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Bill Clinton's Remarks at the Asia Society Annual Dinner 2003

William J. Clinton, 42nd President of the United States of America

William J. Clinton, 42nd President of the United States of America

New York, NY
May 12, 2003

Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you for the warm welcome, and thank you for stacking the program with my supporters. We don’t have many outlets and many microphones, I’ve been half convinced on some of the days since I left office that I was responsible for every bad thing that’s happened since I left, and no good thing that happened when I was there. So, it was a thrill to see Rajat Gupta and Dick Holbrooke and Bernard Schwartz up here on the platform. Thank you, Bernard, for your friendship and your introduction. You and Irene have been wonderful to me. Thank you, Dick, and Kati, thank you Rajat and Anita. To David Coulter and the other board members, and especially to our award winner, Elisabeth Rosenthal and the jury which selected her, I told her that I read all those articles about AIDS in China, and I will never get over, as long as I live, the haunting story of those orphans in the rural villages in places where there were no normal age adults, only the old and those children. She did a great service in remind the world of a point I’ll make later, which is that AIDS is not an African problem. And it is a problem that all humanity must address. So thank you very much.

I would also like to say a special word of appreciation to the Asia Society for all that you do, for the policy dialogues, the art exhibits, the Asia in the schools program that my good friend, Governor Jim Hunt, is involved in, trying to overcome the knowledge gap among our young people. No region matters more to our hopes for the future than Asia. So many of the world’s people live there. So many fates and cultures meet. So much of the innovation, the upheaval, the change is occurring there. Asia may well yet hold the key to the outcome of the twenty-first century’s struggle between the forces of integration and those of dis-integration. Our fates are now tied together by economics and immigration, by culture and politics, by information technology, and shared scientific research, and also by shared vulnerability to terror, to weapons of mass destruction, to climate change, to infectious diseases. Just today, actually, right before I came here I heard about the most recent attack in Saudi Arabia, the scope of which we do not yet know, but which reminds us once again that we share the possibilities and the perils of this new world.

SARS seems to have spread from China to Hong Kong to Vietnam not through food exports or mass migration, but at least in part through doctors going to medical conferences. Smoke from fires in one country brings commerce in another to a halt. And nineteen people can use cell phones, the Internet, and airplanes to kill thirty-one hundred people from seventy nationalities in the United States. In the face of all the good and bad things that are going on, I think, on balance, Asia has done a very good job of continuing to open up economically and politically.

I think of the fact that we are, even though there was some initial resistance (I think that’s a delicate way to put it) from China in sharing information, the way that SARS was handled, the fact that we were able to stem the Asian financial crisis, the work that has been done with the Philippines by the Bush administration in helping them to combat terror, the fact that Taiwan, South Korea, and Thailand have strengthened their democracies, that East Timor is independent, that China is in the WTO, that the Asian Pacific leaders have committed to a free trade area in Asia, that India is continuing its economic progress and now has a peace initiative toward Pakistan, that Pakistan has cooperated with us in trying to apprehend Al-Qaeda leaders, that Thailand and Cambodia are world leaders in fighting AIDS, and Vietnam has established normal relations and a trade agreement with the United States, all these things I think are very hopeful. And the main point I want to make is that the United States has had, it seems to me, a formula that has held fast with modifications for the last half century. We have valued our military strength, and we have established military alliances, but increasingly we have emphasized economic and political cooperation as well.

Now, we have a decision to make in our country that will directly effect our relations with Asia. How can we best maximize the benefits and minimize the dangers of this inter-dependent world? We have, it seems to me, three choices. We could decide that the most important thing, since we have the only significant military capacity in the world, and we are, at least for the time being, the strongest economy, and we have, at least for the time being, the most political influence, to pursue a more unilateral course. That is the course that dictates pulling out of the ABM treaty, the comprehensive test ban treaty, the international criminal court, the Kyoto treaty on climate change, and pulling out of the negotiations to strengthen the biological weapons convention.

And there is a good argument for that when you have the kind of power we do, because every agreement you enter into requires you to give up some of your freedom of action. If you enter into a compact with certain rules, by definition you may not get your way all the time. On the other hand, a unilateral course is hazardous. If we only entered agreements where we got our way all the time, it seems to me there would be no marriages… Maybe some of you would have marriages, but it seems to me most people would not have marriages. There would be no business partnerships, no sports teams, no endeavor of any kind. And we would have the sublime freedom of doing whatever we please in an increasingly lonely world where others eventually would catch up in one area or another.