Clinton captivates Meehan audience

Former president proclaims era of interdependence, calls for shared responsibilities and values

By
Saturday, April 30, 2005

The United States needs to evaluate domestic and foreign policy options through a framework that recognizes the world’s interdependence and aims to foster an integrated global community with shared responsibilities, benefits and values, former President Bill Clinton told thousands in a packed and high-energy Meehan Auditorium Friday afternoon.

Clinton captivated the audience during his 50-minute policy lecture titled “Embracing Our Common Humanity: Security and Prosperity in the 21st Century.” He received frequent applause, and his likening of international agreements to marriages and his joke that evolution is “just a theory” resulted in roars of laughter from the crowd.

Slideshow: Clinton addresses Brown University in Meehan Auditorium

President Ruth Simmons introduced the 42nd president, saying, “In the early 1990s, he came forth with conviction and promise onto the national stage. And thank God he did.”

Opening his speech, Clinton said we now live in an era of interdependence. Countries are linked more closely than in the past, he said, citing how a few individuals in China stopped the spread of a deadly SARS epidemic throughout the world.

But Clinton argued that interdependence is more than transnational connections – it is also on the local level. The multitude of races and ethnicities interacting in every community is evidence of humanity’s interdependence, he said.

“This interdependence is not just that we’re tied to the Middle East, Africa and Asia. In our country, in our community and within the institutions we care about, we are growing more diverse and more dependent on one another,” he said.

Interdependence itself is not necessarily good, he argued. He cited the poverty, hunger, illiteracy and health problems of the world as evidence that an interconnected world does not necessarily mean a better world.

And, he said, “Al-Qaida used the forces of interdependence – open borders, free travel, easy immigration and easy access to information and technology – to turn a bunch of jet airplanes into massive chemical weapons. … The people who died (on Sept. 11, 2001) were from 70 countries and they included over 200 other Muslims,” he said.

He said the goal of the United States and other wealthy nations, then, is to maximize the benefits of reciprocity.

“We should move from an unstable, unequal interdependence to an integrated community – globally, nationally and locally. … Interdependence just means that you can’t escape each other. To have a community, you need to have three things: shared responsibilities, shared benefits and simple sets of shared values,” he said.

He argued that the goal of an integrated global community – one with shared responsibilities, benefits and values – should be used when evaluating any policy question.

Based on the paradigm he outlined, Clinton offered four policy priorities for the United States.

First, he argued that the United States needs to develop a security policy that recognizes that everyone in an interdependent world is vulnerable to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Security is not the bastion of one political party, he said.

“Don’t let anybody ever tell you that because you’re liberal on civil rights, liberal on gay rights and liberal on the environment, that that means you shouldn’t be concerned about the security of our country,” he said.

“We should stand up and say that all Americans and all people everywhere with a lick of sense want to live in a secure environment, and what we really ought to be having is not a debate about who is weak and who is strong, but who is smart and who is not, who is right and who is wrong,” he argued.

Next, Clinton said the United States should build a world with more partners and fewer adversaries.

A country cannot simply kill or overtake all of its enemies, he said. Going after Afghanistan and Iraq has stretched U.S. forces enough, he added.

He said those who opposed the invasion of Iraq must now support U.S. efforts to promote stability there. “You should want it to work now,” he said.

The United States needs to partner with other countries to tackle the real problems facing the world, such as poverty, illiteracy and AIDS, Clinton said. Working to fight such problems, he said, shares the responsibility, shares the benefits and recognizes the shared value of humanity.

Third, Clinton argued that the United States ought to join more institutions of international cooperation, such as the Kyoto accord, the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty and the International Criminal Court.

He criticized the current Bush administration for avoiding cooperative institutions with its argument that they force the United States to give up some freedom of choice. Any worthwhile commitment or relationship – from marriage to joining a sports team – involves sacrificing some autonomy, he said.

“When you join an institution, you do it because you think you are better off being in it than out of it. … You have never been in any organization in your life that didn’t have a set of rules and didn’t at least run the risk that once in a while a decision would come out of the group that you are a part of that you didn’t agree with,” he said.

Instead the United States should join cooperative institutions to support nonviolent ways for people around the world to address their inevitable differences, he said.

Finally, Clinton said the ideal of sharing responsibility, benefits and values needs to be implemented at home.

He called President Bush’s tax cuts “immoral,” arguing that they benefited the wealthy at a time when soldiers risked their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq and others suffered the effects of a declining economy at home.

“I resent the fact that nobody asked me to make my contribution to America’s fight against terrorism,” Clinton said. Referring to his college roommate, a former Marine, he added, “I resent the fact that this guy – who worked all his life, served his country and raised a child with cerebral palsy – is not getting any of these benefits, and they’re throwing money at me.”

“That is not a world of shared benefits and shared responsibility based on shared values,” he said.

Clinton called the Bush administration’s energy policy selfish and “dumb economics.”

Ultimately, Clinton said he has an optimistic view of the world.

He said today’s world is one in which citizens are more empowered – more people live in democracies than dictatorships, and the Internet has given millions the power of communication.

Additionally, non-governmental organizations provide a way for people to chip away at the world’s problems, irrespective of politics.

“If you want a world of shared responsibilities and shared benefits, you also have to be a part of some NGO effort,” he said. “You have to be part of something that will change life for others in a hands-on way. You can always do that – it doesn’t matter if you like the results of the last election or not,” he said.

But Clinton warned that “the last great struggle” facing the current generation concerns “whether it is possible on this earth for any group to be in possession of the whole truth,” he said.

Belief in knowing the full truth is the root of terrorism, fundamentalism and radicalism, he said.

“You can never have a world of shared values until you acknowledge that life is a journey and you’re looking for the truth but you’ll never get all of it in this lifetime,” Clinton concluded.

After his speech, Clinton shook hands with a swarm of audience members who rushed to the fence that separated the former president from the crowd. He spoke briefly with reporters while students showered him with cheers of “Bill! Bill!”

Brown Democrats President Seth Magaziner ’06 invited Clinton, a family friend, to speak at Brown for the Northeast College Democrats Conference, which will continue through Saturday. Magaziner’s father, Ira Magaziner ’69 P’06 P’07, was a policy advisor in the Clinton White House.

The University distributed 4,421 tickets to the Meehan lecture, according to Mark Nickel, director of the Brown News Service. The hockey arena appeared to be filled nearly to capacity for Clinton’s speech. A separate audience watched a simulcast of the address in the Pizzitola Center.