Even with the elegant and steely presence of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the opening session, the gathering of world leaders that former President Bill Clinton convened over the weekend here to chew over global problems still felt like a pep rally for a government in exile.
The hallways, crowded with Clinton Cabinet officers such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, looked like the line at the White House mess circa 1997. Sympathetic celebrities (Barbra Streisand, a dark-haired Brad Pitt) audited dense policy seminars like earnest graduate students. Even Al Gore, once famously estranged from Clinton, resurfaced.
Above all, there was Clinton -- posing questions, summoning obscure yet strangely relevant facts (such as trends on textile employment in Lesotho) and tossing off policy proposals with the jabbing thumbs-up gestures and rolling torrents of words familiar from his eight tumultuous years in the White House.
And yet the first meeting of the former president’s Clinton Global Initiative, which drew about 2,000 government, business and civic leaders, was surprisingly devoid of nostalgia or recrimination.
Hardly any speakers criticized President Bush, apart from a few modest elbows thrown by retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) during a session on global warming and some sharper words on the same subject from Gore during an impassioned presentation that drew the event’s first standing ovation (and could have passed for an early 2008 campaign speech). Few speakers even harked back to the policies of what Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, Clinton’s national security advisor, referred to in one session as “an unnamed administration that served in the 1990s.”
The conference’s dominant ethos seemed to be: If we are out of power, let’s see what else we can do to advance our priorities. As it turned out, the answer looked to be: quite a lot.
Clinton distinguished the event from other conferences on the international shrimp-and-sympathy circuit by asking the participants to commit to do something tangible in four areas: fighting world poverty, fighting global warming, encouraging religious tolerance and improving government in the developing world.
“We still need good [government] policies to ... give people the tools to succeed and meet our common problems,” Clinton said in an interview. “But I also know no matter who is in power ... we can make a real difference as private citizens attacking public problems in a way that was never before possible.”
The commitments were as diverse as the audience. Michael Jordan’s mother said her foundation would build a hospital for women and children in Nairobi, Kenya. Sir Tom Hunter, a charismatic, bullet-headed Scottish businessman, pledged $100 million to create comprehensive development plans for two poor countries with the aim of producing models that could be replicated elsewhere. Starbucks said that by 2007 it would buy a majority of its coffee at premium prices from growers who used environmentally sound methods and equitably compensated small farmers.
Cellphone service for the Gaza Strip, a $100-million investment fund for African business, a $300-million capital fund for clean-energy technologies in Europe, programs for young girls in Bangladesh and Brazil and for AIDS orphans in Africa -- all made the list.
Late Saturday, Clinton put the total at 190 commitments valued, on paper, at $1.25 billion.
What will it all produce? The only honest answer is: Who knows? Some of the pledges repackaged good works already underway. Others represented genuinely new initiatives. Hunter, for instance, signed on after Clinton buttonholed him during a long flight to Africa and then swooped in to his home in Scotland to close the deal two weeks ago.
Whatever this outpouring says about Clinton’s need to be needed, or his hunger for the spotlight, or any other plausible dime-store psychoanalysis, it also highlights a more important point: As he has recognized, nonprofit groups and like-minded corporate executives have never believed more in their ability to influence global problems, with or without government sanction. Nor have governments ever looked more to the assistance of private players.
Hunter expressed one side of that equation when he said private projects could take risks to find new approaches that governments, always fearing a political backlash against failure, could not.
Shimon Peres, Israel’s vice premier, expressed the other when he appealed for corporate investments and interventions from nonprofits to help build a sustainable Palestinian state more likely to renounce violence.
“The time has come to privatize peace,” Peres declared in an electric phrase that captured the event’s sprawling ambitions.
That’s not literally possible, of course. Only governments can make peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And governments, especially the U.S. government, still have the greatest leverage over the other problems Clinton highlighted.
No one disputed that trade and aid policies from the rich countries, and the capacity of developing governments to invest wisely and fight corruption, would shape the rate of progress against extreme poverty. Or that combating global warming would require international agreement.
For all the impressive projects announced, that reality imposed a slight quality of making do on the conference. Many participants seemed to be finding a second-best way to pursue their goals because the most direct option -- shaping American foreign policy -- wasn’t available to them while Republicans hold the White House.
That seemed equally true for the man with his name on the logo. Yet Clinton and the global “Friends of Bill” who convened over the weekend appeared determined not to lament lost power or plot its recapture, but to demonstrate they could make a mark even in exile. Only Bill Clinton would throw a party on Elba.
Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ website at www.latimes.com/brownstein.