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Say what you will: Bill Clinton throws a great party. Late on Friday night, as Tony Bennett crooned in front of hundreds of high-powered guests, the former two-term Democratic president, Hillary alongside, was glowing with pride.
On the second day of his grandly-named Clinton Global Initiative, he had hustled up almost $1.25bn of commitments to fight poverty, climate change and foster better governance and a closer understanding between Islam and the west.
Even though some of those commitments may have been long in the pipeline, Mr Clinton’s conference succeeded in opening a genuinely thoughtful dialogue between policy-makers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the people who really can make a difference: the private sector.
Bo Ekman, a former Volvo executive and UN adviser who runs the annual Tallberg Forum in Sweden, said the Initiative was an imaginative response to the “system failure” afflicting the world today.
“The paradox of our time is that we face more well-defined threats to our lifestyle such as climate change, but we see a weakening of international institutions designed to solve these problems,” said Mr Ekman, “The role of the private sector therefore becomes crucial.”
So while much attention was devoted to socially conscious celebrities such as Brad Pitt, P. Diddy, Oprah Winfrey, and Sir Mick Jagger, the presence of dozens of corporate heavyweights at Mr Clinton’s three-day talkathon in New York was more important.
Among the biggest names were Jeffrey Immelt, chairman and chief executive of General Electric; Rupert Murdoch, the ever combative boss of News Corporation; Jamie Dimon, the heir apparent at J.P Morgan Chase; and Charles “Chad” Holliday, the CEO of Dupont.
But “friends of Bill”, many of them generous donors to his presidential campaigns, were also out in force. The burly shopping mall magnate from Ohio; the tanned telecoms CEO from New Jersey; the millionaire surgeons from Florida, including Arthur Agatston, author of the best-selling South Beach Diet.
Mr Clinton’s great skill is to build bridges between the private sector and the liberal activists who still dominate the Democratic party. A passionate advocate of globalisation and economic integration, he still finds room for those left behind. He defies conventional political labels.
The discussion on climate change on Saturday morning was instructive. The three-hour session could easily have descended into a hand-wringing exercise about the melting of the Polar Cap. Instead, it focused on practical ways in which business could turn a looming crisis into an opportunity.
Mr Immelt set the tone – not just by touting his company’s Eco-imagination initiative, which aims to dramatically expand GE’s development of energy efficient technology. He also called for a national energy/environmental policy designed to make the US a world-beater.
Mr Immelt made clear he had little time for those who claim that tighter environmental standards burden US business with unnecessary costs and damage US competitiveness. Nor was he much impressed with claims that government had no role to play.
“The software industry grew out of Nasa (space agency) and the health care industry grew out of Medicare, NIH (National Institutes of Health)…..I just say “Get over it.”
Mr Holliday of Dupont was equally sanguine about the prospects of mandatory caps on carbon emissions in the US. Asked whether his company would support such caps if they became inevitable in five years, Mr Holliday hesitated for a second and then replied yes.
The role of the private sector also featured prominently in discussions on the Middle East, particularly the Gaza Strip, where Israeli forces have recently withdrawn. Mr Clinton drew a laugh in the opening session when he said all the Palestinians he knew in the US were either millionaires or college professors. But then he asked a serious question: how could these talented people be wooed back?
His trial balloon was “terror insurance” – a pool of private funds to help offset the risk of violence driving out fledgling businesses. Terror insurance, said Mr Clinton, would also help him “hustle up” more money for Gaza. Neither Tony Blair, British prime minister, nor Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, took the hint.
At times, the conference attendees must have felt as if they had been whisked into the past, back to the early 1990s when the White House was the scene of freewheeling wonkery stretching into the the early hours of the morning with the president expounding on policy between mouthfuls of cold pizza.
Mr Clinton occasionally droned on – notably during an otherwise lively session on the media between Rupert Murdoch, Sir Howard Stringer, and Dick Parsons of Time Warner in which Mr Murdoch took a vicious swipe at BBC News’ coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. But the former president also showed he had lost none of his charm and humour.
“The great thing about being out of office is that you can say what you want. The sad thing is nobody cares any more.”
He also displayed his intellectual brilliance with a sweeping analysis of the obstacles to peace in the Middle East. His conclusion: the Israeli people wanted peace but did not want to elect a government that would deliver it.
Robert Rubin, Mr Clinton’s respected Treasury secretary, raised eyebrows by declaring that well-run autocracies might well serve their people better than feeble democracies – a rare piece of public candour.
The other sources of contention were women’s rights in the Middle East, the prospect for democracy and whether beleaguered Arab leaders should open a dialogue with violent opposition groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas. At least one speaker sought to differentiate these groups from the nihilistic al-Qaeda, a view not shared by the audience.
Liz Cheney, the vice-president’s daughter, argued that women’s rights were non-negotiable. Prince Turki al-faisal, the former Saudi head of intelligence and now ambassador-designate in Washington, countered that habits and culture needed to be respected, even if the trend was moving toward opening up societies.
In the final resort, these are huge questions which cannot be settled in one session nor through one magnanimous charitable contribution. Mr Clinton has shown that he can stage an event, and an impressive one at that. But the next challenge is whether he can turn that event into a process.
Additional reporting by Alan Beattie and Andrew Balls
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