Former President Bill Clinton (SFS ’68) made his widely anticipated return to the Hilltop on Monday afternoon, lecturing a tightly packed Gaston Hall on his view of today’s global political climate and the role of government in an increasingly interconnected world.
“What are our responsibilities to each other, in an age of unprecedented interdependence and globalization?” Clinton said. “If you put up a wall, you might be able to keep people out, but you can’t keep the internet out, you can’t keep the ideas out.”
Clinton’s keynote address concluded a four-day symposium titled “Clinton 25: Georgetown Reflects on the Vision of Bill Clinton,” which marked the 25th anniversary of Clinton’s election in 1992. The event, hosted by the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service, comprised a series of panel discussions on Clinton’s domestic policy, foreign policy and public service.
Clinton said the interconnected world requires inclusivity on economic, social and political fronts to eradicate the harmful “us-versus-them” mentality that pervades politics today.
“Do you believe in a positive-sum future, a dynamic, bigger, better, more inclusive one? Or a zero-sum future, where economics is static and there’s a limited amount of social capital and cultural standing to go around, so there must always be a loser in order for someone to win?” Clinton asked.
According to Clinton, if and how we collectively think about our future determines our ability to meet the most pressing global challenges, from climate change to technology and cybersecurity threats.
“The only way to think about it in a country as great as ours, the only sensible way to work toward a more perfect union, is to work toward inclusive economics, inclusive societies, inclusive cultures and inclusive politics. And that includes people who don’t vote with us — and may not even like us,” Clinton said.
An interdependent world requires national policymakers to engage with the global community and work together to counter common threats, Clinton argued.
“You can build all the walls you want, but we can’t escape each other. It won’t affect cyberterrorism; it won’t affect the spreading of radical ideology, or inclusive, caring communities. The physical, in this case, is not as important as the mental,” Clinton said.
This address was the final installment of “The Clinton Lectures,” a four-part series devoted to exploring the people, events, lessons and guiding principles that have shaped his career in public service. The series, which began in 2013, examines the framework for a lifetime spent championing the ideas espoused by Clinton’s undergraduate professor Carroll Quigley: that tomorrow can be better than today and that every individual has a personal, moral responsibility to make it so.
Clinton said that he is convinced he would not have become president had he not attended Georgetown and that he still feels influenced by the lessons he learned at Georgetown, nearly 50 years after graduating. The notion that individuals are responsible for the success of the future is an impactful lesson that he has carried with him since his undergraduate days.
“That’s a pretty heavy dose to lay on an 18-year-old,” Clinton said. “But I remember it well, all these long years later. And I’m grateful that I heard it.”
The idea of combating harmful polarization was a common theme throughout Clinton’s talk, as he described a “cultural shift” that occurred around the time of President Nixon’s resignation in 1974 and included 12 consecutive years of Republican presidents. According to Clinton, the shift was only the beginning of a long legacy of polarization in America.
“When I ran in ’92, it was rather a lot like 2016,” Clinton said. “We had income inequality, we had alienation, we had unequal opportunities and we had a lot of social division. And that’s why I came to Georgetown. I said ‘Look, there’s a lot of social inequality, and I think we can do something about it, but I don’t think we can do anything until we start coming together.’”
Clinton also urged the audience to vote in the upcoming midterm elections, saying that it was one of the best ways for young people to get involved with politics today.
Building off the theme of an interdependent world, Clinton discussed the importance of immigration and emphasized how our similarities, rather than our differences, should drive not only our politics but our interactions with the world around us.
“We have got to resolve the basic question — and you have got to resolve in your own mind — which is more important: our basic differences or our common humanity? We’re all 99.5 percent the same,” Clinton said. “And yet most of political discourse today is focused on the half a percent of you that’s different. Interesting. If everyone in America knew that one fact, you think it would make any difference? It might. Especially if you told it to somebody that doesn’t look like you.”
Clinton explained how he had worked with former President George W. Bush on immigration reform and that he was “ashamed” that more substantive policy changes had not come out of their efforts.
The former president also discussed the role of politics in a broader sense, saying that leaders must ultimately strive to leave the country in a better state than it was before, despite the challenges they may face in doing so.
“Remember that all that matters in the end is if people are better off after you finished than they were when you started,” Clinton said.
Clinton concluded on a hopeful note, saying that genuine effort is the most important part of addressing the divisive challenges of today’s world.
“I can say to you, having lost as well as won over a long lifetime, that losing isn’t the end of the world. I will tell you what [Hillary Clinton] and I drilled into our daughter: The important thing is to get caught trying,” Clinton said. “It’s worth it. We’ve got to have a united country. We’ve got to have a more perfect union, and an us-versus-them is a dead end in an interdependent world.”