Leadership for the Future - Bill Clinton

Last Tuesday, I attended Bill Clinton’s ‘Leadership for the Future’ seminar at the Royal Albert Hall. Although I don’t necessarily agree with his politics (he obviously sits somewhere around the centre-left and I’m some undecided variety of libertarian), I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see a former world leader speaking. The tickets (£60 - £300) weren’t cheap for the hour and a half’s presentation, and the occupancy of the hall seemed to suffer accordingly, but it was worth it. The Royal Albert Hall, which glittered more than I remembered it from my graduation, was a suitably impressive but slightly gaudy venue.

A large majority of the presentation was dedicated to a speech by Clinton, with the remainder being pre-vetted questions. My heart sank when I saw what appeared to be some Powerpoint slides ready and waiting as I entered the hall, but fortunately he didn’t use the projector. He appeared to being using some notes, which was a surprise, but they didn’t intrude too much into the presentation. He was a clear orator, and delivered plenty of soundbite-worthy phrases - his eloquence and fluency wasn’t quite up to the standard of a legend, however.

His speech focused around four main questions:

  1. What is the fundamental nature of the 21st century?

  2. How would you like to change the 21st century?

  3. What steps are necessary to move from (1) to (2)?

  4. Who’s supposed to do it?

Each of these questions had detailed answers, and it was here that I began to deviate from the president’s view. His basic premise was sound - the world is increasingly interdependent, and this has both good and bad effects. He focused a lot on security, however, and appears to believe in the current worldview of terrorism (large, complex networks with vast power), whereas I am doubtful (and of course am in the minority). As some compensation, though, it’s good to see him recommending the use of intelligence agencies as the primary weapon against this problem, as Bruce Schneier has recommended many times in the past. Clinton is obviously in favour of income redistribution, and made it sound impressively appealing to me, despite my moral objection. He’s obviously also a competent businessman - his discussion of the return on investment of war, and his wry observation about a country’s budget being controlled by what it spent last year (as is the case in most organisations) betrays his business knowledge. He spoke with admiration about a recent initiative to teach entrepreneurship in Scottish schools - I also believe this should be encouraged.

Clinton’s answer to the fourth question, ‘Who’s supposed to do it?’, was where we deviated most. It’s clear he thinks everyone has a duty to act through democracies, NGOs, and so on, to make the changes they believe are necessary for the world. Irrespective of whether you believe this is an effective method (I think its success is less than overwhelming), this has shades of Kennedy’s famous quote: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country’, but with the USA replaced with the world. As Milton Friedman explains in his introduction to Capitalism and Freedom, this is hardly the rallying cry of someone pro-freedom. Although I don’t think it’s fair to accuse Clinton of being illberal, I drew the conclusion from this and other comments that he cares more about equality than freedom.

It was quite obvious that Clinton now feels that he is able to speak his mind, having left his presidency. He was asked at one point which world leaders he had met whom he admired, and his passion about three of them (Nelson Mandela, Yitzhak Rabin, and King Hussein) was plain to see. He does seem to be as honest a man as one could reasonably expect in such a position, and I admire him, even if I don’t agree with him.