A Special Address by President Bill Clinton
Wednesday, May 2, 2012 / 1:30 pm - 2:00 pm
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Speaker
President Bill Clinton,

Appearing before a packed and buzzing ballroom, President Bill Clinton walked onstage to a standing ovation.

His appearance immediately followed a panel discussion on the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, and the former president slid easily into the topic, recalling his discussions with European officials when the monetary union was first formed. You're letting in all these poor countries, Clinton told them. It'll be a nice club like NATO and everyone will want to join. And indeed, it worked fine when things were growing, but even back in the 1990s, Clinton was warning that the euro zone needed to have an exit strategy in place.

Today, with the periphery nations hamstrung by their inability to devalue their currencies to return to growth, "this prescription of austerity continues to be pushed despite all the evidence that it won't work" in countries with no demand and virtually zero interest rates. "You can't get blood out of a turnip," he quipped.

Resorting to budget cuts or tax hikes alone won't work, he insisted. What Europe sorely needs is a real five- to 10-year growth strategy that will produce jobs.

In all the advanced economies - not just Europe but also the United States and Japan - he urged policymakers to ask similar questions. What investments produce the greatest number of jobs? And what role can NGOs play?

Clinton urged the audience to take a global view. "No American should want Brazil or China or India to fail. We have a common future."

He described the work he has undertaken in the poorest nations around the world, from South Asia to Latin America. Here in the United States, we have faith that the lights won't go out, the air conditioning is on and the water is safe to drink. But much of the world can't take that kind of infrastructure for granted. "Intelligence and effort are evenly distributed throughout the world," Clinton said. But opportunity and systems are not. While many of those in audience achieved success through their own abilities and persistence, he said, "along the way someone helped you." In advanced economies, we are blessed to have sophisticated institutions in place, "but they get long in the tooth. They become run by people who are more interested in holding on to present gains rather than building a brighter future." Now the task has to be reinventing and revitalizing those systems.

We have complex, highly interconnected problems, said Clinton, and there are no perfect solutions. But to achieve progress, we have to have a more respectful, mature debate that focuses on real substance. The United States is entering an election season in which "70 percent of what we hear won't make a lick of sense about what we can do to move forward."

He doesn't see the problem as simply a fault line between conservatives and liberals. The division that troubles him, he said, is the gulf between communitarians and separatists, who see any attempt to implement change as a government conspiracy to take things away from them. We ought to be fighting for common prosperity and solutions, he said, pointing to what creative networks of collaboration are able to achieve in technology and medical science.

However deep the partisan divide may seem, Clinton said, "it would be a great mistake to write the epitaph of this country. We just have to get out of denial and get back into the future business."