Clinton's worldview

CLSA Kicks off its Investors'' Forum with Bill Clinton as its charismatic Keynote Luncheon Speaker.

He has bags under his eyes the size of almonds and looks too thin for a healthy robust man - particularly if still fixed in your mind is the McDonald's-munching jogger. But the 42nd president of the United States still possesses charisma delivered with his down-home Southern syntax and expressions punctuated by long, drawn-out pauses for emphasis that cause many within an audience to laugh and nod along in approval - or with resigned, but occasionally amused, disapproval.

At the CLSA Investors' Forum that opened in Hong Kong on Monday at the Grand Hyatt, he spoke enthusiastically about his own programme, the William J. Clinton Foundation, which aims, in part, to continue some of the work of his presidency. He was arguably a tad too saccharine in his upbeat view on China's role in helping him with his efforts to distribute medicine to Aids patients - but one could sense his own feeling of mortality and a willingness to leave a humanitarian mark on the world, not unlike his Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter. But he also answered pointed questions - both from the moderator and from the audience - speaking freely about how he'd handle the job now if he had another shot at it and his views on how he felt when the United States bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

Below is Part 1 of a two-part series of his answers to questions as varied as his views on the Unocal deal, the high-price of oil and the Kyoto accord. Tune in tomorrow for his comments on the upcoming 2006 elections, the likelihood of the United States electing a woman president and secret lists privy to global superpower leaders.

You've just overcome a major surgery, how are you feeling?

Clinton: I think I'm doing well. My doctor says I'm doing well and I've been cleared to do all this crazy travel I do, so I'm back on schedule. I lost about seven months with the heart surgery and then I had to have some corrective surgery because I had some fluid build up. But I have been told that a lot of people who have open-heart surgery have - later in the recovery period - a week or so of severe depression. But it's the first time I'd had off in 35 years so I was happy as a clam. I just stayed home, read books, watched movies and thought about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and was very grateful I didn't die, so I feel glad to be back at it now.

You're just back from China/Kazakhstan, what was your impression from your recent trip?

Well I went out into some of the places in China where our Aids programme is working to help people who have Aids primarily because of contaminated blood equipment, which has affected the rural areas. And in the urban areas, most of the Aids was started because of intravenous drug use and contaminated needles. So we're working the Chinese government to start up a nationwide care and treatment programme and also bringing medicine to children for the first time. And so I met some of the Chinese children who are alive because they got this medicine. One of the great scandals, still, of the Aids epidemic - with all the money that's been put into it - is that there are about 44 million people in the world who are HIV positive, about 6.2-or-3 million need medicine to stay alive.

About 900,000 people are getting medicine a day as opposed to about 200,000 when I started this project a couple of years ago. And 175,000 are getting the medicine through our foundation.

But almost no children are getting medicine. Some 500,000 kids ten-and-under died last year. And only 25,000 children got medicine. Paediatric Aids medicine is not like an aspirin, that if your child gets sick you can take an adult aspirin and cut it half and give it to the baby. The bio-chemistry is different so it has to be different medicine, and because the volumes are not as great, the price is higher…

We are trying to give medicine out. Last year, only 25,000 of these kids got medicine and 15,000 were in Brazil and Thailand where the government manufactures and gives it to people. In the whole world - think about it - only 10,000 people outside of Brazil and Thailand (received medicine). So we're doubling that number this year, with 10,000 more - 2,000 in China - and next year we'll have 50,000 or 60,000 more. So I'm trying to quickly, sort all these kids. And I saw that in rural China.

I must say the Chinese government has been great on this. They have been very aggressive. We work with the Chinese ministry of health and I went out to these provincial leaders to try to get more support there, and I think we did. So that's what I was doing. It was a great trip.

You've been very active through the Clinton Foundation, and now the upcoming Clinton Global Initiative. . . Do you feel you've been able to make a bigger difference, in some ways, out of office than you were able to make in office?

Well, it's different. When you leave the presidency you give up a lot of power. For example, I can't give global debt relief like I did in 2000. And I couldn't bring the WTO into being, for example; when you're not president, you can't do things like that.

On the other hand, you still have some influence. And if you have energy and are willing to work, the difference is you can concentrate your efforts on somewhere between two and five areas, I would say, and make a real difference there by bringing attention and money and organisational forces to bear that otherwise wouldn't be brought to bear on the problems. That's what I try to do with Aids and that's what I'm trying to get other people to do.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the world has been changed dramatically by three political events that normally don't get talked about in the news.

One is the rise of voting. More than half the world's people live under governments they voted in. And… add China to the equation - in China about 900,000 villagers elect mayors.

The second thing is the rise of the Internet as a political tool. The protest of citizens over the Internet about Sars got the government to change its position quickly, in a way that saved hundreds of thousands of lives all across the world. And in America last year, for the first time since campaigns became really expensive because of television, both parties raised more money in the aggregate from small rather than large contributions because of the Internet. When the tsunami hit South Asia, a third of American households gave contributions - over half of them, over the Internet.

And now, people come up and apologize to me when they can't access it. The other day I was at the New York state fair with my wife and a woman who was working in one of the little booths came up and gave me $50 in cash for the Hurricane Katrina victims for the fund that former president Bush and I set up, and she said, "I apologize for giving this to you, but I'm working. I can't go to the Internet and send it in."

And the third thing that has happened is the rise of non-governmental organizations, and that's basically what I am. Bill Gates has got the biggest one. He's spent $1 billion on Africa and India alone on healthcare…

If you had 24 hours in office again, what would you do? Is there something that really is nagging you since you left?

Oh yeah. (Drawn out, and followed by a long pause - which prompted giggles from the audience). If I had 24 hours, I would at least lay down where I think we ought to go in the Middle East to finish the business between the Israelis and the Palestinians after the withdrawal from Gaza.

I would put a healthcare plan before the Congress that would end this insane system we have that's bankrupting the American economy and is leaving huge numbers of people out. And I would do my dead-level best to change the energy and environmental direction that the current government has.

And of course, now I would have to give them a budget plan to get rid of the deficit I got rid of once, and now - (chuckle) - he's brought it back.

Those would be the things I would do in my day as president.

In your mind, what is worrisome - that could potentially surprise us in the next six or 12 months?

I think that in six or 12 months, the most predictable thing is that energy prices will be high and that supplies will be unstable. And so, in the short-to-near term, more oil and other energy supplies (is a problem). That's why you see China and India competing over Kazakhstan's oil, that's why you see China trying to get a foothold in Sudan, and other places.

But over the medium-to-long term, that is not a sustainable policy because there is not enough oil in the ground, retrievable at any level of affordable prices, to meet the current projection of roles that China and India and any of the countries that are coming up behind them have… and to deal with what America and Europe will consume. Plus, it's contributing dramatically to global warming.

So I think there's a lot of economic opportunity if you can figure out how to organize a clean-energy sector.

I'll just give you one example. In America today, I reduced the energy usage of the Clinton presidential library, which is a huge, glass-and-steel building. I cut the energy bill by 34% by doing only two things. I put 305 solar reflectors on the roof and I built the floors out of compressed bamboo, running miles and miles of tubing underneath where we put cold water in the summer and hot water in the winter, and just those two things cut our energy usage by 34% and also my contribution to climate change.

There is now a three-month back-up in the States for people ordering solar reflectors. Today, in Latin America there are a million poor people who get all their energy for light and cooking from small-scale solar generators attached to their homes and the cost is about the same as a month's supply of candles. There could be 100 million down there, there could be 500 million down there. There could be a billion in Asia. The money is enormous to be made out of doing the environmentally responsible thing. The price of solar energy is dropping 15% a year, with economies of scale.

I flew into Copenhagen the other day, and if you fly over, you see the bays full of windmills. I've been to the Canary Islands, off the west coast of Africa, and in Tenerife, the biggest island, the south part is covered with windmills. China is beginning to get into wind energy. The price of wind energy is dropping at 15% a year. The efficiency of the turbines is far better; now they will turn with less strong winds. And they're easier to maintain. If I was a young entrepreneur, and I could figure out how to do it, I would organize a fund to develop clean energy.

The possibilities of creating energy through conservation are staggering. America today uses 9% more oil than it did 35 years ago even though our economy is twice as big - because of conservation. And we could easily double that again. And there's money there. Sixty percent of the energy put in to generating electricity in most generating facilities across the world is waste heat.

Now I could give you lots of other examples, so, my view is that if I were doing this in the short term, I would be trying to figure out if there were any good deals in oil. In the medium term I would be looking to see if there's anything to this clean-coal technology.

Can you really trap CO2? And can it safely be deposited in the ground? And will it stay there or will it just come back as methane and still make a contribution to global warming and therefore the whole technology will be a waste? And can we do anything to create, on a large scale, what is inherently small-scale technology in solar and conservation? Because, basically the new-energy economy, unlike the old one, is disorganized and undercapitalized, highly entrepreneurial but without any political influence, anywhere in the world. But we have a chance now to think about this because you've got $65 oil.

And I don't care what happens, the price of oil may drop, but I'd be astonished if it doesn't go between $45 and $75 a barrel and bang around in that range for the next five years - and then go higher after that…so that's my take on it, and that's what I would do if I were 25 years younger and starting a different life. And I might be broke in a couple of years, but I don't think so.

In terms of geo-politics, under the Clinton administration, the relationship between the US and China really improved a lot. And in the first stages of the Bush administration, it seemed to be continuing on like that, but now there are so many signals that we are going backwards - the incredible protectionist threats coming out of Congress, clamouring for changes in RMB valuation policy that may not be thought out - are you worried about where the relationship between the US and China is going?

I'm concerned about it for a couple of reasons. But let's back up and say: Our relationships were not entirely smooth when I was president. And we had honest differences and then we had terrible things happen like when I attacked Serbia for the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and we blew up the Chinese embassy in Belgrade because we thought it was an intelligence building. And it was almost impossible to convince anybody in China that America could be dumb enough to have two-year-old maps that showed a building doing one thing when it did another. So that was an awful thing for me, personally. But we got through it all because the Chinese leadership knew that I wanted a future in which we were cooperating to promote peace and prosperity.

And, you know, one of the most touching things to me was when I came to China in '98 and President Jiang (Zemin) actually trusted me enough, and he had enough self confidence that we had the first televised news conference together where we had public disagreements and everybody in China could see it. And I said on television that I thought he should let the Dalai Lama come see him - and he'd actually like him. This was unheard of before the meeting - that we could have this kind of differences over human rights and other things. And, what I mean by that is that like any other relationship, whether it's a business partnership, a marriage, a friendship - you can have all kinds of rough developments, you can have all kinds of disagreements that are honest.

What people really want to know is: What is the anchor here? What is the core? What is driving you? And I think that both sides in my time believed that we were being driven towards a future where we would share responsibilities, where we would share the benefits and try to bring the world to a point where there is better peace and prosperity.

Now, there were people then, just as there are now, who didn't think that it would work out that way. But the question is: Is there any doubt about where the leaders are going? And where most people think we should go?

So let's deal with the specifics.

On trade, the fundamental problem is that in this decade America has found no new source of jobs. Now when you do a trade deal, the benefits normally cover 90% of the people and the real burdens only fall on maybe 1% of the people. The problem is that the benefits are diffused and the burdens are concentrated. America should, whenever we do trade agreements, have an economic impact statement in which we cost out how much it's going to hurt the people who lose their jobs and their livelihoods and then invest in them and make sure they are restored and they can do something new, something different and they can manage this transition; otherwise, you are always going to have politicians who don't want to do that for ideological reasons, being protectionists.

Instead, they gave me four tax cuts. So you got this ragged edge of the American economy because even though we've been having pretty good growth on the numbers over the last couple of years, we're not generating jobs, we're not generating new income. And if we had, for example, decided to do what I just suggested, gone into on aggressive clean-energy future, we would have created millions of jobs just doing that - but we didn't.

So all of our growth is in corporate profits, housing (because interests rates have been low so there's a huge housing boom in America but that always bursts sooner or later) and consumer spending, financed because the Chinese buy our debt along with others every year.

The other big problem is the legitimate concern in America, or a genuine concern, over the Chinese military build up - and whether China is basically being nice now but some day, once they get the most modern military equipment in the world, is going to provoke some sort of a showdown with Japan, which will draw us in, and throw the world into a turmoil. And there are people in the Pentagon who push that line every single day. Just like there are people in the military in China who, every single day say that someday we're going to have to confront the Americans. They're too aggressive, They're too over-reaching. The Japanese are becoming militant again.

They key is: Where are the people? And where are the leaders? There will always be people who will have an institutional interest in finding an enemy - and finding division. And I don't think we've answered that question yet. So yeah, I'm concerned about it.

But it is idiotic to contemplate a future that is anything other than one of cooperation between China and the United States for peace and prosperity. On the other hand, it would be foolish not to prepare for the worst. My whole theory about life is you prepare for the worst and then you work like crazy for the best and hope all your preparation was for naught. That's what I think we should be doing.

There is a difference though between the end of your administration and the early parts of the Bush administration where China was viewed as a strategic partner, or in terms of strategic cooperation, whereas now you frequently hear the term strategic competitor…

Yeah but you know, you can't put too much faith in all that. A lot of that is they just want to look tougher than me. You know it's part of there shtick.

But, to be fair, we worked through that deal with the plane crash and we got through that alright. Now the Bush administration is heavily reliant on its partnership with China to avoid a terrible outcome in North Korea where they basically would be selling long-range weapons, and nuclear weapons or at least nuclear materials in order to support and sustain any kind of an economy. And we put ourselves in a position now where we can't really solve the problem unless the Chinese help us.

So I think that we will find that our economic relations and our security relations and our interests in combating fundamentalist terror are so great that we will be working together. You know I think that assuming sane people stay in charge on both sides that we will wind up moving together but there are people who believe that we will ultimately be competitors for the future. I hope that we are economic competitors and strategic partners. That's, the best thing for the world.

I don't know how it's going to come out, neither do you. I know one thing, if you work for a certain end you have far greater chance of achieving it than if you don't have an end in view that's positive. Then you become more vulnerable to just reacting to whatever events come up.

One of the things that annoys a lot of people in Asia and in Europe is the US rejection of the Kyoto accord … Can the world really afford to have the United States in a relatively passive position in relation to the environment globally?

No. For one thing…hold it…

Let me just say one thing about the trade deal. I thought it was crazy all this feeling in America about this Chinese company buying Unocal. I couldn't care less. I wish they'd bought it. We need the money. That was silly.

But that's an example of an economic insecurity that's just below the surface in America because we haven't created the jobs. You shouldn't over-read that as a sort of wild anti-Chinese feeling, that was just another manifestation of an economy that's not producing jobs and economic security.

So let me come back to the Kyoto accord. You know, my administration, the vice president and I, were major authors of the Kyoto accord so obviously I thought it was a good deal.

But to be fair, even the senators of my own party were afraid to embrace it because they were stuck in "yesterday think" about energy. They thought there was no way we could do it. Now, we can't meet the timetable because we've wasted the years between when we did the Kyoto accord and the present day. But we have to change.

There is some significant hope for change in America. And I will give you just a couple of examples. First there are a lot of republican senators that work with my wife and Senator (Joe) Lieberman (D-Connecticut) and a few other democrats who are changing their view on global warming. Hillary (Clinton) has taken two trips with Senator (John) McCaine (R-Arizona), one to Norway and one to Alaska, with republicans senators - she was the only democrat who went - and she and John were basically trying to convince them that this is real and we have to do something. So I think there's change there.

Second, and maybe even more important, the chairman of one of our biggest corporations, Jeffrey Immelt, the chairman of General Electric, gave a ground-breaking speech a couple of months ago, in which he said that a clean-energy future was at the core of GE's growth strategy, both in the US and around the world. Now, if he's serious about that, and he starts spending money doing that, it will change American politics and it will change the behaviour of a lot of other companies both in the United States and around the world. So I think that America is slowly moving, you know, but I just hope that it is fast enough.

Our position on energy reminds me of what (Winston) Churchill said about America when we took so long to get into World War II. He said, 'America always does the right thing after exhausting every other alternative.'

Sooner or later, we'll have to get into this. It's insane not to. And I think we're moving that way.

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