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LEADING FIGURES – EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW – The next decade according to Bill Clinton

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The former president of the United States, who is 71, looked a little weary but nevertheless stately and still has that magical knack of attracting attention regardless of what he says. We spoke to him right after he addressed 3000 young people at the General Assembly of the United Nations.

I met Bill Clinton a couple of times in my life and he always gave me the impression of being a true history maker, a leader who has always had something to say, even today, when he no longer holds any institutional position. I had the chance to dine with his daughter Chelsea a few months ago, who told me how much they suffered during her mother Hillary’s electoral campaign, the attacks by iniquitous hacker’s, presumably not American.

I think this is a good starting point, the new media, the new forms of communication, social networks, the Internet. How can we manage this new technology, that is heavily affecting the relationship between representatives and those being represented? Is our way of life changing too..

BC:

You are living in a world full of promise and peril. Every single day, you could spend 15 hours on internet, reading about good and bad things that are going on. In this crowd, there is one thing that is not disputable: the new generation is going to live in the most internet-dependent age in history and you have to decide how to chart your life.

If you look at all the positive things going on in the world: life expectancy going up; the incredibly explosive potential of information technology to start new businesses and build wealth; the amazing advances in human geno- studies, which in all probability will have already raised the life expectancy of the young people, today under 20, well beyond ninety years. All this must be balanced against the serious threats of all kinds of ethnic, religious and other kinds of conflicts, amplified by information technology and by the power of all non-State actors: extreme acts of terror or violence and cyber-crimes.

I believe that every young man and woman has to develop his mind, heart and consciousness, in a way that builds the positive and shrinks the negative forces of our interdependence.

GS:

One habit that luckily for us Europeans has not caught on in Europe as it has in the United States is the private ownership of guns. How is it possible that even the regular massacres won’t convince you do away with this long-standing rule which guarantees the right to personal defence as if we were still in the days of cowboys?

BC:

In early April, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King: he was 26 years old when he assumed the leadership of the greatest civil rights movement in our nation’s history. 

A few days ago, after yet another horrible mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida, finally, the students have underlined “they will not allow more and more killing to occur, nobody takes any action to increase safety and to reduce the chances of mass killings because the politicians are at the mercy of the gun lobby”. In recent years, the United States had by far more mass killings than any other country, not just in numbers but also on a per capita basis.

That is why, in every state of the United States, young people held mass demonstrations in highly public places, demanding basic gun safety legislation. We all know that in our country there is a strong cultural tradition of hunting and sport shooting, where many people live in rural areas a long way from law enforcement, and want to have weapons to defend themselves: nobody has proposed getting rid of those already-guaranteed constitutional rights. What the students have proposed is having adequate, comprehensive background checks and getting rid of civilian possession of military assault weapons, designed only to kill people.

People have said “oh, this is a great cultural battle.” No it’s not. It’s a battle for the personal safety of the children of the United States. It’s about public health and sensible law enforcement, and asking the hunters and other gun owners to help us save children’s lives. They don’t have to give up their rights to give more children the right to avoid mass shootings. The students have claimed: our classmates died in this mass shooting and we don’t want to see anybody else die. They have been simple, straightforward, blunt and clever in the way they’ve used their access to technology and the media.

Will they prevail? Depends on a lot of things. I’ve been fighting this issue for a long time. Last time assault weapons were banned and we had a big step forward in background checks when I was President. And I saw the gun lobby defeated.

The world is interdependent, many governments say: “our differences are more important than what we have in common, build more walls between us.” But no walls can keep out ideas. No walls can keep out internet.

GS:
Bill, I’m going to move on to one of the great issues that is afflicting mankind, to the extent that it is putting the civil rules of peaceful coexistence in jeopardy: the migration phenomena. How will we ever be able to regulate 250 million people who are leaving their countries of origin, without any credible global institutions? How can we ensure the supremacy of social man over the animal this sits in all of us?

BC:

Intelligence, ability, willingness to work hard, capacity to dream big – these know no geographic boundaries, no gender, no racial, no religious boundaries. And it may take a whole new generation of people to help us to learn to not get rid of our differences, but to embrace them while underlining that our common humanity matters more.

Behavioral studies show that diverse groups make better decisions than homogeneous groups. Everybody’s scared of immigrants that they don’t know where they come from, whether they’re going to be violent or not. People get insecure if they think their borders don’t mean anything anymore. Some people just don’t want to have people around who don’t agree with them on everything.

And yet, the most vibrant places are places that have embraced diversity. They don’t give up their own identity, they don’t give up their own tribes, they just accept others as well. That is the great test of the modern world. It is the great question that will determine whether we can meet any of our other challenges, even things that seem unrelated like climate change or fighting cyber terror. We have to ask ourselves simple direct questions to go to the core of democracy, freedom and human rights. Does that mean that you all have to agree on every question about what Italian immigration policy should be? No. But it does mean that you have to acknowledge that there are a lot of decent people who have been dealt a very raw hand in Middle East and Africa and elsewhere, and somebody needs to give them a hand up. And their families. And their children. In some way.

So, if not you, who? How should this be dealt with? If you approach the problem with the proposition that most people are good and decent and have a right to have the best life they possibly can and not to have their kids killed, then, your differences will all be manageable. I could give you lots of other examples, but it all comes down to this: cooperation is better than conflict.

To seize the potential of the modern world, we have to find the balance between security and change. Between order and creativity. If we fail at this, we won’t be able to have effective governments.

In America, the crime rate of all of our immigrants, including those that came here without proper papers, is one-half that of the native-born. The small business formation rate of our immigrants is twice that of the native-born. They are creating jobs for the rest of us. Yet you would never know it by reading all the press about them. Why? Because it’s always great politics to create an “us versus them” world. When Martin Luther King took over his leadership of the civil rights movement at 26, he lived in a completely us versus them environment, as far as his opponents were concerned. There were black people and white people and never the twain shall meet. Not in education, not in public health, not in jobs, not anywhere. And he had a different view.

When Nelson Mandela became the leader of the African National Congress, he had a tribe. He was the descendant of royalty in the Xhosa tribe in South Africa. He then became a multi-tribal leader of black South Africa. Then when he was elected president of South Africa, and he put the leaders of all the parties that had put him in prison in his cabinet, he became the leader of everyone. And by the time he died, he was the poster child for reconciliation, forgiveness, and wholeness.

GS:

Without getting into a discussion about generational conflict, whereby us adults are never capable of understanding the developments of the century we live in, can we try to look into the future and imagine what will happen in the next 25 years?

BC:

I believe that this is the most promising period in human history. Most of the economic and social trends are positive. I would love to be 18, just so I could see what’s going to happen. This summer, Hillary and I went to Hawaii to the big island, to look at the universe through the largest telescope in the world. We could see beyond our own galaxy. And then we came up 4000 feet to about 9500 feet where, with the bare eye, we could see the brightest night star in the night sky in all of the northern hemisphere. And I was talking to these brilliant astro-physicists, a couple of whom had won the Nobel prize in the last few years, and I said, “what do you all think about the prospect of life on other planets?” And one of them looked at me and smiled and said, “we have a vigorous debate about the probability of that.” I said, “what is the debate?” He said, “the difference is 90 with 95%.” In other words, they all believe that, in a universe with millions of galaxies and millions of stars, the chance that there is no form of life on another planet is virtually non-existent. In our galaxy, we found 20 planets in the last couple of years, that seemed to be far enough away from their suns and dense enough to support life. It still takes too long to get there. My point is, wouldn’t you like to meet different civilisations? In order to accomplish that, we all need to raise our children to save the planet from climate change and still grow food and preserve nature, in order to share the future.

I had a remarkable man, well into his 80s, in my office today, named Marty Ahtisaari. He was the prime minister of Finland when I was president. And we worked together to try to help Russia to become a democracy and build a world after the fall of the Berlin Wall. His country, Finland, is considered the happiest country in the world. I said, “Marty, how can you be the happiest people in the world?” He answered: “I think we’ve grown happier because we kept the excellence of our school system while we had children from 45 new countries come into it. This is a country with barely over 5 million people. Last year, Norway won. A couple of years ago, Denmark won. All places of remarkably personal attainment and social cohesion and cooperation.

I used to go to South Africa every year around Mandela’s birthday because we became very close friends and to celebrate together. My Foundation had some very large health-care and agricultural projects in Central Africa. In the highlands where people meet on the road, there is no wheel transportation and people walk everywhere. And when they meet and someone asks: “hello, how are you?”, the response is not “I’m fine, how are you?”, but: “I see you.” If you want to change the world for the better, you have to see people. Hitler changed the world. The purges of Stalin changed the world. But the individual people and single stories were lost. In a world with the kind of technology we have, it is morally unjustifiable to pretend that someone else’s life is of less significance than yours. We have to learn to live by “I see you” to believe that we can all win. That in order for you to win I don’t have to loose. If we learn not to divide but to respect each other, everything will start working better, Governments will work better.

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