November 8, 2017
by Aislinn McNiece
SFS Professor Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State (1997-2001), President Ernesto Zedillo, former President of Mexico (1994-2000), and Strobe Talbott, former Deputy Secretary of State (1994-2001), gathered at the Clinton 25 Symposium to discuss the foreign policy of SFS graduate, President Bill Clinton, at the event’s “Vision for the World” panel. The Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service at the McCourt School of Public Policy (GU Politics) hosted the symposium to reflect on President Clinton’s vision and presidency on the 25th anniversary of his election. The “Vision for the World” panel, moderated by SFS Dean Joel Hellman, was co-sponsored by the SFS.
The panel opened with a video featuring President Clinton’s peers and professors at Georgetown describing President Clinton as a student. One classmate said she was convinced “this was a guy going someplace,” although another pointed out that nobody “expects a friend to be President of the United States.” Then, after his election, President Clinton hosted two Georgetown class reunions at the White House.
While President Clinton credits his time at Georgetown as integral to his election, he also believes that his SFS education was elemental to his vision of foreign policy in the 1990s.
“He had a formed view [on foreign policy], mainly because he had studied foreign policy a lot here. But I think you have to think about the ‘90s as a very different phase, where institutions were changing, the world situation was changing, and therefore his views evolved…He recognized the importance of looking at the world through multilateral spectacles,” said Secretary Albright, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations before being appointed Secretary of State in 1997.
Albright, Talbott, and President Zedillo discussed President Clinton’s vision of the world, including his intrinsic values for diplomacy and respect, as well as his substantive foreign policy decisions, from bailing out Mexico during the 1994 Mexican peso crisis to NATO enlargement, negotiations with Russia, and designing a new world order post-Cold War.
Looking back at the past 25 years of U.S.-Russia relations, Talbott addressed an MSFS student’s question: whether, considering the current tense state of Russian-U.S. relations, there were any decisions President Clinton would have made differently?
“I think about that every day. I suspect Madeleine does too. I’m going to give you a simplistic answer because we don’t have time for a sophisticated one. No – I don’t think there was something we could have done, or should have done differently. Personalities matter in politics,” said Talbott, referring to differences between President Vladimir Putin and former President Boris Yeltsin of Russia.
Personalities were also important in the relationship between President Zedillo and President Clinton. President Zedillo explained that President Clinton believed regional stability was in America’s national interest, and this belief was a driver of both the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the American loan to Mexico during the peso crisis.
“I think the first test was that he became a champion of NAFTA. He knew that he would pay high political costs for being so proactive, in his party and also in the other party. And yet he went ahead and NAFTA was approved. The second big test was the fact that in late 1994, just as I was becoming President of Mexico, my country faced an incredibly difficult financial crisis, practically unprecedented in Mexican history. I called President Clinton and said the country is literally bankrupt.”
“At the end, I think he did a great act of statesmanship to lend to Mexico the money, which of course was not popular. The argument he used over and over again was ‘this is in the interest of my country.’ He told the leaders ‘if your neighbor’s house is burning, you better help your neighbor, because otherwise your house can also get a fire.’ And [Mexico] paid him back three years in advance,” said Zedillo.
Overall, Albright, Talbott, and Zedillo agreed that Clinton was the U.S. president during the unipolar moment of the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he used that position to pursue his vision of an integrated, engaged, and diplomatically stable world.
“What he did, that I think was kind of brilliant, was to link domestic and foreign policy. He was the first one to use the term ‘indispensable nation.’ He said it in order for the American people to understand that we had to be engaged abroad; that if we weren’t, nothing would happen. It was a message that our leadership was needed to protect the American interest and way of life, but he understood that that took place in an international setting. One needed to engage,” said Albright.