Defining the Mission of the 21st Century


A Global Community

By Bill Clinton*

International Herald Tribune
November 6, 2003

Many people today refer to the time in which we live as the age of globalization, and for most Americans, it has brought enormous benefits. In the eight years when I served as president, roughly one-third of U.S. growth came from trade. Our country's enormous increase in productivity was in no small part fueled by the application of information technology across all sectors of the economy, the continued outreach to people throughout the world and the openness of our borders to immigrants who continued to replenish the energy of our entrepreneurial system. It worked for us. But interdependence is not, by definition, good or bad. It can be either, and it can be both.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Al Qaeda terrorists used the forces of interdependence - open borders, easy travel, easy immigration, easy access to information and technology - to turn jet airplanes full of fuel into weapons of mass destruction, killing 3,100 people including hundreds from 70 foreign countries who were in America looking for positive interdependence. More than 200 of those killed were Muslims, indicating the racial and religious diversity of the positive side of this equation.

My basic premise is this: The interdependent world, for all of its promise, is inevitably unsustainable, because it is unstable. We cannot continue to live in a world where we grow more and more interdependent and have no over-arching system to make the positive elements of interdependence outweigh the negative ones. So I believe all thinking people, particularly Americans, must ask and answer three questions: What is my vision of the 21st-century world? What do we have to do to achieve it? And what does America have to do? I think the great mission of the 21st century is to create a genuine global community, to move from mere interdependence to integration, to a community that has shared responsibilities, shared benefits and shared values. How would we go about building that kind of world?

One of the most important shared responsibilities is to fight for security: against terror, weapons of mass destruction, organized crime and narcotics traffickers. This means sharing responsibility for breaking up Al Qaeda and terrorist networks, for restarting the Middle East peace process, for resolving the nuclear issues of North Korea, for encouraging the new dialogue between India and Pakistan, for a successful transition to a democratic self-government in Iraq, for helping countries like Colombia and the Philippines fight terror. It means making a global effort to reduce the stocks of available chemical, biological and nuclear materials.

The second main shared responsibility is to build institutions of global cooperation, so that people get into a habit of resolving their differences in a peaceful way, according to rules and procedures generally perceived to be fair. Unless you have institution building, it will be hard to sustain the mentality necessary to have shared responsibilities. We also have to share the benefits of the interdependent world. Why? For one thing, if you come from a wealthy country with open borders, unless you seriously believe you can kill, imprison or occupy all of your enemies, you have to make a world with more friends and fewer enemies, with more partners and fewer terrorists.

As we see every day in Iraq, the United States has the only super-military in the world. We can win any military conflict all by ourselves, but we can't build the peace all by ourselves. So what does that mean? Among other things, it means that we have to bring economic opportunity to the 50 percent of the globe's population that lives on $2 a day or less. It means more trade with developing nations. It means more aid that works properly. It means another round of debt relief tied to economic development, education, health care. It means financing projects that will build functioning, sustainable economies in poor countries. It means educating those who presently can't be part of positive interdependence.

I was at the United Nations talking to the secretary general about the work I'm doing to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean. We are now going to be able to buy medicine for under $140 per person per year, but we need to finance the development of health-care networks to make the medicine work. This is not rocket science, but as we do it we build a world with more friends and fewer terrorists. I'm all for a strong security position, but we cannot possibly kill, imprison or occupy all of our actual or potential adversaries, and we are drastically underinvesting in building a world with more partners.

What, then, is America's responsibility? My philosophy is that the United States should cooperate with others whenever we can, across the broadest range of areas, and act alone only if we have to. In the current U.S. government, the conservatives believe they should act alone whenever they can and cooperate only when they have to.

For example, take those of us in the cooperation camp who were fairly hawkish on Iraq. I was for the UN resolution last November that said to Saddam Hussein: "You will let the inspectors back in, or we will depose you." I diverged when we moved from "cooperation whenever we can and act alone when we're forced to," to "now we've got the UN, and we will decide when Hans Blix is through with his inspections." The UN inspector was pleading for four, five or six more weeks to finish, but the people who wanted the conflict didn't want him to finish and didn't want to let him finish.

I still believe that we ought to see if the United Nations can take over security in Iraq, ask NATO to handle it, and involve countries that opposed the military conflict but who are part of NATO. If they came in, it would prove that we were all trying to build a multiparty, multiethnic, and multitribal democracy in Iraq. Most of the problems we have today are ill suited to unilateral action.

Finally, let me say just one other thing. I believe that fundamentalism - the sense that you have the certain truth and the entitlement to impose it on others - is not well suited to solving the problems of the modern world in either religion or politics. It is far better to deal with these problems using evidence and argument, with a willingness to experiment. If you're driven by ideology, you're going to make mistakes. The world is full of hard questions without easy answers. Not everyone who disagrees with you is your enemy. The opposition to globalization in the world is rooted in the feeling of some people that they are left out, left behind and stepped on by other countries.

If you, like me, believe in expanded trade and believe America has greater obligations to open our borders and to invest more in the development of poor countries, we have got to maintain the political support here in America for doing that. And the only way we can do that is to keep making our economy function better, make our society more united. We have to build an integrated community in America, too. Otherwise we won't have the political support here to do what we need to do around the world.

* Bill Clinton was the 42nd US president. This article is adapted from a speech he gave at Yale University on Oct. 31.

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