At Harvard, Bill Clinton Urges Crisis Prevention

Unnamed photo
Claire M. Guehenno

Former President Bill Clinton is surrounded by Harvard students and professors at the Charles Hotel on Friday, following a speech in which he called for a renewed commitment to nonproliferation.

CORRECTION APPENDED

Former President Bill Clinton told a crowd of Harvard professors and students on Friday that the nation’s next president must make it a priority to prevent national crises before they happen, and not simply respond after the fact.

Clinton was the keynote speaker at a Kennedy School of Government conference to launch the school’s Acting in Time Initiative, which will allow students and faculty members to study how governments and leaders can anticipate and respond to natural disasters, global climate change, terrorism, and other issues that may be approaching a “crisis stage.”

“We’ve got to try to avert disasters—not just be prepared to bomb somebody if a disaster occurs,” the former president said.

Presidents, Clinton added, often become so focused on fulfilling their campaign objectives that they do not respond effectively to long-term problems and unexpected events.

“You will elect a new president in 2008 who will do what he—or she—promises to do,” Clinton said, as the audience erupted into laughter. His wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is the only woman who is currently a major candidate.

“Most presidents really do try to keep their commitments,” he added.

Stepping in with a handwritten page of notes, Clinton spoke for nearly an hour and a half on national issues ranging from climate change to obesity to nuclear proliferation.

“This is coming,” Clinton said. “And I know there is no great political constituency for it, but we can avert these disasters for not very much money if they can be put into the public debate and people understand clearly what’s going to happen.”

Clinton lamented the Senate’s failure during his administration to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty that would have limited the United States’ greenhouse-gas emissions. He pointed to the “extraordinary economic success which has come to countries who have taken this seriously.”

“If you can avert a disaster by arguing that there is actually a good result—which is not always possible, but you can here—this ought to be done,” Clinton said.

The former president mentioned efforts he made in the White House to prevent these problems as well as possible steps the government should take in the future.

Clinton said that it is “really important that we get back into the nonproliferation business” and commended the denuclearization deal that the Bush administration struck with North Korea in February.

But Clinton also criticized the Defense Department for working in the last six years to create two new types of nuclear weapons while encouraging other countries to abandon their nuclear programs.

“We didn’t have very clean hands when we were going around telling the Iranians or anybody else, ‘Please don’t have nuclear weapons,’” Clinton said.

The former commander-in-chief also took questions from the audience, which included Kennedy School faculty members and staff as well as alumni and donors interested in the subject of the conference, according to a spokesperson from the school.

Responding to a question on the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, Clinton said that he did not see an immediate solution.

“External circumstances are good, but internal politics are not,” he said.

For more than a year, Kennedy School Dean David T. Ellwood ‘75 has worked with faculty members to identify public problems and propose solutions for the school’s Acting in Time Initiative.

Ellwood introduced Clinton with President-Elect Drew G. Faust.

“I am very grateful to have been named president just in time to come to this lunch,” Faust quipped in her introductory remarks.

Several professors who served in the Clinton administration also sat in the audience, including Eliot University Professor Lawrence H. Summers, who served as Clinton’s last treasury secretary, and Professor of Public Service David R. Gergen, who advised Clinton on foreign and domestic policy.

—Staff writer Claire M. Guehenno can be reached at guehenno@fas.harvard.edu.

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a photo caption with the May 7 article "At Harvard, Bill Clinton Urges Crisis Prevention" gave the incorrect location for the former president's appearance. It was at the Charles Hotel, not the Kennedy School of government.