Bill Clinton on Global Philanthropy

The 42nd president of the United States hasn't silently retired. Through the William J. Clinton Foundation, he has focused on world philanthropy and problem solving. Clinton spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jon Meacham. Excerpts:

Meacham: What are the issues you think are the most important right now? And what do you think Americans should be thinking about in the next year or two?
Clinton: Well, first, I think [it's] important to get the framework right. For me it starts with acknowledging that this the most interdependent age in human history. It goes way beyond trade. The rich world was as trade-dependent before World War I as it was in the 1990s, but we didn't have the Internet, we didn't have so much travel, and we didn't have so much immigration and so much diversity, so much shared scientific research. We're linked in so many different ways that we can't get a divorce. Our actions impact each other, whether it's in an obvious place like the Middle East or why we should care about what happens in a borderless area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Interdependence could be good, bad, or both, and today it's both.

My simple premise is that the mission of the 21st century is to build up the positive and reduce the negative forces of interdependence. If you ask me my position on anything, I may give you the wrong answer, I may make a mistake, but I think I have the right filter. I'll ask myself on any profound issue: will this increase positive interdependence or reduce negative interdependence? If it will, I'm for it. If it won't, I'm against it. I really believe creating a shared intellectual framework—not just for policymakers and business leaders and labor leaders and education leaders, but for real people who intuitively know this is true—is a precondition for not only the United States, but others making good decisions going forward.

Now, the main negative forces of interdependence fall into three categories. There's too much inequality in economic opportunity, health care, and education both around the world and within most—not all, but most—wealthy countries. And the inequality has been increasing roughly since the 1970s. Now, we had a four-year period in my second term where the bottom 20 percent's income increased in percentage terms more than the top 20 percent, but [that progress] went away again. And so that's a problem everywhere.

The second big cluster of problems is the instability problems: terror, WMD, ethnic conflicts, avian influenza, the global financial crisis. All these things can spread like wildfire because borders don't mean much.

The third cluster of problems is really rooted in global warming. The world is not sustainable. And I don't think that the truncated e-mails from the University of East Anglia undermine the fact that [the world is getting warmer].

People say all the time that President Obama is working on too many things at once. He may be—we all have limits to our supply lines—but the problem is you want him working on the economy unless your kid can't get a swine-flu shot, in which case you want to know why there's not more swine-flu vaccine, you know. Or if you're a park ranger at Rocky Mountain park and the beetles are eating up your trees and have never been that far north in the history of America, you want him working on climate change.

It's really fascinating to see the inner relationships of all these issues. Think about health care. Whether you care if everybody is insured or not, it's fundamentally an economic issue. You can't just keep, in effect, spotting the competition $900 billion a year. We're almost [at] 17 percent [of] GDP for health care. The next most-expensive country is Switzerland, at 11 and a half [percent]. They're older than we are and more remote, so their delivery-system costs should be much higher than ours per person. And then Canada is next, at 10 and a half [percent], and then all our major competitors are between 9 and 10 [percent]. So if you average it out at 6 percent difference, that's $900 billion we just spot the world in competitive costs up front. So to me it's an economic issue, as is education.

I see these problems clustered, all these issues—instability issues, the unsustainability issues. If you look at how to deal with them in poor countries, obviously just direct aid doesn't work. You have to build a capacity for people to support themselves. Is corruption a problem? Yes. But my experience is that corruption basically flows into the vacuum created by incapacity and that there's corruption in places that have capacity. Bernie Madoff was an American. In the Korean system, when it was going like crazy, you had a certain amount of corruption, but the point is that once you had capacity, since most people are honest, they made the most of it.

In the wealthy countries it's a question of becoming more flexible. Arguably the best-performing European economies before the crash (which changed things, depending on how they were organized) were Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and the U.K.—the only four out of the 44 that signed Kyoto that ever made their targets. Because in changing the way they produced and consumed energy, they increased the job base and did well. Deutsche Bank, hardly a left-wing green affiliate, just did a study of the results in Germany of their conversion to solar energy and wind energy and concluded they added 300,000 jobs. That would be 1.2 million if the United States had done the same thing. And that's just in solar and wind production.

Denmark has 25 percent of its electricity from wind, and you say, "Not everyone can do that," but the Bush administration did a study that said that America could do at least that much if we built a transmission system that connected the wind to electricity use. I was real disappointed in the way that transmission-money part of the stimulus was distributed. Really, the two compelling places we ought to spend it is in the Northeast, where the transmission system is old and inefficient, so you get real savings out of doing it there, or anyplace else where it's old—upper Midwest maybe, the old industrial cities in the upper Midwest.

Sir, you've now been at several different levels of both public power and political and philanthropic influence. What are the obstacles that you see to the kind of change that you argue we need. Is it cultural?
Sometimes. For example, if you look at the health-care challenge, it's part cultural. We are preconditioned to believe that we have the best in everything that matters. And in some sense our health-care system is the best. We're great at cancer detection and treatment; we're great at managing crises and heart care—otherwise somebody else would be giving you this interview. [Clinton underwent a quadruple bypass in 2004.] We're really good at that, but a lot of the basic things we don't do very well, yet we don't know it. Then there's the economic problem, which is our employer-based system that made a lot of sense for the industrial era, but it also means that 50 percent or so of America's people get their health care through employee-based systems and only pay about a fourth of the real cost of it. So it's hard for them to focus on the fact that the reason they haven't gotten a pay raise in the last seven years is that their employers are having to take money that they earned that they wanted to give them as pay raises and put it into their health care.

So I think we have imperfect knowledge on the part of otherwise rational voters, and I think we have cultural resistances in health care. The same thing is true in energy. You have imperfect knowledge. A lot of people believe that the only way for a country to get rich, stay rich, and get richer is to burn more carbon fuel. If that's factually accurate, some people think, then even if global warming is a problem, we won't address it before there's a calamity because people are not going to agree to make themselves poorer. It's easy for me to say that. If you cut my income 10 percent I'd still be in great shape, and my daughter would be all right, and everything would be fine. But you can't ask people who can't pay their grocery bills to, in effect, [take a] pay cut to solve this problem.

What you're describing is the end of "future preference" [the idea that each person has an obligation to sacrifice today for the benefit of tomorrow, a longtime Clinton principle].
Yeah, I'm worried about it. The rich countries' problem is rigidity and the poor countries' problem is capacity. Then we all share a problem that was best articulated by the philosopher Ken Wilber. He's got this theory that there are basically 10 levels of consciousness—the way we view ourselves, the way we view others—and that it's almost impossible for people to keep up with what circumstances require. If you live in an interdependent world, you have to believe as a starting premise—it doesn't mean you'll never go to war, doesn't mean you'll never fight, you can't be naive or stupid, doesn't mean we shouldn't be out there trying to get the leaders of Al Qaeda—but you have to believe that in an interdependent world, what we have in common is more important than our interesting differences. And the only way to celebrate and make the most of our differences is to get rich out of our differences, create vibrant markets out of our differences. It enables people to have fevered debate in politics without stealing elections or shooting the opposition. For me, if you ask how do you live with inequality, instability, and unsustainability, my answer is you've got to build the capacity of the poor people of the world and build the flexibility of the rich countries and move away from rigidity.

Then in both places the rise of nongovernmental organizations gives us real hope. You know, half of America's foundations have been created since I became president. It's an exploding thing. The promise of being able to create partnerships with governments and the private sector and proving we can do things much faster, cheaper, and better is really important. I just think that you have to make the financials work. If you don't make the financials work, you're just whistling Dixie, and we're all just giving speeches.

You and I don't agree on everything, but I'm not going to shoot you if you win the next election.

I've been thinking about Rwanda. Look at what [Rwandan President] Paul Kagame has done. Yes, they've done a great job of getting investments, and, yes, they're the best users of NGOs I've ever seen. But the most important thing they have done is to build a genocide memorial, which grippingly chronicles what happened. It's on top of the most massive crypt in the world; it has the bones of 300,000 of those who were killed. Kagame said, "We're going to do all this. We're going to tell the truth and face the truth, and that's all we're going to do. And then we're going to let it go." And so he creates these reconciliation villages. You get a free plot of land for a house, but you have to agree to live next to someone of the opposite ethnic group. And they run all these co-ops where women from different ethnic groups are making baskets or whatever and selling them all over the world. Every person—without regard to their ethnic group—every adult male goes out and spends one whole day once a month on a Saturday cleaning the streets, from the richest to the poorest, and it's all designed to say, "Hey, this happened to us and it was horrible, and the only way for it not to happen again is for us to let it go, to focus on what we have in common." It's a metaphor for what the world has to do.