Today's date:
Fall 2005

Power Beyond Politics

Bill Clinton, the former president of the United States, was recently interviewed by Euripedes Alcantara, editor of the Brazilian weekly Veja, for NPQ’s weekly syndicated column, Global Viewpoint. The following comments are adapted from that interview.

New York — The globalization of the economy has had very positive effects, but a lot of people have not benefited from it. The only way to broaden these beneficial effects is to bring civil society to the scene. The time has come for non-governmental organizations, companies, workers’ associations and international organizations to try to develop a social and environmental policy that is in keeping with the challenges and opportunities created by globalization.

The global economic system alone cannot solve all the problems, either locally or globally. Issues such as environment and the increase of poverty and inequality cannot be confronted only by the market forces. Therefore, I think it is not very realistic to imagine that we can have a globalized economy without the counterpart of a global social action. My idea is to contribute to the creation of a global civil society with partnerships that transcend national and regional borders.

Global civil society has rapidly expanded since the end of communism. If you look at what happened in the world since the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, you will see that three major and little-celebrated phenomena are giving shape to the contemporary world. The first one is the fact that, for the first time in history, more people are living under democratic governments than under dictatorships. The second one is the geometrical expansion of the Internet. The third one is the consolidation of NGOs as action organizations with global reach.

The boom of use of the Internet as a citizenship tool has been vital. The Chinese, for instance, used the Internet to force their government to acknowledge the seriousness of SARS and take the necessary measures to prevent the progress of that epidemic. After the terrible tsunami that razed Southeastern Asia at the end of last year, 30 percent of Americans made donations to the victims. And half the donations were made via Internet.

If you add to this the networks and linkages between the NGOs in developing countries and in wealthy countries, then we have a very optimistic scenario for change.

NGO BOOM | The boom of the NGOs goes from the Bill Gates foundation, which spends billions of dollars in health treatments in India and Africa, to the smaller organizations that grant micro-credit in Latin America, in Africa and in Southern Asia.

Projects do not need to be great. They have to be functional. Brazil, for example, has at least two successful cases that may serve as a model for the rest of the world. One of them is the program of distribution of antiviral medicine for AIDS patients. The medicine reaches even the more distant populations, including indigenous patients who do not even speak Portuguese. This is something extraordinary. No other country in the world has a project comparable to Brazil’s.

Another program of which Brazilians must be proud of is the one in which mothers of poor families periodically receive an amount of money as an incentive to keep their children at school. I believe that there are many ways to finance projects without running the risk of fostering corruption. For this, the quality of people is fundamental. In many countries of the extinct communist bloc, there are many times 20 or 50 people who are really skilled in the government, in the middle of a rotten bureaucracy that no longer works. What can we do? Identify the good people and help them. I agree that, when a government is dishonest, help is equivalent to throwing money down the drain.

What I can do to help is to provide all these people with the opportunity to focus their actions so as to make them more effective. I hope to create an environment in which entrepreneurial, labor and political leaders and NGOs can sit together and say, “Well, these are the things we must begin and end within a year; these are the areas we think are vital for our common future.”

Even in countries without a very effective governing system, there are clever people who are managing to survive even when everything conspires against them. When a good network of NGOs arrives in a place like this, their work can save many lives, establish companies and promote economic growth.

GREEN GROWTH | It is possible to create wealth without destroying the environment. This is the great challenge. All over the world, water reserves are diminishing, fertile soils are being eroded and seed production is showing a downward trend. South America is one of the few regions in the world that was able to increase the production of soy and other seeds thanks to technology and the abundance of fertile lands. But this is an exception. The rule is the shortage of water and of arable lands.

Therefore, one of the dearest purposes of my initiative is to find ways to turn environmental preservation into a path to attain economic prosperity. Otherwise, the reaction of people, let us say, in China and India may be very negative. They might think that environmental preservation is an ambush by Americans and Europeans to prevent their countries’ economic growth. For this reason, we have to stimulate the use of solar energy, of eolic energy, and help to popularize highly productive cultivation techniques that will help us preserve water and the soil. Thus, people will understand that preservation makes them richer, not poorer.

Another beneficial effect of raising the standard of living and consumption of the population is shown by statistics: As countries grow rich, population growth diminishes. When we know that the greatest population impact in the planet is in the countries that shelter the big forest reserves, the importance of helping them grow rich becomes clear.

Clinton ’s New Paradigm

The old paradigm of global action is starting its path toward terminal demise while another is being born. Networks are replacing nations. This was evident in two events that took place in New York in September—the United Nations world summit and Bill Clinton’s first Global Initiative conference.

Even if the UN summit had managed to expand the Security Council into a body truly reflective of the world distribution of power, its relevance as a trade union of nation states would remain in question because sovereignty itself has so withered with globalization. At the same time, those who wish to assert their historically residual nationality do so irrespective of the UN. Iran is assembling its own coalition of the willing (including India and China) that will support its nuclear rights and campaign against “nuclear apartheid” in exchange for scarce oil, preparing to end run the UN just as the US did when it went into Iraq.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali was no doubt right when he speculated to NPQ recently in Paris that the UN would inexorably morph into a body whose main purpose would no longer involve peace and security, but managing globalization and its dislocations from climate change to poverty.

While UN clout thus fades, global civil society is maturing into a critical force on the world scene. Adding a page to the Davos world summits of business-government-civil society elites, Bill Clinton launched his Global Initiative across town at the Sheraton Towers. His aim is to shape the diaspora of global public opinion and plethora of non-governmental groups into focused, effective action. “It is not very realistic,” he says, “to imagine that we can have a globalized economy without the counterpart of global social action. My idea is to contribute to the creation of a global civil society with partnerships that transcend national and regional borders.”

Some may sneer at Clinton’s self-appointment as the head of global civil society. Some will call it leadership. But what is an ex-US president, still relatively youthful and identified with the positive face of globalization, to do? In truth, only a sympathetic, embracing American who was once chief-executive of the sole superpower could successfully play such a role. In this position, Clinton could even be more influential than if he were to succeed Kofi Annan as secretary general, an idea in circulation.

Having been a several-term governor and two-term president, Clinton understands that in today’s networked world there is power beyond politics. As social thinker and designer Bruce Mau has said, “for massive change to take place today, it doesn’t have to cross the classical, formal political threshold. The single biggest difference beteween the past and the future is that the capacity to affect change is ‘distributed.’ A new social and political ecology is evolving where individuals or groups don’t have to go up the tree of political authority only to come back down again to make something happen. We’ve crossed the line. Everyone can get involved in designing solutions to our civilizational challenges.”

—Nathan Gardels