America and the World
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the Maxwell School and the Syracuse University campus on Monday, April 23rd, where she met with students and then engaged in a policy conversation entitled "America and the World" with Maxwell School Dean James Steinberg. An event transcript follows, and a video of the event and a photo gallery of Clinton's visit is also available.
MR. STEINBERG: Well, Madam Secretary, welcome to Syracuse and Syracuse University. When we worked together, you told me often how much you appreciated the affection you had for people here and for this community. And I wanted to assure you, as you could tell from the reception here, the feeling is entirely mutual. (Applause.) On behalf of the chancellor and all of us, welcome. It’s a great chance to have you here, and you can tell how much excitement there is.
I know you get a lot of questions and lot of opportunities to discuss the hotspots of the day, but I’m hoping today, in the time that we have, that we have a chance to reflect a little bit more broadly on some of the challenges and opportunities that you’ve faced as Secretary of State working with President Obama. And I’ve had a chance to get a lot of questions and thoughts from our students and faculty coming into this, and some of the questions that I want to ask you come from them as well.
I want to begin though by asking you a bit about your first challenges on coming into the office. You are probably as well qualified as anybody to be Secretary of State. You’ve been the first lady. You’ve been a senator. You’ve seen a lot of these issues. But what surprised you? What were the biggest challenges you first faced coming into office?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, first, Jim, let me tell you how delighted I am to be back here in Syracuse at the university in upstate New York and have a chance to see a lot of old friends but also to come to this extraordinary university. I want to thank the chancellor, with whom I worked so closely when I was senator. And I also want to forgive her for stealing you. (Laughter.)
You were my deputy and we were facing a lot of tough issues together, but certainly I could only say multitudinous positive things about coming to Syracuse and living here with such an extraordinary quality of life. And you and Shere, who is now so ably also serving the university, are deeply missed at the State Department and in Washington. But I certainly have every reassurance and reason to believe that you are in the right place. And I had a chance to meet with your class before coming here, and I greatly enjoyed that.
I think that trying to go back in time to January of 2009, if you remember the challenges that we were confronting, particularly the economic crisis, which had such severe impacts here at home but also around the world and had certainly affected the view that people around the world had of American leadership.
So coming into the office along with President Obama and the Administration, I was surprised at how much work we needed to do to reestablish American leadership, to reassure people that the United States would get through the economic crisis, that we would continue to provide leadership on the full range of issues that affect us as well as the rest of the world.
I hadn’t fully grasped how nervous people were until I began traveling in February of ’09 about what they could expect from us. Because even when leaders and societies criticize the United States, there’s always, in my experience, a thread of concern about where we are and what we will do and whether we can continue to represent the values that we’ve stood for, and serve as an inspiration as well as a very strong presence.
So what surprised me most, Jim, was how much work we had to do in those early months to reestablish American leadership around the world. And I think we’ve done that. That doesn’t mean everybody agrees with us, and it doesn’t mean that we don’t have a lot of work to do, primarily here at home. Because any leadership that we try to convey elsewhere has to be rooted in strength at home – economic strength, political strength. But I think we’ve made the case in the last three-plus years that there may be difficult times ahead for the world, but the world will be well-served if American leadership remains as essential today as it has in the past.
MR. STEINBERG: When you were at the nomination hearing, your first appearance before the Senate, you said to fulfill our responsibility to our children, to protect and defend our nation while honoring our values, we have to establish priorities. You’ve been in it for over three years. What do you see as the priorities? And as Brittany Vira (ph), who’s one of my students, asked: How would you like historians to look back in 50 years and say what were the priority challenges?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I must say that I believe in priorities and trying to set them and follow them. What we found was that we needed a broader list of priorities than perhaps made sense in other times. Because given the economic crisis – and I go back to that because it overhung everything we did – we could not really go forth and argue for American positions and American values if people thought that we were not going to remain a strong economy that could support that leadership.
So when we look back, I think reestablishing American leadership, having it once again be respected, appreciated, wanted, and having a list of priorities on our agenda that were both specific, like what we’re going to do in dealing with some of the crisis areas from Iran to North Korea and more general about the overarching global problem, like global climate change or nuclear proliferation and other weapons of mass destruction, we didn’t really have the luxury of being able to put some of those priorities to one side. We had to try to deal simultaneously with a number of pressing issues, some very specific, some more general.
We often talk in the State Department about how we’re constantly having to juggle the urgent crisis, the immediate threat, and the long-term challenge all at the same time. Because you can pick up a newspaper any day, you can see what’s in the headlines, but then you can go through the paper and find things that aren’t yet in the headlines that you know will be unless action is taken to prevent, and then you can also discern the trend lines – not the headlines, but the trend lines – of both threats and opportunities that you have to keep an eye on. So we tried to create a sensible approach toward dealing with all of those in a prioritizing way. But it was sometimes a rolling list of priorities.
MR. STEINBERG: And as you tried to tackle that multiple challenge, you spent a lot of time thinking about the role of the State Department, the role of diplomacy. You’ve initiated an attempt to kind of do the kind of planning that the Pentagon does to deal with the long term. What do you think are the most important results that have come out of that process? And how do you think the State Department’s going to change to meet these new challenges?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, what Jim is referring to is that historically the Pentagon does a four-year planning process called the Quadrennial Defense Review, and it’s an excellent organizing tool, both for internal and external purposes. So they run a process where the different services, the different elements of the Defense Department come together to try to hammer out what are our goals and objectives going to be for the next four years.
The State Department and USAID had never done anything like that. We were a much more reactive agency. If there was a crisis, then get the diplomats out the door. If there’s a humanitarian disaster, then get the development experts out the door. But in a time of constrained resources, which certainly this must be because of the budgetary pressures we face, I thought we were at a great disadvantage because we were not engaging in a planning process internally to set our own goals and objectives, and therefore we couldn’t explain it to the Congress or the public what is it we were trying to accomplish.
So I instituted the first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, the QDDR. It was a quite intense and revealing process. Why did we do things? Well, because we’d always done those things. But should we continue to do them, or should we be much tougher about how we define what we began calling smart power in this Administration at the State Department? How do we take stock of where we are and what we’re doing? Do we have the right skill sets for the diplomats and the development experts that we send into the field? How do we understand the role of diplomacy in a multilateral world? It’s no longer just enough to tend to your own embassies. How do we have some interconnectivity in region so that we had a better idea of what we were all working toward? How do we have development that furthers America’s interests while also meeting the humanitarian needs of people?
So we asked all the hard questions. We came up with some, I think, important conclusions. I’ll give you just one example. Energy diplomacy is key to our national security, not only in terms of securing the energy supplies that the United States needs at an affordable cost, but understanding the role that energy plays in nearly every other relationship we have in every region of the world. It makes a difference if the Europeans are totally dependent upon Russian natural gas. That’s makes a difference, because then they are going to be much less likely to feel comfortable cooperating with us or with fellow Europeans on certain actions that might undermine Russia’s lock on their energy. It makes a difference if you’re trying to promote development in Afghanistan whether there’s a pipeline that could come from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan and into India, which we are currently trying to negotiate.
So anyway, we looked and said one of our big gaps is we don’t have enough energy diplomacy expertise. So we created a new focus for that and a new bureau in the State Department. We took people who already had some expertise but then recruited others. We just finished negotiating an agreement that had taken many years to negotiate with Mexico to determine the trans-boundary responsibilities when you drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico. And we all remember the terrible disaster of BP. So there are just an enormous set of issues that are energy-related that have to go to our national security.
And then on the development side, if we can help countries that are discovering oil, and many African countries right now are – Ghana is going to start drilling offshore, Kenya has discovered oil and gas in the Savannas, Uganda is drilling near Lake Victoria. You go down the list. The natural resource curse is likely to mean that they will get rich and get more unstable and less equal in the distribution of the revenues from those resources, unless we and other likeminded nations can try to help them understand what it would mean for their future if they had a trust fund like Norway had, or a royalty scheme like Botswana had for their diamonds. So we’re looking at ways of getting ahead of problems instead of just always playing catch-up.
MR. STEINBERG: Staying on development for a second, obviously there’s a strong American humanitarian impulse, cares about the welfare of others, and yet lots of skepticism about how effective development assistance can be, the track record not as compelling as maybe one would like it to be. And even more, people look around, they look at our problems at home, deficits at home, our students worried about their future jobs. How do you make the case that this is obviously good to do, but necessary to do, given all the other demands for our resources?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think that you will never get an argument from me that we have to pay a lot of attention to what we need to do here in our own country in order to get our economy producing good jobs again, giving people upward mobility, returning a sense of economic security. That is obviously priority one.
The amount of money we spend on development is such a tiny, tiny piece of our federal budget, and it helps us in so many ways. When there is a humanitarian disaster, whether it’s an earthquake in Haiti or a terrible mudslide and flood in the Philippines, and so many others in between, the American people have historically been very generous in trying to help people respond to the humanitarian disasters around the world. And I think we will continue to do that. And it’s a public-private partnership. It’s public tax dollars and it’s private contributions.
And it really sets a high standard for everyone else, because remember, much of the rest of the world has no history of philanthropy, they have no history of the kind of humanitarian response that we have been known for. It’s beginning to change. I want to see it change. I want to see the rising powers also contributing on humanitarian disaster relief. And we’re beginning to see some of that.
In other areas of development, we do a lot of work because it furthers American security interests. We fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic or drug-resistant tuberculosis or the spread of malaria, both because we care about the people who are impacted but also because it’s a public health challenge for us. And so it’s the kind of thinking that is both rooted in our moral obligation to help people in need, but also in a very hardheaded, clear-eyed analysis of what we need to do to get ahead of problems that may end up on our own doorstep. We fight battles for electoral fairness because we believe that people elected in a fair, free, transparent election are more likely to be allies of ours in many of the difficult challenges we face.
So I think we do have to be smarter and more efficient to ensure that any dollar we spend that comes from us, the taxpayers of America, is well spent, is efficient, produces a result. And when it doesn’t, stop doing what we have been doing and either don’t do that or make it something you can justify here in the chapel or on Capitol Hill. But I think if you look – and you can go now – we’ve put all of our foreign aid on the website of USAID. You can go and look at every penny of foreign aid.
And contrary to what a lot of people believe, we do not spend 10 or 15 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid. I remember when I would campaign and people would say, “Balance the budget by cutting foreign aid.” And I’d say, “Well, how much do you think we’re spending?” And they’d say, “I don't know, 20 percent.” And I’d say, “Well, how much do you think we should spend of the federal budget?” “Well, no more than 10.” I’d say, “Okay.” (Laughter.) So I think that we have to disabuse people of some of the myths about foreign aid, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to ensure that every dollar we do spend is spent well and furthers our security, our interests, and/or our values.
MR. STEINBERG: So the other D in the QDDR is democracy. And also going back to your first testimony to Congress, you quoted your first predecessor, Thomas Jefferson, who said, “The interests of a nation when well understood will be found to coincide with their moral duties.” There’s obviously been a lot of debate about the role of democracy in human rights. There are some critics who say that we haven’t been as zealous as we need to be about those. There are some who worry that even in our own conduct of activities, including dealing with the problem of terrorism, that we’re not being consistent with our moral duties.
We’ve had a lot of chance in the Arab Spring and elsewhere to try to deal and grapple with this challenge. How do you see it, both the importance of these values and how we implement them in our foreign policy?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think that they’re absolutely paramount. I think democracy and human rights is who we are as Americans and also what we have stood for historically. But it’s quite challenging to take what are heartfelt values that we care deeply about and implement them everywhere, every time that we possibly can, because there is a lot of challenges with explaining democracy to people. If you’ve never lived it, you have no idea how it affects you. You don’t have the sort of years and years of perfecting our union that we’ve gone through. Democracy can mean different things to different people. And there are different forms of electoral systems, different forms of parliamentary systems that claim to be democracy. Iran claims to be a democracy.
And we have to be always consistent in supporting what we think of as the underpinnings of democracy, and it’s not just elections. Some people have one election one time and claim that’s a democracy. So we have to constantly be urging more openness, more respect for minorities, independent judiciary, protection of the free press, the kinds of pillars of democracy that over many, many years we have learned are essential for the institutionalization of a democratic system.
And when it comes to the protection of human rights, I mean, we issue an annual Human Rights Report that tries to shine a bright light on the problems that exist around the world. And for the first time, when I became Secretary, I said, look, if we’re going to be judging the rest of the world, we need to judge ourselves because otherwise, people are not going to pay attention. They’ll say, well, there go the Americans again, criticizing everybody else, but what about Guantanamo and what about this and what about that?
So we have to be honest with ourselves that despite, I believe, having the greatest commitment to democracy and human rights of any nation, of any society, of any time in history, we make mistakes, we fall short of our own standards, and we have to constantly be asking ourselves what we can do better and how we should behave. And that’s important for us, first and foremost, but it’s also important if we’re going to have credibility when we speak to the Arab Spring or other countries that are trying to formulate democracies.
And sometimes, publicly criticizing a government over human rights abuses is not the best way to achieve the results you’re seeking. So we have to modulate how we say what we say and when we say it and who we speak to, because, again, otherwise you won’t be able to protect the people you’re trying to protect in many instances, and you may not be listened to if it just becomes a mantra, a public rhetorical mantra. It’s very challenging to have those values front and center, to promote them, to implement them, to praise and criticize appropriately, but we try to do it. I think we end up in a pretty good place. There’s always a lot of room for improvement. But it is very challenging.
The other aspect to this is when you have human rights standards that are so foreign to other cultures. I’ll give you three quick examples. If you’re someone, as I am, who believes strongly in the empowerment of women and talk about the rights of women everywhere I go – I’ve done this now internationally for 17 years. Honestly, a lot of – in a lot of places, it’s just not understood. “Of course, we take good care of our women. We don’t let them out of the house, so that they never get into trouble.” (Laughter.) “We don’t let them drive cars, so that they can never be taken advantage of. So we are protecting the human rights of our women.” You can imagine the conversations that I have. (Laughter.)
Or we believe that you should not be discriminating against or permitting violence against the LGBT community in your country. And in many places, in particularly Africa and Asia, that is just a totally foreign concept. I mean, the first response is, “We don’t have any of those here.” (Laughter.) Second response is, “If we did, we would not want to have them and would want to get rid of them as quickly as possible. And it’s your problem, United States of America, that you have so many of those people. So don’t come here and tell us to protect the rights of people we don’t have or that we don’t want.” (Laughter.)
And so, I mean, I call leaders and I say, “You’ve got a legislator who’s just introduced a bill that calls for the death penalty against LGBT people. That’s really a terrible idea.” “Well, we don’t have any of them. They’ve been imported from the West” – (laughter) – “and we don’t need them.” I said, “Well, all right. Let’s start at something very basic. Why do you have to kill them?” (Laughter.) “Well, maybe you’re right about that. We won’t impose the death penalty, but they may have to go to prison.”
Okay. Let’s – I mean, that’s the kind of discussions that you have when you’re talking about human rights. And it’s not that people get up in the morning and say, “I’m against human rights.” It’s that from where they come, on women or LGBT or minority groups, you say, “You don’t treat that minority group very well.” If you’re talking in the Middle East sometimes, “Take better – be nicer to your Shia or your Sunni.” Or, “Please don’t discriminate against your Christians.” It’s a very difficult conversation because it’s just not been one that people have had up until now. I think it’s very important we do that, but I give you this sort of flavor so that you understand we can either have a conversation and try to convince people to move in a certain direction, to provide greater protection for human rights, or we can lecture at them, we can call them names, we can preach, and the lives of the people who are being discriminated against will not change.
So sometimes I feel that we get criticized because we’re not being as vocal or strident as some in the advocacy community would like on some of these issues, but I’m trying to save lives and I’m trying to change attitudes. So trying to do that simultaneously is sometimes quite challenging.
QUESTION: So, Madam Secretary, yesterday was Earth Day and one of my graduate students, Todd Dannon (ph), wanted to pose you a question. I promise you that this is from him and not from my wife, Shere. But the question was: Given that we’ve just marked the 42nd anniversary of Earth Day, do you see any real opportunities for significant environmental progress on the international front? And what role can the United States play in catalyzing that?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I am a perennial optimist on even the most difficult issue, and I do think that we can see some progress. I think, number one, the problem of climate change, of environmental degradation, of pollution and contamination, is not going away. It’s not been magically disappeared because people don’t want to have a political discussion about it. It still is affecting people’s lives, and it’s affecting the lives of Americans here at home as well as countless millions around the world.
So because it’s not going away, we have to continue to work toward making progress. And we weren’t able to get a big climate deal through our own Congress in the first part of the Obama Administration, in part because it was in the midst of an economic crisis and so many people said we can’t take on any more cost, even though I would argue that over time this would be an efficient cost-savings commitment. Nevertheless, from the front end, there were some initial investments that would have to be made, so people were rightly anxious about the economy and about making those kinds of commitments.
But we did make slow, steady progress towards some international commitment starting in Copenhagen, then in Cancun, then at Durban, and certainly there’s hope for continuing that at the Rio+20. I was saying to Jim’s class that it is always challenging when you see a problem that you believe must be addressed and you can’t get the political process to respond. Now you can either become very discouraged and very bitter, with good cause because you think this problem is so pressing, or you can regroup, re-strategize, and keep going. So that’s what we’re doing.
And I’ll give you just a few quick examples. Coming out of Copenhagen, for the first time, we got developing countries to agree to anything about climate change. If you’re in India, China, Brazil, South Africa, your attitude is: We didn’t make this problem. The developed world made it. We’re trying to develop. Now all of a sudden along comes the developed world and says to us, “You have to pay for your development.” Well, that’s just not fair. We get to get to the same point of development you all did, and then we’ll worry about something like climate change.
So they weren’t part of Kyoto, they have resisted being part of any international accord under that argument. For the first time in Copenhagen, the President and I hammered out a deal where they would be agreeing to reporting certain things, which they’d never reported before, and making certain internal commitments. At Cancun, that was further refined and similarly at Durban. Because the developed world in Europe, combined with the developing world, wanted very much for there to be a binding agreement on the follow-on to Kyoto that would bind the United States and others.
Well, the United States Congress didn’t accept Kyoto the first time because there was no binding agreement on the developing world. And now all these years later, the developing world is now leading in greenhouse gas emissions and still has not taken on responsibility, except in a kind of an internal level of accountability. So our goal was to get, for the first time, everybody realizing we all had to pay something for this problem. Granted the United States and the West in particular have contributed more over the last century because of our development trajectories to the problem that we face. So yes, we do have to take responsibility. But so do they, because what good will it do us if we take responsibility and they don’t. We won’t make any progress.
Now, the Obama Administration has done a number of things by executive order, particularly increasing mileage for vehicles, going after the pollution from plants – particularly utilities – and other steps that I think the Administration doesn’t get enough credit for, and which I always say to my international interlocutors, “Look, yeah, you’re right. We didn’t pass some great big climate deal in the Congress, but we’ve been slowly cleaning up our own house, and we’re making progress on that.”
Secondly, with this enormous growth in natural gas, the United States for the first time in many years is actually exporting energy. And we may find ourselves in a different energy mix. Assuming we can deal with the environmental issues surrounding hydraulic fracking and other forms of fossil fuel extraction that are part of this calculus, we may find us in a better position to be able to go after some of the major polluters and some of the major oil producers.
And then I started a group of six nations – it’s now grown, I think, to 10 – we’re just frustrated with the slow process of trying to deal with greenhouse gas emissions, in particular carbon dioxide. So we formed a group – the Clean Air and Climate Coalition – to deal with non-carbon dioxide contributors, of which there is a lot – methane, black soot, et cetera. So we’re trying to follow that model to come up with some specific proposals that we can implement.
So we are moving. It’s not as fast. And in the face of just the cascade of natural disasters, it seems like we’re not keeping pace. But we are continuing to move forward. And at some point, the world will recognize that we do have to have international agreements that we will enforce in order to deal with what are significant climate changes that are going to impact us. It’s not like we can build a wall around our country and say we’ll keep out the effects of climate change. And just because we’re not some small island nation in the Pacific that is going the sink in the next decade, we don’t have to worry about it. We’re already seeing those results.
I said this morning, we’ve already moved villages on the Alaskan coast that used to be protected in the winter from a thick bed of ice that would freeze the water in front of these villages so that the storms would not hammer the villages and erode the land. And now the ice is neither there nor as thick, and so we’re already doing things that mitigate against the effects of climate change. So it still is a piece – a big piece of global unfinished business that we’re trying to make slow but steady progress on.
MR. STEINBERG: So on issues like climate and democracy, these obviously have a big impact on global public opinion towards the United States. And when you and President Obama took office, one of your priorities was to try to influence global public opinion and try to restore America’s reputation.
How far do you think we’ve come? What are the challenges ahead? And in particular, how do you see the new media, and how are you using the new media to try to influence the great debate about the perceptions of the United States?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think we’ve made progress, but it’s a daily struggle to make sure that we are conveying accurate information about what we’re doing. Now if somebody disagrees with what we’re doing, that’s fair. But if they disagree with something we’re not doing and we’re not even thinking, that’s a problem. So we try to get ahead of the information flow, which is much harder today than it was five years, 10 years, 20 years ago.
When I got to the State Department, we did no social media to speak of. We had very little even language-appropriate outreach on the media. I think there had been an attitude up until then that there were certain set feelings in certain places, there were certain elements of the press that were going to be anti-American no matter what, so it really wasn’t something we should worry about too much and not try to take on. But in the 24/7 media world that we’re now in, with billions of information sites – because everybody with a cell phone or a computer can be a commentator, can be a contributor, can be an activist – we had to get more on parity with that, and we’ve worked very hard to do it.
But it’s tough, and I’ll give you an example coming out of the Arab Spring. I thought we were not being quick enough in reacting to Arab public opinion – both pro and con, but particularly con – about us and the role we were or were not playing, a lot of conspiracy theories about what the United States was kind of doing behind the curtain, which were not true. So I said, “Well, I want more of our Arabic speakers out there.”
And one of the responses was, “Well, a lot of our best Arabic speakers are young. They’re young Foreign Service officers, they’re just getting started. If they make a mistake on the media it could ruin their career.” I said, “Well, I’ve made more mistakes than I can count.” (Laughter.) And at some point, we have to be more willing to take some risks, because we can’t sit around and take 48 hours to respond to a story that is breaking on a blog or Twitter somewhere. We have to get into the mix. Will we make mistakes? Will young people in their 20s and 30s? Yeah, just like people in their 50s and 60s will make mistakes. But we have to be in the flow of the moment.
So we began to change that. I mean, the resistance or reluctance was totally understandable, because if somebody gets out and says something that has an unfortunate effect or they stumble when they’re talking or whatever, that’s a problem. But the alternative, which is to be so worried about saying anything, is absolutely unacceptable in today’s world. So we are out there every day. We are – we do a lot of both formal and informal media work. I’ve done internet chats with Egyptians and Iranians that would be simultaneously translated into Arabic or Farsi.
We’ve really tried to get out there to make the case that – we’re not asking people around the world to agree with everything we do. We don’t agree with any other nation. We have our own interests. We are pursuing those. Let’s not kid ourselves or anybody else about it. But the United States is standing ready to assist those who want a true democratic transformation. We believe in that. So I think we’re improving dramatically. We still have a ways to go, which is why I hope some of you will think about the Foreign Service for a career, because we need you.
MR. STEINBERG: You led right into my next question, which is – as you know well, you can spend time on a campus – there’s a tremendous commitment to public service among young people. But there’s also, I think, a reluctance, especially about federal government and politics, a sense that it’s hard to get ahead, you don’t get a lot of respect. What can be done and what would you say to young people who are thinking about that, seeing other choices in their life as to why they should take on the slings and arrows that go with the kind of career that you pursue?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, first of all, I know how publicly service-minded young people are today. I see it, I hear it, and I am very pleased about that. And I also recognize what Jim is talking about, which is a certain level of skepticism about government and politics. I think skepticism is part of the American DNA, so I’m not sure that’s all new. I came of age during the Vietnam War, and there was a lot of skepticism, so you’re in a good tradition of American skeptics.
But at the end of the day, we have an enormous obligation to participate in and to invest in our country. I mean, it is such an honor for me to travel around the world as your representative and speak on behalf of the United States of America. And government service can be so rewarding and can make a great contribution. Obviously, over the course of many years, I’ve known people who have made that commitment, and I work with some of the best and smartest people I’ve ever worked with at the State Department and USAID, who really make a difference in the lives of Americans and in the lives of people around the world.
So our government’s not perfect. Human beings aren’t perfect. There is no such thing. But certainly, it is a worthy and an incredibly rewarding enterprise to be part of government service. So be skeptical, but don’t be cynical. And if you have any interest in pursuing that, whether it’s at the local, county, state, national level, I hope you will. You may take to it and find your life’s passion and career. You may decide it’s not for you.
Politics, especially if we’re talking about electoral politics, is very challenging. There’s no doubt about that. But I often tell people that politics is part of everything you do. There’s academic politics – I was on the faculty of a law school. There’s church politics. There’s family politics. There’s corporate politics. Everything you do, to some extent, is “small p” politics, where you have to get along with people, you have to express opinions, you have to marshal others to your side of an argument if you’re making a presentation in a corporate boardroom or in an academic faculty meeting. So it’s, I think, short-sighted to say you don’t want anything to do with politics, because you will, in some way or another, be involved in the, quote, “small p” political process.
Electoral politics is very, very hard but exciting. It’s exciting to have ideas that you would like to work toward. It’s exciting to convince people to work with you towards implementing those ideas. And again, politicians are human beings, so you get what you expect with any group of human beings. Some are incredibly admirable, and some are less so. But the fact is that the reason democracy is so worth defending is that we don’t give any group of people a monopoly on the truth. One of the challenges that some of these new democracies are going to face is if they are a religiously based political party, you get into arguments where it’s not just politics; it’s also faith and religion. And so how do you argue against that? How do you compromise over that? So I think politics in our democracy is especially important today to continue to make decisions that will benefit our country. And I make an urgent plea for evidence-based decisions, and in the budgetary arena, decisions based on arithmetic and not ideology.
So we need people who are willing to get into politics, knowing how hard it is, willing to keep going at it, understanding you have to compromise, but sometimes getting a little bit is better than getting nothing at all. And so I would urge that people who are interested in politics, working in a campaign, working for a political leader – a county executive, a mayor, a member of Congress, whomever – see it up close and personal. Decide whether it’s for you. It may not be, but I certainly never thought I would ever run for office or hold office. I certainly never envisioned being someone running for president of the United States. But I believe in the political process, and I don’t think we have an alternative. I mean, we can cede decision making to people you may not agree with, but you’re not willing to get out there and argue against them because, you know what, they may attack you. They may say terrible things about you. And it may not just be that one person; it may be legions of people across the cyberspace world.
So you have to be willing to enter into the political fray, but I think we need you more than ever. So I commend public service, whether it’s in a not-for-profit NGO, the faith community, government service, politics, because we really need to keep replenishing the energy and the ideas and the idealism of the next generation involved in our politics. And we also need more citizens who take politics seriously. I mean, we can disagree on what we should do on climate change, and that’s totally fair game. We may not want to make the investment because we have other priorities, but let’s not disagree about the science. We can disagree about what to do about the deficit or the debt, but let’s not pretend you can keep cutting taxes and end our deficit and debt.
I mean, so let’s have an evidence-based discussion. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with the solutions that are proposed, but we do great damage to our political system when we act like ideology in the American political process is more important than facts. We are a fact-based people. One of the reasons people from all over the world could come here and get along and work and succeed is because they didn’t have to be captured by ideology or by religion that tried to dictate how they lived. That could be part of their private life, their private belief, but our politics were wide-open debates about who we were as Americans, where we were going, what we wanted to achieve. And we need to get back to that, and we need to be very honest about what the facts are.
And then we can argue about the politics. After you look at the arithmetic and you realize, you know what; cutting taxes is not going to produce huge amounts of revenue. We tried that in the 80’s. It didn’t work so well. My husband had a different idea. He kind of understood arithmetic, and so he said, okay, we’ve got to do a little of this and a little of that. And we got to a balanced budget and a surplus. And then we get a chance to actually eliminate our deficit and our debt, and we decide no, we’re going to cut taxes again, because that’s going to create more revenues, which of course it didn’t. And then we have two wars that we refused to pay for, for the first time in American history. And guess what? We’ve got a huge deficit and a just unbelievable debt.
And if we’re really concerned about it, then let’s have a reality-based conversation about it. And we don’t have to fix it. We can take the consequences if the political system can’t bear the hard decisions. But let’s not pretend there are easy decision that can resolve climate change or debt and deficit and all the rest of it. Because what I see happening in other countries is a refusal to face hard decisions, and I don’t want that to be us. That’s not who we are. We’ve always been a pretty realistic people. We have a lot of disagreements, but we not only need to set the standard for democracy, we need to set the standard for the kind of reasoning that should underlie any kind of democratic enterprise.
MR. STEINBERG: Madam Secretary, there’s a lot we can talk about, but as the dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, I can’t think of a better note to end on. So let me thank you for coming here and spending time with us, and really great to have you here. Thanks so much.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you. Thank you all. (Applause.)