Bill Clinton’s World
The former president tells Foreign Policy what to read, who to watch, and why there really is a chance of Middle East peace in 2010.
If you wanted to know how Bill Clinton thought when he was president, you ignored the scripted set-piece speeches and instead went to listen to him talk off the cuff at an evening fundraiser. At night, he would ruminate extemporaneously on race, religion, science, and the nature of the human soul. His mind would roam widely and yet pull together disparate themes into a coherent narrative as no other politician of his generation. Today, the place to hear him think out loud is at the annual Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York, where he gathers hundreds of heads of state, business moguls, nonprofit executives, academics, and even Hollywood stars not just to talk about the world’s problems but to do something about them.
Peter Baker, White House correspondent for the New York Times, and Susan Glasser, Foreign Policy‘s executive editor, caught up with Clinton there for an expansive conversation about identity, virtue, and riding the steppes with Genghis Khan. Below, the edited excerpts.
Foreign Policy: Last year we did not expect the economy to collapse quite the way it did. This year we did not think the people of Iran would take to the streets after the election. Looking ahead to 2010, what are the strategic surprises we ought to be looking for?
Bill Clinton: We should look around the world and see if there are any places where the political analogue of the financial crisis could occur. That is, what we know about all systems subject to a combination of stress and dynamism is that there are fractures and vulnerabilities that are not immediately apparent because people expect tomorrow to be a replica of yesterday and today. I always say, in a highly dynamic environment, it’s obvious you should always be working for the best and preparing for the worst. That’s easy to say, but how do you do that? And what are the warning signs? For example, could something go wrong in Nigeria as a result of a combination of economic and political conflict?
On the flip side, which other places in the world could still surprise us by doing something really smart and good? I still think there is some chance the Israelis and the Hamas government and the Palestinian government could make a deal. Because I think that the long-term trend lines are bad for both sides that have the capacity to make a deal. Right now, Hamas is kind of discredited after the Gaza operation, and yet [the Palestinian Authority] is clearly increasing [its] capacity. They are in good shape right now, but if they are not able to deliver sustained economic and political advances, that’s not good for them. The long-term trends for the Israelis are even more stark, because they will soon enough not be a majority. Then they will have to decide at that point whether they will continue to be a democracy and no longer be a Jewish state, or continue to be a Jewish state and no longer be a democracy. That’s the great spur.
The other thing that has not been sufficiently appreciated is the inevitable arc of technological capacity that applies to military weaponry, like it does to pcs and video games and everything else. I know that these rockets drove the Israelis nuts, and I didn’t blame them for being angry and frustrated — it was maddening. But let’s be candid: They were not very accurate. So it’s only a question of time until they are de facto outfitted with GPS positioning systems. And when that happens and the casualty rates start to really mount, will that make it more difficult for the Palestinians to make peace instead of less? Because they will be even more pressed by the radical groups saying, “No, no, look, look, we are making eight out of 10 hits. Let’s stay at this.” I think one of the surprising things that might happen this year  is you might get a substantial agreement. Nobody believes this will happen, and it probably won’t, because of the political complexity of the Israeli government. But all I can tell you is, I spent a lot of time when I was president trying to make a distinction between the headlines and the trend lines. If there was ever a place where studying the trend lines would lead you to conclude that sooner is better than later for deal-making, it would be there.
FP: Who do you think is the smartest, most penetrating thinker you know (maybe other than your own family)? Are there people who should be on our list?
BC: Paul Krugman — I don’t always agree with him, but he is unfailingly good. David Brooks has been very good. Tom Friedman is our most gifted journalist at actually looking at what is happening in the world and figuring out its relevance to tomorrow and figuring out a clever way to say it that sticks in your mind-like “real men raise the gas tax.” You know what I mean?
Malcolm Gladwell has become quite important. The Tipping Point was a very good observational book about what happened and how change occurred. But I think his last book, Outliers, is even more important for understanding how we all develop and for making the case that even for people we view as geniuses, life is more of a relay race than a one-night stand by a one-man band or a one-woman band. I thought it was a truly exceptional book.
Robert Wright, the guy who wrote The Evolution of God, The Moral Animal, and the book he wrote in the middle, which had a huge effect on me as the president, Nonzero. This book about God is just basically an extension of his argument in Nonzero, which is essentially that the world is growing together, not apart. And as you have wider and wider circles of interconnection — that is, wider geographically, encompassing more people, and wider in bandwidth, encompassing more subject areas — you begin with conflict and you end with some resolution, some merging. So he says there is not an inherent conflict between science and God, and he explains why. Wright says, no, no, no, the religious and scientific can mix in accommodation. In Nonzero he argues that ever since people came out of caves and formed clans, people have been bumping up against each other, requiring expansion of identity, subconscious identity. You move from conflict to cooperation in some form or fashion. And so far the struggle between conflict and cooperation has come out before humanity triggered its capacity for self-destruction. So that whole Nonzero idea has now been translated into his argument on God, and I think he is a very important guy.
Another person I think has written some very interesting books on the ultimate imperative of cooperation in the human and other species is Matt Ridley. The one that had a pretty good influence on me is The Origins of Virtue. And by virtue he doesn’t mean, I never take a drink, even on Saturday night. He means civic virtue. How do we treat one another in ways that are constructive, and work together? I think that these are some of the many people. They are thinking about how the world works and how it might be at the same time. At this moment in history, we need people who have a unique understanding of both how the world works and how it might be better, might be more harmonious.
FP: The Cold War lasted about 40 years. Do you see this current struggle we are having with extremism, whatever you want to call it, the war on terror, do you see that lasting as long, or do you see that changing in some way over the next decade?
BC: How long it lasts depends on whether the places out of which really big, effective terrorist groups are operating remain essentially stateless. The territories in Pakistan and the border area with Afghanistan are not part of a centralized state. Robert Kaplan has written tons of books about what’s going on in the modern world, and if you read The Ends of the Earth and these books that say we are de facto, no matter what the laws say, becoming nations of mega-city-states full of really poor, angry, uneducated, and highly vulnerable people, all over the world, we would have a lot of slumdog millionaires. If that’s right, then terror — meaning killing and robbery and coercion by people who do not have state authority and go beyond national borders — could be around for a very long time. On the other hand, terrorism needs both anxiety and opportunity to flourish. So one of the things that the United States and others ought to be doing is trying to help the nation-state adjust to the realities of the 21st century and then succeed.
Resolving energy, ironically, could play a major role in reducing the appeal of terror because if we change the way we produce and consume energy all over the world, it would create opportunities for education, for entrepreneurs, for work, for involving women and girls in positive economic encounters, at every level of national income from the richest states to the poorest. Therefore, I think all of the creative energy thinkers need to be brought to bear on this because the world as it integrates has to have a source of new economic activity. In the poorer places just getting agriculture up to speed and putting all the kids in school, there is enough to keep going for a few years. But this energy thing could give us a decade of exhilarating self-discovery. Really smart energy thinkers, Amory Lovins, Paul Hawken, people who have been doing this for 30 years — what they’ve always known, before this ever became a serious debate, is, you couldn’t sell a clean green future unless you could prove it was good economics.
You should look at big thinkers on the question of identity. Samuel Huntington wrote the famous book The Clash of Civilizations. But we need an effort to explain and, if possible merge, theories of identity that are biological, psychological, social, and political, because it’s obvious that in an age of interdependence, you want Wright’s thesis, you want there to be more nonzero subsolutions. You want this thing to happen; you hope he is right that you can reconcile religion and science; you hope the president’s speech in Cairo turns out to be right, that it’s a walk in the park to reconcile religious differences. I gave a bunch of speeches on this after 9/11, saying that our religious and political differences could be reconciled. I think President Obama’s word was that we had to respect doubt.
What I always said was that if you are religious it meant by definition there was such a thing as Truth, capital T. So to make it work in a world full of differences, you had to recognize that there was a big distinction between the existence of Truth, capital T, and the ability of any one human being to understand it completely and to translate it into political actions that were 100 percent consistent with it. That’s what you had to do; all you had to do was accept human frailty. You can’t tell people of faith to be relative about their faith. They believe there is a truth. But the question of whether they can know it and turn it into a political program is a very, very different thing. That is an act of arrogance.
I was influenced by Ken Wilber’s book A Theory of Everything, because he tries to point out that throughout history we get connected to people who are different from us before our heads get around the implications of that, and then as soon as they do there is a parallel level of interconnectivity and we have to get our heads around that. All of the public intellectuals in the world need to be thinking quite a bit about this question of identity and need to recognize that in view of the findings of the human genome about the similarities of all of us, even the husband and wife who at the minimum are 99.5 percent the same — it’s pretty spooky, isn’t it?
FP: Lightning round: What are the three books you’ve been reading recently?
BC: I am reading H.W. Brands’s book on FDR. I am reading the new biography of Gabriel García Márquez, and I just finished Joshua Cooper Ramo’s book, which I thought was actually quite good, but I think he should write another one and think about the practical applications of the strategic insights and the theoretical insights.
FP: Top three leaders that people should pay attention to, other than Obama.
BC: The prime minister of Australia, Kevin Michael Rudd — he is really smart. He has a thirst to know and figure out how to do things.
I think people should study what Paul Kagame did in Rwanda. It is the only country in the world that has more women than men in Parliament (obviously part of the demographic is from the genocide). It may not be perfect, but Rwanda has the greatest capacity of any developing country I have seen to accept outside help and make use of it. It’s hard to accept help. They’ve done that. And how in God’s name does he get every adult in the country to spend one Saturday every month cleaning the streets? And what has the psychological impact of that been? The identity impact? The president says it’s not embarrassing, it’s not menial work, it’s a way of expressing your loyalty to and your pride in your country. How do you change your attitudes about something that you think you know what it means? How did he pull that off?
There are lots of fascinating leaders in Latin America worth studying. But I think it’s worth looking at Colombia. How has Medellín been given back to the people of Colombia? We all know President Uribe has faced criticism in the U.S., but how did Medellín go from being the drug capital of the world, one of the most dangerous places on Earth, to the host city of the 50th anniversary of the Inter-American Development Bank? I would look at that.
I would look at another guy, José Ramos-Horta, the president of the first country in the 21st century, East Timor. Is it too small to be a nation? Can you get too small? Can your courageous fight for independence and freedom lead you to an economic unit that is not going to have a population or a geographic base big enough to take care of your folks? How are the Kosovars going to avoid that?
FP: Is there any country you haven’t been to yet that you want to go to?
BC: I want to go to Mongolia and ride a horse across the steppes and pretend I am in Genghis Khan’s horde — but I’m not hurting anybody! I want to go to Antarctica. There are places where I have been where I have only been working. I would like to take Hillary to climb Kilimanjaro, while there is still snow up there.