than business as usual," Clinton said as he opened the session. "All of us come to meetings, we study issues, we say what we think, and too often we complain when the governments that we seek to influence ignore what we think is our sound advice."
So every person attending is required to make a commitment in writing. More than 50 commitments have been made, totaling more than $300 million. Clinton announced four specific commitments -- signed on the spot for the cameras -- which included a $100 million Africa investment fund and a plan to fight HIV-AIDS through micro-enterprise development. One commitment was made by the Clinton initiative itself -- a pledge that all of its activities would be "carbon neutral," promising to mitigate the effects of plane travel and conference preparation by financing renewable energy projects that replace fossil-fuel energy sources.
"What is happening here is the kind of intense dialogue between different people and cultures which should take place at the U.N. but can't anymore because of highly ritualistic structures, protocol and conflict avoidance," said Richard C. Holbrooke, a former U.N. ambassador under Clinton who made the HIV-AIDS commitment.
The initiative, which will take up three floors of a midtown hotel and promises as many motorcade tie-ups as the General Assembly, is the former president's most ambitious attempt to define his post-presidency. Along with the heads of state, former senior Clinton administration officials packed the hall Thursday afternoon.
Organizational mix-ups also gave the event a touch of Clinton nostalgia, as scores of delegates discovered that their credentials were not ready and the meeting began 20 minutes late because people ignored pleas to sit down.
Clinton has strived to keep his project nonpartisan. He presided over an opening roundtable discussion that included King Abdullah of Jordan, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) participated in another panel.
Rice's attendance was noteworthy, coming after nearly 10 years of Republicans' often tough attacks on Bill Clinton's foreign policy. Her predecessor, Colin L. Powell, once told a friend that he had to cancel an appearance at an AIDS conference in Nigeria early in President Bush's first term after Clinton decided to attend. But Clinton and former president George H.W. Bush have worked closely together in the past year, raising money for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.
Clinton was clearly in his element during the roundtable discussion, as he moderated a broad-ranging and polite exchange between the young king, the seasoned British prime minister and the poised Republican secretary of state. He tossed around ideas -- such as an insurance fund for investors in the Gaza Strip -- and sprinkled a plethora of statistics and facts throughout his commentary. He steered clear of Iraq, the contentious issue that most consumes Jordan, Britain and the United States.
"I don't want to get too much in the weeds," Clinton said, but he bemoaned the expiration of something called the worldwide Multi-Fiber Arrangement , which he said hurt African nations. Lesotho, "with the third-highest AIDS rate in the world, they had 2,000 jobs [before passage of Clinton's Africa free-trade agreement] and 50,000 after, and now have lost 15,000 jobs." What, he asked, should be done about this?
Neither Blair nor Rice rushed to answer Clinton's question.
At another point, Clinton said he had not been away from politics long enough to force them to answer whether high oil prices made their lives easier, a reference to the growing attractiveness of alternative energy sources.
Thomas F. McLarty III, former Clinton White House chief of staff, said the diverse gathering was a "picture worth a thousand words," but he was especially amused that Clinton had enlisted former aide George Stephanopoulos to make a presentation. Stephanopoulos, now anchor of the ABC News program "This Week," earned Clinton's ire by writing a tell-all book. Clinton will appear on "This Week" on Sunday to promote his initiative.