Bill Clinton's Remarks at the Asia Society Annual Dinner 2003

William J. Clinton, 42nd President of the United States of America


New York, NY
May 12, 2003

Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you for the warm welcome, and thank you for stacking the program with my supporters. We don’t have many outlets and many microphones, I’ve been half convinced on some of the days since I left office that I was responsible for every bad thing that’s happened since I left, and no good thing that happened when I was there. So, it was a thrill to see Rajat Gupta and Dick Holbrooke and Bernard Schwartz up here on the platform. Thank you, Bernard, for your friendship and your introduction. You and Irene have been wonderful to me. Thank you, Dick, and Kati, thank you Rajat and Anita. To David Coulter and the other board members, and especially to our award winner, Elisabeth Rosenthal and the jury which selected her, I told her that I read all those articles about AIDS in China, and I will never get over, as long as I live, the haunting story of those orphans in the rural villages in places where there were no normal age adults, only the old and those children. She did a great service in remind the world of a point I’ll make later, which is that AIDS is not an African problem. And it is a problem that all humanity must address. So thank you very much.

I would also like to say a special word of appreciation to the Asia Society for all that you do, for the policy dialogues, the art exhibits, the Asia in the schools program that my good friend, Governor Jim Hunt, is involved in, trying to overcome the knowledge gap among our young people. No region matters more to our hopes for the future than Asia. So many of the world’s people live there. So many fates and cultures meet. So much of the innovation, the upheaval, the change is occurring there. Asia may well yet hold the key to the outcome of the twenty-first century’s struggle between the forces of integration and those of dis-integration. Our fates are now tied together by economics and immigration, by culture and politics, by information technology, and shared scientific research, and also by shared vulnerability to terror, to weapons of mass destruction, to climate change, to infectious diseases. Just today, actually, right before I came here I heard about the most recent attack in Saudi Arabia, the scope of which we do not yet know, but which reminds us once again that we share the possibilities and the perils of this new world.

SARS seems to have spread from China to Hong Kong to Vietnam not through food exports or mass migration, but at least in part through doctors going to medical conferences. Smoke from fires in one country brings commerce in another to a halt. And nineteen people can use cell phones, the Internet, and airplanes to kill thirty-one hundred people from seventy nationalities in the United States. In the face of all the good and bad things that are going on, I think, on balance, Asia has done a very good job of continuing to open up economically and politically.

I think of the fact that we are, even though there was some initial resistance (I think that’s a delicate way to put it) from China in sharing information, the way that SARS was handled, the fact that we were able to stem the Asian financial crisis, the work that has been done with the Philippines by the Bush administration in helping them to combat terror, the fact that Taiwan, South Korea, and Thailand have strengthened their democracies, that East Timor is independent, that China is in the WTO, that the Asian Pacific leaders have committed to a free trade area in Asia, that India is continuing its economic progress and now has a peace initiative toward Pakistan, that Pakistan has cooperated with us in trying to apprehend Al-Qaeda leaders, that Thailand and Cambodia are world leaders in fighting AIDS, and Vietnam has established normal relations and a trade agreement with the United States, all these things I think are very hopeful. And the main point I want to make is that the United States has had, it seems to me, a formula that has held fast with modifications for the last half century. We have valued our military strength, and we have established military alliances, but increasingly we have emphasized economic and political cooperation as well.

Now, we have a decision to make in our country that will directly effect our relations with Asia. How can we best maximize the benefits and minimize the dangers of this inter-dependent world? We have, it seems to me, three choices. We could decide that the most important thing, since we have the only significant military capacity in the world, and we are, at least for the time being, the strongest economy, and we have, at least for the time being, the most political influence, to pursue a more unilateral course. That is the course that dictates pulling out of the ABM treaty, the comprehensive test ban treaty, the international criminal court, the Kyoto treaty on climate change, and pulling out of the negotiations to strengthen the biological weapons convention.

And there is a good argument for that when you have the kind of power we do, because every agreement you enter into requires you to give up some of your freedom of action. If you enter into a compact with certain rules, by definition you may not get your way all the time. On the other hand, a unilateral course is hazardous. If we only entered agreements where we got our way all the time, it seems to me there would be no marriages… Maybe some of you would have marriages, but it seems to me most people would not have marriages. There would be no business partnerships, no sports teams, no endeavor of any kind. And we would have the sublime freedom of doing whatever we please in an increasingly lonely world where others eventually would catch up in one area or another.

The second option is what I would call semi-cooperation, and that is we cooperate whenever we can with whoever is inclined to agree with us, and when it becomes inconvenient, then we stop. We have to do that sometimes. Sometimes our interests will require it. That is sort of what happened in Iraq where we had the whole world with us through the UN in Afghanistan, and then we had the whole world supporting the November resolution in the United Nations to support renewed inspections in Iraq, and then essentially we had a difference of opinion with almost everybody but the British, it seems to me, getting buyer’s remorse on both sides from the UN process. And we decided that we did not agree with Mr. Blix on his time table for inspections. Now, it may work in Iraq. It may be that the deepest hopes of those who supported the action when it was taken to shake up the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, to increase our leverage in the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and at the very least to give the Iraqi people a chance to have a more decent and more representative government, that all may work if we stay with it.

But I would argue that over the long run, this will be a strategy of limited utility, even if it works in Iraq, which I think it might. Why do I say that? Well, for one thing, if you excoriate people every time they disagree with you, it may become highly inconvenient. For example, people don’t want to eat French fries anymore, or they want to change the name of French fries, and we’re saying that, there are all these jokes going around that, you know there is something wrong with the world when the best golfer in the world is black and the best rapper is white, and the Germans don’t want to fight, and the French think Americans are arrogant. All these… All these jokes are being told. We don’t celebrate Cinqo De Mayo, the Mexican Independence Day in the White House, we don’t go to Canada, we don’t do all this. I think this has limited utility. Let me explain why. We’re laughing, but, I’m dead serious about this.

How many Americans do you think know, and I challenge our friends here, there are German, French, and Canadian soldiers serving with the United States today in Afghanistan, the seat of operations of Al-Qaeda, the people that caused September the 11th. The new Afghan army is being trained, cooperatively, by two forces working together, the Americans and the French. I never read that during the run up of all this demonization we were doing. I raise it only to make the point… And I supported the resolution of Congress giving the President the authority to do this, and I think I’ve already told you, it may work out, and I think the French and the Germans made a mistake in what they said and when they said it. But I think over the long run we have more to gain by cooperating with them.

I hope this trade agreement with Chile will go through soon. The fact that they didn't agree with the timing of the operation in Iraq has nothing to do with the fact that, on balance, we share the same values, and we have a huge stake in the political and economic success of Chile, and in the development, ultimately, of a free trade area in the Americas. We have a huge stake in continuing cooperation with our neighbors in Mexico, even though they didn't agree with us on this, on the questions of immigration, and narco-trafficking, and economics. So that brings me to the third alternative. Well, I do not think we can ever give up what I call semi-cooperation, because that would require us to say that no matter what the stakes and threat to our sovereignty may be, we’ll just let it pass. Can't do that. We should prefer the third alternative, which is basically, I think, the Asian model of how we’ve related to Asia for the last fifty years. Which is, whenever possible, work toward building stronger bonds of community through cooperation.

That’s what we’re doing in the WTO, but it’s also how we fought Al-Qaeda, and how we continue to fight, not only in Afghanistan, but when the Pakistanis, for example, cooperate with us in helping to apprehend leaders of those terrorist groups. I think there are three elements in an approach that favors cooperation. First we have to cooperate for security. We have an international security assistance for in Afghanistan that NATO is taking over the management of. And I will say again, NATO is doing that, all the members, including those who disagreed with us over the timing of the action in Iraq. We have to stay there. And America has to stay there. We can't emphasize Iraq to the exclusion of Afghanistan. And I was very glad to see that Secretary Armitage was there making that point. You can't have Red Cross workers being murdered, the national police chief being beaten up by warlords, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda operating with impunity again in parts of Afghanistan.

That would make the past repeat itself, which is what happened in the early eighties after the Soviet Union left and so did we. But, we can't afford to stay all by ourselves, so we need cooperation in the security area in Afghanistan, just as we need to cooperate to help our friends throughout Asia fight terror, narco-trafficking, and organized crime. Which is why I strongly support what President Bush has done in trying to work with the Philippines in that regard. At the same time, we can't ignore what you might call the old flash points of Asia, the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, the troubles between India and Pakistan, so I’d like to mention those just for a moment.

North Korea is the most perplexing country on earth. Its only cash crops are bombs and missiles. It’s the only place in the world that can't grow food, but can grow bombs and missiles. And they’re quite good bombs and missiles. Negotiating with them is not easy, but it is profoundly important. We can't take force off the table, and if we don’t, we can probably make a deal. In 1994 we reached an agreement with North Korea to end their plutonium nuclear program. They intended to build power plants that ran on plutonium, and then when the fuel rods were spent, because they were still highly radioactive and useable for bombs, they intended to make bombs. We ended that program. And if we hadn't, as the State Department, both Secretary Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Armitage have said, North Korea would have dozens and dozens of nuclear weapons today, somewhere between fifty and a hundred.

Now, in 1998, it turns out the North Koreans, in the same year they agreed to stop testing their long range missiles, started a much smaller nuclear program using highly enriched uranium in a lab. Enough to, perhaps, give them a bomb or two. But, we can't have that. Not because we think North Korea wants to bomb South Korean, I don’t think they do, and the South Koreans don’t either, that’s why they want to continue the rapprochement policy. What do they want? Why in the wild world are they doing this? Why would they aggravate everybody if they don’t want to use these bombs? Well, I think North Korea wants three things. First of all, I think it wants not to be East Germany. And I think it does not want to disappear from the world’s stage. Lucky for them, South Korea doesn’t want to be West Germany, it’s too expensive.

. . .

And the third thing they want is the recognition and respect of their neighbors in the United States. That’s why they’ve asked for this non-aggression pact. Now, the Bush administration, I think quite properly, has not wanted to pay them twice for the same thing, and has argued that this nuclear program in the lab, even though it’s much smaller than the one they ended, in effect, at least violates the spirit of the former agreement, and furthermore, they threatened to start the other one. They said they did, and then they said they didn't, and then they said they might. But it would be a disaster. I can just tell you that from my point of view, under whatever circumstances, neither the United States nor Japan nor any other power in Asia can responsibly allow North Korea to become a nuclear arms arsenal. Not because they will use them, but because they can't feed themselves. And the pressure, if we isolate them, for them to sell those weapons and missiles will become overwhelming. Therefore, a diplomatic solution that involves the Chinese and the Japanese and the South Koreans and the Russians and everybody else that we can get involved is imperative. But we have to be involved in it.

And I think this time we’ve got to try to end all the nuclear programs with verification, and the missile production and sales for good. In return for food and medicine, food and energy, and the continuing reconciliation with South Korea, and I would give them a non-aggression pact, because we’re not ever going to be aggressive against them unless they do something which would void the pact. It would not bind American in any meaningful way, but it would give them the notion that we respect an agreement with them. Furthermore, I think we have to do something to try to help them become more self sufficient, which would inevitably require them to adopt more liberalization. You can have a state dominated monopoly over enough scientific and technological base to produce bombs and missiles, but it’s hard to get much beyond that without having some greater competition over openness and ownership. So that’s what I will hope will happen, and that’s what it seems to me that our government and our allies are trying to achieve.

With regard to China and Taiwan, I think it is sort of the opposite of the Middle East, where, in the Middle East, if we do nothing, it gets worse. In China and Taiwan, if nobody does anything, it’ll get better. Because they’re all investing, and making money, and ignoring the politics, and the politicians stand up and say what they have to say, and the people, they’re growing together anyway. They are one culture, they are, in profound ways, one nation, they have separate systems, and they’ll figure it out if nobody does anything stupid. And America’s policy should be designed to make sure that nobody does anything stupid. I remember once I had to send the fleet into the straights there because of the missile testing. And I never said a word. And I didn't really want many headlines. And everything got all right, nobody did anything stupid. If nobody does anything beyond the bounds that everyone clearly understands there, that’s going to come out all right. But we should be very careful with that, because it’s profoundly important.

And the final thing I’d like to talk about a little bit is the problem between India and Pakistan, and the not unrelated sectarian violence within India itself. Rajat [Gupta] talked a little about our trip there, and the fact that I’ve been privileged to work with him and Victor Menezes who is here, and many others, to raise a few million dollars at the request of Prime Minister Vajpayee to help re-build Gujarat after the terrible earthquake there. And when the prime minister asked me to do this, we set up a separate foundation, the America India Foundation, which I hope will some day do for India what all the American Jewish organizations have done for Israel over decades and really make a significant difference.

We said, look, we’ll do this, but we want to leave these areas better off than they were before the earthquake. We want to have functioning models of economic development. We want to involve non-governmental organizations. We want to have better health systems, better education systems. And we set about doing that work. But all of that can be wrecked by this. In the year I spoke the Indian parliament, they had had, by then, about eight years of the benefits of economic reform, seven huge high tech centers doing brilliant work, but the per capita income of the country was still about five hundred dollars a person, and the Indian parliament had just approved a twenty-two percent increase in defense spending. And you know what’s happened in the last couple of years. So now we have a new break. Prime Minister Vajpayee at the age of seventy-eight said, one more time in my life I’m going to try to resolve this with Pakistan.

And President Musharraf had a good response. And they’re going to re-establish diplomatic relations. And Mr. Armitage was just there. I think it’s very important that the United States support this process. It’s the only place in the world where there is a continuing hot conflict between two nuclear powers who have, I might add, less than perfect knowledge about each other’s capability and doctrines. And I think it is profoundly important. Furthermore, now that the United States has warm relations with India for the first time in forty years, and that’s something, again, I would say, I strongly support the fact that the Bush administration continued our rapprochement with India, it’s the biggest democracy in the world, we can't afford to be alienated with it for antiquated, Cold War reasons. But, now that we’re friends again, we ought to fulfill the duty of friends and tell our friends the truth when we think things are amiss.

The horrible violence between the Muslims and the Hindus in western India which began with the destruction of the mosque ten years ago, eleven years ago now, and keeps reiterating itself, and then resurfaced with the horrible burnings of the Hindu nationalists on the train, and then the deaths of some two thousand Muslims afterwards in Gujarat, these things make a mockery of Ghandi’s vision, and look bizarre next to the breathtaking advances in technology that are going on all over India. I think the United States, if we are more closely involved with the Indians, and they believe we are there for the long run in a responsible way, can have a very positive impact in trying to help them deal with their religious diversity. Ghandi wanted India to be for the Hindus and the Muslims and the Buddhists and the Sikhs and the Jains and the Christians and the Jews and anybody else who showed up.

And people, for political reasons, are making religious arguments to absolute truth, certainty, and right. Including the claim on that little piece of land, which the Hindus want for a temple to the Blue Skinned god, Rama. We’ve got to figure out a way to help them get out of this, because we will all pay a terrible price if this continues. And I personally believe it will be almost impossible to find a rapprochement over Kashmir if Indian politics itself is still riven by sectarian violence, and if there are perceived benefits to Hindu nationalists by continuing a policy of estrangement. So I hope we’ll find a way to say that out of love and affection and respect, because it’s going to have a big impact on our future.

Finally, let me say I think it’s important that we keep our traditional alliances alive. We re-figured our security alliance with Japan near the end of my term, it’s as firm as it’s ever been. We had alliances in Iraq with Australia on the front lines, with Japan, the Philippines and others, and I think we forget that at our peril. Let me just say one other thing about the security situation. I believe that economics is an important part of it, and I think that there is a significant risk which ought to be analyzed in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, that we could dilute our military strength and the political influence it gives us if we have several years in a row of huge budget deficits and huge trade deficits requiring us to import huge amounts of foreign capital, leading to a dramatic weakness in the American dollar, which, in turn, might be replaced by a strong Euro as the stable currency of choice in international transactions. That would have a devastating effect on America’s position in Asia and our ability to advance the goals, the interests, the things we believe in. So, for whatever it’s worth, I guess the two parties have kind of changed positions, and I find myself in the old fashioned conservative position of fiscal responsibility, but I think the globalization of currency exchange has meant that no nation is big enough, strong enough, rich enough, or powerful enough to ignore ordinary rules of fiscal discipline. And I don’t believe we are, over the long run. So I hope we will see a bi-partisan return to a policy that will keep the dollar strong enough that our economic policy will be consistent with, and reinforcing, our political and military strength.

The second point I’d like to make is that globalization is about more than military and economic strength. China’s decision to look outward into the world even as it has tried to maintain more closure within its society than most of us would like has accelerated the movement of the world toward inter-dependence. It certainly has done so economically, but it also involves other things. China now is under more pressure to be more open in the SARS crisis. At least Elisabeth tried to put pressure on them to be more open about AIDS. They have to develop a better legal structure, a better regulatory system. They’re under great pressure, I wish we were under more pressure, to be part of the international movement to preserve the environment, as we grow the economy.

So, we need to keep working on these things that will bring us together beyond political and military issues. And the SARS epidemic is just the latest example of that. But the most important example is AIDS. India is at a crossroads with AIDS, and so is China. The city of Bombay has about eighteen million people, and a third of them are homeless. India already has, I believe, four or five million AIDS cases. India has the capacity, through CIPLA and other to produce the anti-retroviral medicine at very low costs. My foundation just negotiated a deal with CIPLA to provide drugs in the Bahamas at five hundred dollars a year, a person.

But there is still no systematic effort to deal with this there. If you think it’s a problem that Africa has twenty-nine million of the forty-two million cases, and you realize that in China AIDS started in the rural areas, which made for horrible, horrible gripping stories, but limited the number of people who had it, and that in India it’s just beginning, I think it is perfectly clear that AIDS is sort of the iceberg threatening to crash the ship of Asia’s forward progress. And so I think that we need to, all of us, do more on that. President Bush has proposed to triple the amount of money the United States is spending on AIDS. And I think that’s a very, very important step. He wants to ratchet up, over the next few years, from spending a billion dollars a year to spending three billion dollars a year. But I think it’s worth pointing out that the proposal is to spend two point eight billion a year when we’re fully funded on twelve African countries and two Caribbean countries unilaterally. And we’ll do a lot of good in those countries, but we would only provide two hundred million dollars to the global fund on AIDS, TB, and Malaria, which the Secretary General Kofi Anan says needs ten billion dollars.

Our fair share of that would be somewhere between two and two and a half billion dollars. And I think we should spend more of our money through the global fund for two reasons. One is, AIDS cannot be attacked in isolation from other infectious diseases, especially TB. Last year, three million people in the world died of TB, and a million people died of malaria. And the more the climate warms, the more people will get malaria who will not be able to handle it, at higher and higher altitudes. And AIDS is a problem in more than those fourteen countries. So, I hope in the Congressional debates that the money figure will stay the same, but at least somewhere that money will go through he global fund. And since it directly effects Asia, which gets no money out of this present proposal, I hope that those of you in this room, whether you’re Republicans or Democrats, will urge the Congress to consider putting some more of that money through the global fund. It could have a huge impact in Asia. [APPLAUSE]

In that regard, I want to say a special thank you to Dick Holbrooke, who, in addition to doing the Asia Society, has worked enormously hard to try to get the business community all around, in America, that operate in other countries, to do its part, particularly in Africa. There is a lot more we can do. Same argument, by the way, applies to education. There are still a hundred and thirty million children who aren't in school. A lot of them are in Asia. Never go to school at all. But we know how to get them in school. In my last year as President, we got about three hundred million dollars to offer a nutritious meal to children once a day, but only if they came to school to get the meal. And enrollments exploded in the countries that participated.

I think we ought to fund another round of debt relief, and focus it on the countries that may have been too wealthy to get the first round of debt relief, but have significant health care problems, for example. Because if the savings all go into health care and education, you get a huge return. I think we should continue to open our markets to more and more poor countries. It’s one of the reasons I was so insistent on getting this trade agreement with Vietnam before I left office, and why I was thrilled, even though it’s not a poor country, I was pleased that President Bush concluded the agreement that we started with Singapore. I think this whole thing is very, very important. And I think sometimes we forget how much education and health care and economics have to do with our security as well as our economic well being.

When we gave global debt relief, I’ll just give you a couple of examples, Honduras used its savings to go from six to nine years of mandatory schooling. Now, they’ve had a lot of trouble in Honduras in the last twenty years, but they’re not mad at us anymore, because we helped their kids get an education. When we passed the trade bill for Africa and the Caribbean, I was in Ghana a few months ago, and I was on the way to the airport, and a woman started screaming to me as I was walking toward my plane, President Clinton, don’t go, don’t go. And I turned around, she was waving this package, and she came up to me and she said, I'm one of four hundred women who work in a factory making shirts, we’ve all got jobs because of your African trade bill. So here is your shirt. [LAUGHTER] And I figured what the heck. I’m not in office anymore. I took the shirt. [LAUGHTER]

I want to make a serious point. I put that shirt in a place in my house where I have to look at it every single day. Because it reminds me that that woman is not mad at you, and she doesn’t want her children to be terrorists, or fight in African tribal wars. She desperately wants her children to be free of AIDS, she wants them to go to school. Why? Because she thinks America wanted her to share in a common future. We have to get that message out all across Asia. And I think that’s very, very important.

The final point I want to make is that, OK, so we need a security strategy, and then we need a strategy to get globalization right. Not just economics and military cooperation. Final point I want to make may be the most important of all, and this is sort of where you come in, and that is that all these rational arguments are fine, but there are a lot of emotional and built in political interests that will always make the kinds of things that we advocate at these forums difficult to achieve. I mean, China, as Elisabeth was saying to me, China finally [came] across with more openness on SARS than they had shown on AIDS when it obvious that the economic impact of it was going to be disastrous unless we figured out how to deal with it. So, it takes time to develop the habits of cooperation, and the habits of openness, and the kind of institutional cooperation that I believe will be absolutely necessary to have the kind of world that we want in the twenty-first century. I think we’re going to have to work very hard to sustain moderate Muslim societies. I think we have to send the signal day in and day out, not only from America, but from non-Muslim Asian countries that we have no quarrel with Islam, and that they can have an honored place in the integrated global community we seek to build. I think that we have a special problem with Iran, and a special opportunity. I had hoped that when I was president the reform forces in Iran would go strong enough that we would actually have some direct contact with them.

And I tried to do what I could. I made a direct, public apology for the role the United States played in the 1950’s in the Cold War in disrupting Iran’s progress toward constitutional democracy. When President Khatami talked to the UN in 2000 I went to the American delegation and sat there and listened to his speech. They sent us some positive signals, but ultimately they were not ready to talk to us. But the transition is fascinating. I mean, we know the vast majority of Iran’s people, without regard to their age, want to live according to a rule of law. They want to be part of a global community. The reform candidates got seventy percent of the vote in their 2000 elections. In fact, listen to this, Iran has now had six elections in a row: two for local government, two for the parliament, two for the presidency. Six elections in a row. And in all six elections, the reformers got seventy percent of the vote. There is not another nation on the face of the earth that can make that claim. And as a Democrat, I’m sort of jealous of them in that regard.

But we also know that Iran has two governments, and that the other thirty percent are represented by an un-elected government of religious conservatives that control a lot of the intelligence, foreign policy, and money that goes to fund terror. So, we have real and dangerous differences. I do believe we have to continue our dialogue. I comment the Asia Society and all the others who have worked over the last several years to keep informal contacts with Iran alive, who have hosted Iranian and American officials and sponsored dialogue on culture and on politics, you have done our countries a great service, and I hope you will continue to do that.

Let me just say in closing that it’s obvious to all of us that we can't afford to be indifferent. It’s obvious to most of us that we can't succeed by being purely unilateral. It is clearly obvious that we have to have a strong military, but we can't have a solely military strategy to fight the forces of dis-integration. It’s not enough to keep bad things from happening, we have to keep making good things happen. Asia’s greatest challenges, terrorism, AIDS, non proliferation, maintaining economic dynamism, most of the answers to those challenges will come from the Asians themselves, but they can't do it alone. And the United States will have to do our part just as we have for the last fifty years. I would like to say lastly, what I tried to say to the graduates at Syracuse yesterday, it is important in public affairs to distinguish between the headlines and the trend lines. Sometimes they are consistent, sometimes they are not. There are many troubling headlines in the world today, and many of them affect Asia. But, if you look at all the good things that have happened since the end of the Cold War in Asia, many of them against all the odds, it is obvious that the trend lines have, on balance, been positive. Our job is to make sure they keep going that way. We can't do it alone, and it won't happen if we don’t have a leadership role. So, I hope we will decide to try to build an integrated community. That’s a decision we made after World War II, it worked pretty well, and it will work even better in the next fifty years. Thank you very much.