Online Exclusive: Clinton -- U.S. Is Not Setting a Good Example

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The following are excerpts from former President Clinton's speech to attendees at The Donnelley Group's Information Privacy Summit in Aspen, CO, on July 17. The topic was: Will the United States maintain its leadership in 2104?

I think you ought to ask yourself what difference it makes if America is the leading country in the world in 2104. And it seems to me that since most of us won't be around then, the most important thing is ... whether it has any bearing on what you should do with your life and what we should do as a country now. ...

I would like to offer the rest of my comments in terms of the American Revolution, because it seems to me that the real question is not whether America leads the world, but whether the ideas and the values that we have always brought to human society can be modified, adapted and embraced. The founders of this country started us off with a simple mission that I have always argued is both bold and humble. If you don't want to read my book, you ought to read the last 3 1/2 pages of it -- the epilogue. What did they say when we started? They said we pledge our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor to -- what -- form a more perfect union. ...

It's really a question of ... that attitude, the idea that you have values but you don't believe you have the whole truth, but you do believe that tomorrow can be better than today. ... We're fighting about it in our country today. It's a big part of what divides American politics today: The people who think they have the whole truth and the people who think that nobody's got the whole truth and we're all just out there looking and hoping we can find a better one than we had yesterday. ...

Hillary used to quote that famous line about hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue. Well, everybody says they're for education. ... Well, my wife is being asked to vote for a budget that gives us a tax cut after we made all this money on these two books we wrote and kicks 1.3 million poor children, many of them first-generation immigrant kids, out of their after-school programs when we know that it's the best thing we can do to keep them off the street, out of trouble, in school and increasing their chances that they'll finish high school, go to college and become productive citizens. ...

Now, that's a value choice, you know, by people who say they represent the values of America, that they're conservative. I think that's a radical choice. I think it's a selfish thing by people with power and money to ignore the needs of our children and our future. ... I thought I was supposed to be a liberal. These people make me look like Calvin Coolidge. ...

By the way, the only reason interest rates aren't higher than they are is because the Chinese are loaning us some money to keep our dollar value high so we can buy their stuff to fuel their growth to pay for my tax cut. ... The point I want to make is, if you believe the future can be better than the present, then you have planning for the future. And "Gimme, gimme, gimme" is not necessarily the best plan for the future.

I want America to be a leading country in the world 100 years from now because I don't think we can totally scrap the nation-state in the delivery of public goods. Somebody has to provide education, healthcare, clean water, sewer systems, law enforcement and all that stuff. And I believe in the idea of Western civilization. I believe in the idea of forming a more perfect union.

When the Chinese are at their best it's because they run the economy like that. They can do better tomorrow than they did today. They don't let their ideology get in the way of their economic policy making. And when they're at their worst, they abandon it all, think they have the whole truth, take anybody who says anything inconvenient and jail the doctor who told them about SARS. So that's the war they have to fight. They need to run their politics the way they run their economy.

But we may need to run our politics the way we run our economy. Most of you'd go broke if you ran your [business] the way we run our politics today. I had a professor that I wrote about in my book and I spoke about interminably until I bored everybody with it when I was at Georgetown who said the central idea that made Western civilization great and gave rise to the dominance of America was the idea of future preference: the idea that tomorrow can be better than today and each of us has a personal, moral responsibility to make it so.

Whenever we ignore that, we get in trouble. And I would argue that we are ignoring that today on economics, on the environment and on our relationships with the rest of the world. And if we continue to ignore it, we won't be the leading country in the world 100 years from now. ...

America is in the grip of yesterday's energy policy and bureaucracies and money and power at the very time when we could be liberating ourselves and actually being freer to pursue more effective anti-terrorist policies with new energy policies. And because we don't believe it, and the Chinese and the Indians look at us and they think, 'Hell, if America doesn't believe it, why should we believe it, we can't talk to them.' So within 30 years, they'll be putting up more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than we are. And you'll be breathing the consequences of their acid rain instead of the other way around.

So that's another question you have to ask yourself: Will the world be worth leading 100 years from now? If the climate warms at the next 50 years at the rate it has for the last 10, we will lose 50 feet of Manhattan island and whole Hawaiian islands in the Pacific ... and destabilize the economy. Agriculture production will change dramatically, and there will be more terrorism as a result of water shortage and food shortage. Already, one in four people on Earth never gets a clean glass of water. ...

On the other hand, none of this stuff is beyond the reach of human solution. ... I don't think we can give up the nation-state until we have a better form of organizations for solving shared problems. ... There are public needs that can only be met by public entities, and one of them is doing something about global warming, the water shortage, climate problems, global poverty, the fact that 130 million kids aren't in school. This AIDS epidemic, we could turn around in no time if we just do what everybody knows we have to do but we're not organized to do. ...

I don't believe that intelligence is unequally distributed throughout the Earth, and I have now been to enough countries and I have walked alone in enough poor villages in India, in Africa and God knows every other continent on Earth to know that enterprise is pretty equally distributed, that there are people out there who are working hard everywhere. What is not equally distributed today is knowledge, opportunity and organizational skills and the capacity to change. ...

The last point I want to make is this, the nation-state 100 years from now has to look a little different than it does today. We are going to be forced to greater cooperation. I just got back from Europe, and all these people over there are either anti-American now or they're terrified that they've fallen out with America over Iraq and they'll never get back together. And that's crazy, we will.

When Hillary and I were in law school, a professor used to have a saying that hard cases make bad law because you overdraw conclusions from them. So Iraq's a hard case. You may think we did right or wrong. You may think the intelligence misspoke or not. The truth is we are where we are. We'd be better off if the enterprise works now, and we have hundreds of Americans who died there. I think we ought to try and make it work. ...

And the only thing we should do now, since none of us are hardly going to be around, is think about the world we would like our grandchildren to live in, and act accordingly today and ask ourselves every time we have a big decision to make, "Is this decision consistent with what I want my grandchildren to live in, and is this choice good." ...

I will close with this. Winston Churchill was a big pro-American guy because his mama was an American and an astonishing woman. When Britain was having all of that trouble at the beginning of World War II, a lot of people were constantly grousing that America was avoiding the war. Roosevelt wouldn't get in the war. And, finally, it took ... Japan bombing Pearl Harbor before we got into it.

So the press was always asking Churchill about America and weren't we a terrible disappointment to him and wasn't Roosevelt a terrible disappointment. Finally, Churchill said in exasperation, "Look, the United States always does the right thing -- after exhausting every other alternative." ...

We have to deal with the environment and other challenges in the world. We have to close the poverty gap. We have to do a better job of being good Americans and making all these first-generation immigrants who come here full participants in our society, including getting a decent education. We have to solve the healthcare problems, but they're all ... solvable.

The nice thing about most of this stuff is we know what to do, we just don't know if we want to make the sacrifices today to get it done tomorrow. That's really why we're all here, because somewhere behind us, someone sacrificed their today so that we could have our tomorrows. I think we should start thinking more like that today because if we do, 100 years from now will take full care of itself. Thank you very much.

Question: How do you have government cooperate with business and not have business give up its intellectual capital?

This is a terrible problem for us after 9/11. I tried to actually mandate by executive order better cooperation between the FBI and the CIA, but we spent all this money ... in the mid-'90s after Oklahoma City increasing our counterterrorism capacity, but nothing was done in information technology.

So after 9/11, a lot of people who do what Vin [Gupta, chairman/CEO of infoUSA] does found they had all these 9/11 terrorists in their computers legally. Mohammed Atta had 12 addresses in America. And one of the guys who flew into the World Trade Center had 30 credit cards and a quarter of a million dollars in outstanding debt and a consolidated monthly payout schedule of $700. That's in the computers of people who do what you do ...

So the question is, in the realm of things, could you have known that before 9/11? And in those two instances, the answer is yes. Actually, 17 of 19 terrorists were found in various computers, but I don't think most would have come up on anybody's radar screen. But somebody who has been here a year and a half and has 30 credit cards and has a quarter of a million dollars in debt, they're either really rich or up to no good. It shouldn't have been hard to figure out which. ...

When you think about it, we were practically walking down the street after 9/11 picking up Arabs and people who weren't even Arabs or Muslims just because they had headbands. And rather than send them off to Guantanamo just kind of on knee-jerk criteria, when if we had had access to this sort of technology and had been able to do it in a way that would have protected the intellectual capital of the company, we could have saved one heck of a lot of lives. I see no alternative to having more partnerships like that. ... We just have to figure it out.

At least in the foreseeable future, government can't move as fast as the private sector. ... It's far better to give the government some way of contracting with these companies that protect their legitimate economic interest and protect the long-term security of the American people, if we can figure it out. ... I've actually looked in those computers and I've seen those people, and I know that if we had the right software screening program, we could have known enough to go after some of those people at least a month before 9/11, and we didn't have that capacity.

Question: Will the next presidential election have an impact on the next 100 years?

Yes, it matters. It always matters. It matters more in times of change. The intense partisanship in the last few years has a parallel in the late 1700s in America. Any time you see it, you may not like it, but it may tell you something really important is going on that has nothing to do with what these people are saying about one another.

Essentially, every time we change the way we work and the way we relate to each other and the rest of the world, we have a heck of a fight over the role of government in our lives and how we're supposed to relate to each other and, increasingly in the 20th century and now in the 21st, how we relate to the rest of the world.

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