“The most important thing about the 21st century,” said Bill Clinton, “is the degree of interdependence among peoples throughout the world, and our interdependence with the ecosystem of the earth.”
Lee C. Bollinger (center) moderated a discussion at Columbia on November 15 between Václav Havel and Bill Clinton.
Clinton was speaking to more than 1200 students, faculty, administrators, and alumni in Roone Arledge Auditorium on November 15 during a program entitled “Challenges of New Democracies.” Joining Clinton on stage were the playwright and past Czech Republic president Václav Havel, and Lee C. Bollinger, who moderated the hourlong discussion between the two former heads of state as part of an event series sponsored by the Kraft Family Fund for Interfaith and Intercultural Awareness.
Advocating a “humble view” of human nature, Clinton suggested that, in light of a future when the United States may no longer be the world’s dominant power, American interests would best be served with increased foreign aid for such things as education and disease eradication, so that the U.S. will have “more partners and fewer adversaries.” He also compared Havel to Gandhi and Mandela as a leader who managed to change history through a campaign of nonviolence, while Havel, speaking through an interpreter, credited the Clinton administration with aiding the democratization of Czech society, both materially and psychologically. Both men agreed that today’s politicians must think decades ahead in order to address the larger issues confronting the world.
When asked by Bollinger if democracy was the political system most compatible with human nature, Havel said, “I believe that spirit is prior to matter, and I believe that certain human values like solidarity and civil rights are the most important things, and that everything else in a society should be subordinate to these values. But I’m a little bit hesitant to make out of my values a closed ideology. I’m very sensitive to the dangers of when any kind of value system and ideological system becomes ossified and ends up restricting human liberty.”
Clinton, too, stopped short of characterizing the importance of democracy in absolute terms. “I don’t think that every country has to be a democracy,” he said, “but in the end, it needs to have the support of its people. And there is, after all, a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is, and has been, a part of our international charter for over a half-century.” Clinton went on to stress the necessity of holding governments accountable for failing to uphold “basic freedoms and decency” for their citizens, and for supporting the “forces of change” within those countries.