"A world with more partners, fewer terrorists"

While delegates talked politics, world leaders and one popular former U.S. president discussed what's at stake globally in the November election.

Published July 27, 2004 4:13PM (EDT)

"Democracy cannot be imposed, democracy has to be offered," said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in her opening remarks to an elite crowd of policy thinkers gathered inside the Charles Hotel near Harvard University late Monday. With the Democratic National Convention in full swing here, the international assortment of diplomats, leaders of nongovernmental organizations and other political movers and shakers squeezed into a modest-size conference room to listen to a panel of five former heads of state discuss the challenges of spreading democracy globally.

It may sound like the makings of a wonkfest, but an unspoken sense of urgency percolated in the room. There was no escaping President Bush's global war on terror as the discussion's dark backdrop -- nor the expectation, diplomatically understated as it was, that a victorious John Kerry administration will take over in 2005 and steer the world in a starkly different direction from that of Bush.

And there was one other reason for the current of anticipation running through the room: By the time the session had begun, most in attendance were aware that the conversation would include one other unbilled, but equally zealous devotee of enlightened global-policy think eager to help Kerry get elected: former President Bill Clinton.

At the end of her remarks, Albright announced that the 42nd U.S. president was behind schedule and would arrive a little later, leading her to quip that "for those of us who know President Clinton well, he often arrives 'a little later.'"

Meanwhile, international luminaries ranging from former President Fernando Cardoso of Brazil to former President Mary Robinson of Ireland offered thoughtful appraisals of complex economic, security and human rights issues -- including the kind of admonitions one would expect at an international relations forum hosted by the Club of Madrid and the National Democratic Institute. But with the Democratic convention already beginning its crescendo toward Kerry's moment in the national spotlight Thursday night, the subtext of all the deliberation was clear.

"We have to engage in better management of globalization," said former Prime Minister Antonio Guterres of Portugal, noting the Bush administration's swift abandonment of a spate of international agreements after taking office. "Many important commitments, accepted by world leaders everywhere, are not being effectively implemented." With sober reference to abuses at U.S. prisons in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and in Iraq, Robinson, a staunch human rights crusader, spoke eloquently of "a rights-based approach" to building democracy and of the need to repair the international framework for responsibility and accountability of governments.

Clinton indeed arrived "a little later," apparently having been hard at work on his prime-time speech for Monday night. With his famous charisma, he chuckled as he thanked those gathered for "giving him a break." While the audience had begun to sag after an hour and a half of heady analysis, Clinton quickly refocused the room on the possibility for better geopolitical times ahead.

"I've spent a great deal of time since I left office thinking about where the world is and where we're going. It's a perplexing time, sort of the political equivalent of chaos theory in physics."

But if "perplexing" referred to his views of the Bush administration's foreign policy he didn't say so directly.

"Back when I was in law school, professors often had a little saying that 'hard cases make bad law,' which means you can't take one thing you're dealing with and generalize from it. I feel that way about Iraq. Whether you agree or disagree with U.S. policy in Iraq, it's almost useless as a way to analyze all the other problems in the world, and to push every issue through that funnel. In a larger sense, we're bound to have more cooperation in the world because nothing else makes any sense. It doesn't matter how much military power the U.S. has at this moment; the truth is, a liberal world [is one] where no nation can kill, jail or occupy all of its actual adversaries. Therefore we have to try to build a world with more partners and fewer terrorists."

With some Democratic strategists continuing to worry that the Kerry-Edwards ticket needs to better hone a tough-minded, clear foreign policy message in order to win, more have begun suggesting that the incendiary issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to be a greater priority. As an issue that's a personal obsession of his, Clinton appeared to agree, hewing to the discussion of spreading global democracy by emphasizing the need for creating "meaningful" governments.

"One of the reasons it's gotten harder and harder to make peace in the Middle East is the total disintegration of daily life among the Palestinians, a development that I warned Mr. Arafat about after we signed the peace agreement in 1993. I told him, 'You know, you will never be the most radical Palestinian again. There will always be somebody to your left, because you've signed a piece of paper with the Israelis.' I said we ought to accelerate this and go on to make a deal and go about the business of bringing the benefits of ordinary life to the Palestinians; otherwise we're going to be in the soup."

Cinton added, "We had seven years of progress toward peace in the Middle East [while I was in office]." His trademark optimism was infectious, and in the end, he seemed well aware of what weighed on the minds of many in the audience before him, among them international dignitaries and Cambridge elite alike.

"For those of you who are worried about the United States, let me remind you of something Winston Churchill said when people were asking him bad questions about America in the first two years of World War II. When people asked Churchill if he was worried about America, he said, 'Oh, no, the United States always does the right thing -- after exhausting every other alternative.'"

The crowd erupted in what was one of the few, but by far the loudest, bursts of laughter of the afternoon. Even so, after almost three years of rocky international relations and Bush's war on terror, Clinton's perfect delivery of Churchill's note of irony was a thin strand of humor running through a much broader sense of relief.

He seemed to pin hopes for a shift in the U.S. paradigm on the election of Kerry in more ways than way one. "Chances are we'll get it right," he said, as the room settled down again. "But it won't happen by accident."

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

MORE FROM Mark Follman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections Bill Clinton Iraq John F. Kerry D-mass.