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Never let it be said that Bill Clinton sets himself modest targets. When he convened the inaugural meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, a gathering of world leaders, in New York on Thursday, his goals were be typically Clintonesque: freeing the world from poverty, ending conflict, reversing global warming and building better governments across the globe.
He could also, perhaps, be seeking some kind of absolution. Since stepping down from the presidency, Mr Clinton has thrown himself into the global struggle against HIV-Aids, using his formidable charm and range of contacts to negotiate cheap generic versions of antiretroviral drugs used to treat the disease. Some close to him credit his daughter, Chelsea, for raising his awareness on the issue.
With George Bush snr, Mr Clinton was also put in charge of raising and co-ordinating funds for relief and reconstruction after the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.
Like the only other Democratic president of the past three decades – his fellow southerner Jimmy Carter – Mr Clinton is determined to leave a lasting legacy in his post-presidency. But the contrast between the two is marked. The work of the Carter Center is understated, below the media radar and frequently unglamorous: monitoring elections, helping out overwhelmed African governments, trying to eradicate guinea worm disease.
The Clinton Global Initiative - of which the Financial Times is a sponsor - is glitzy, star-studded and high-profile. Its meeting attracted a clutch of kings, presidents and prime ministers, most of whom are in town for the United Nation’s millennium summit, along with luminaries of the development industry, including Hernando de Soto, the Peruvian economist, George Soros, the financier-turned-philanthropist, and business leaders, including Rupert Murdoch and Jeffrey Immelt.
There is, of course, no shortage of saviours of the world and no shortage of gatherings at which they can meet, the most prominent being the world economic forum held at Davos each year. In distancing himself from suggestions he is trying to supplant Davos, Mr Clinton has set his gathering a high bar for success. “That’s the difference between this and Davos,” he told the FT this year. “I tell people, if you just want to talk, don’t come. If you want to talk and learn about these issues and then, at the end, make a commitment, come because we’re going to check and see if you did it.”
Whether many will be in a position to make such commitments remains to be seen. Across town, after all, the UN summit has resounded with the accusations of broken promises on aid and poverty, with the US in particular declining to sign up for aid targets set by other rich countries.
Some at the gathering are there to propose ideas that, to say the least, are ambitious. One is Mohammed Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which pioneered micro-lending to the poor. A friend of Bill from way back – he set up a version of his bank in Arkansas when Mr Clinton was governor 20 years ago – Mr Yunus will be pushing his new and altogether more ambitious concept of “social entrepreneurship”: the idea that not-for-profit businesses can displace traditional companies by undercutting them.
With such idealism on offer at Mr Clinton’s gathering, it may prove to be difficult separating the hard, quantifiable commitments he is seeking from the grandiose plans to save the world. But his determination to be seen making a difference is unlikely to be dimmed.
For all that the ideology of the Clinton presidency stood for internationalism and feeling the world’s pain, it is in some ways his successor, George W. Bush, who has gone some way to undoing the traditional image of the US as a stingy isolationist in international development. The Bush presidency has announced multi-billion dollar aid packages for Aids and poverty in the developing world, reversing years of declining assistance. Mr Clinton, faced with a hostile Congress, did not.
Mr Clinton hates to be outdone. And in New York he will make every effort to seize the initiative.