Bill Clinton was a great President, who appears to be on the path to becoming a great ex-President. Despite personal foibles for which he paid dearly during his eight years in office, Clinton, as President, continued to provide leadership in international peacemaking, oversee a period of extraordinary economic expansion and lead a national effort to heal the US’s racial, ethnic and religious divides.
It is fascinating that after five years, while George W. Bush is still struggling to define his presidency and defend his leadership in foreign and domestic affairs, Clinton almost effortlessly has taken to the world stage to launch a global effort to address and seek solutions for an array of critical issues: extreme poverty, climate change, problems in governance and religion as a source of conflict.
The inaugural meeting of what is called the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) was convened last week in New York City. It was an extraordinary gathering on several levels. The vision that inspired the conference was breathtaking in scope, the list of participants was impressive and diverse, and the conference’s outcomes, announced at the end of three days of meetings, were of real consequence.
Alternatively referred to as “Davos with a difference” or the creation of a “new global NGO” (non-governmental organization), the CGI featured not only in-depth plenary discussions which brought together 40 heads of state, and almost 1000 religious and business leaders, heads of NGOs, and activists and academics with expertise in each of the topics under consideration. Each session also concluded with the announcement of “commitments” made by the conference’s participants. In other words, the CGI not only defined what needed to be done, but required those in attendance to commit to specific programs to address these needs.
It was this “homework,” as Clinton termed the required “commitments,” that made the CGI different. As the former President noted in his closing remarks, “I asked you here because I think that all of us have an unprecedented amount of power to solve problems, save lives and help people see the future. . . .I also hope you will leave here with a sense of humility about how much better we could do.”
Motivated by this vision and Clinton’s inspirational prodding, the commitments made were as varied and significant as the conference’s participants.
Some pledged millions of dollars to promote peace studies or produce programs encouraging dialogue among religions. Tens of millions were committed to fund micro-enterprise loans to promote job creation in targeted countries. Still others pledged creative approaches to reduce pollution through the use of renewable energy resources. There were programs announced to help eliminate corruption in government, improve health services, and empower women in developing countries.
Of special concern to the Arab World was Clinton’s focus on economic investment and environmental protection in Gaza. He urged participants to commit to promoting projects in Gaza that would utilize alternative energy sources, thereby reducing pollution, and to support “terrorism insurance” for Gaza that would provide protection for foreign investors in that area’s struggling economy. By the conference’s closing day, Clinton announced that he had been able to secure “commitments” that would address both concerns.
In fact, after three days of meetings, Clinton told the assembled conferees that he had received 190 commitments totaling $1.25 billion in pledges. And this is just the beginning. The former President’s goal is to secure between 500 to 1000 commitments to action each year. If such an effort can be sustained for a decade, he noted, “we can make a huge dent in some the world’s biggest problems.”
Clearly, the success of the entire venture was due to the charismatic appeal of the former President. Who else, one participant observed, could draw 40 heads of state (competing with the United Nations General Assembly meeting across town) and the vast array of experts, leaders, and activists who turned out for the conference. And who else could have cajoled and/or inspired such an outpouring of commitments to act.
The CGI represents a bold new step for the former President. It is a declaration that he is not yet finished with public service. Instead of retiring, he will expand his role on the world stage. Like Jimmy Carter before him, Clinton is determined to use and even build on the prestige of his post-presidency in order to make a difference. But unlike Carter, Clinton, ever the organizer and teacher seeks to expand his outreach to bring thousands to join him in a global effort address critical issues. And so, it was that last week we saw a great President on his way to defining his role as an even greater former President.