THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT AT RELIGIOUS LEADERS BREAKFAST State Dining Room
9:57 A.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Good morning, everyone. I'm delighted to welcome you to the White House. This is the eighth, and final -- (laughter) -- for me, White House Prayer Breakfast that we have at this time every year.
I want to thank Secretary Glickman for joining us. He's sort of a symbol of our broad-based and ecumenical approach in this administration. He's the first Jewish Secretary of Agriculture. (Laughter.) And he's helping people to understand that Jewish farmer is not an oxymoron, so that's good. (Laughter.)
I want to say I bring you greetings on behalf of Hillary, who called me early this morning to ask what I was going to say. (Laughter.) And the Vice President and Mrs. Gore. As you know, the three of them are otherwise occupied, but they need your prayers maybe even more than I do. (Laughter.)
I want to thank you, particularly those of you who have been here in past years. Each one of these breakfasts has been quite meaningful to me, often for different reasons. We've talked about personal journeys and the journey of our nation, and often talked about particular challenges within our borders -- very often due to problems of the spirit in our efforts to create one America. We've talked about that a lot.
Today, because of the enormous good fortune that we as Americans have enjoyed, I would like to talk just for a few moments about what our responsibilities are to the rest of the world. There is a huge debate going on today all over the world about whether the two central revolutions of our time -- the globalization of human societies and the explosion of information technology, which are quite related -- whether these things are, on balance, positive or, on balance, negative.
When we had the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, the streets were full of thousands of people who were saying in a very loud voice, this whole deal is, on balance, negative. Interestingly enough, they were marching in solidarity, although often they had positions that directly contradicted one another. There were those who said this is on balance negative because it will make the rich countries richer, and the poor countries poorer. And then there were those who said that this in on balance negative because it will weaken the middle class in the developed countries, because we don't require poor countries to lift their labor and environmental standards. And there were other various conflicts among them.
But the point is there's a lot of ferment here, and a lot of people who are, at the very least, highly ambivalent about whether the coming together of the world in the new century is going to be a good or a bad thing.
Then there's the whole question of how the coming together of the world and the way we make a living, and particularly the way we produce energy to make a living, is contributing to changing the climate, which it is. There's more and more evidence that the world is warming at an unsustainable rate, and the polar ice cap, if you've seen the latest stories there, about how much it's melting, it's incontestable that sometime in the next 50 years, we're going to begin to sustain severe, adverse common consequences to the warming of the climate if we don't do something to turn that around.
And some people believe that there's no way to fix this, if we keep trying to get richer and more global with our economy. I don't happen to agree with that, and I'm not going to talk about it today. But there's a big issue. And very few people are in denial on climate change any more. Virtually all the major oil companies now concede, for example, that it is a serious problem, and that they have a responsibility to deal with it, and if they don't, it could shape the way we are all -- or our grandchildren are living, in ways that are quite different and, on balance, negative.
Then there is the whole question of whether technology will offer more benefits to the organized forces of destruction, than it does to the forces of good over the next 30 years.
I just came back from a remarkable trip to Colombia. I went to Cartagena with the Speaker of the House. We only get publicity around here for the partisan fights we have, but in an astonishing display of bipartisanship, we passed something called Plan Colombia, which is designed to help primarily the Colombians, but also all the nations on the borders, reduce drug -- narcotics production, coca production primarily, steer farmers into alternative ways of making a living, and develop an increase in the capacity of the Colombian government to fight the narco traffickers, and to keep drugs from coming into this country -- which are directly responsible for the deaths of about 14,000 kids a year in America.
And it was this really beautiful effort. And then we got criticized -- the Republicans and Democrats together, those of us that supported this, because people said, oh, Clinton is going down there to make another Vietnam, or we're trying to interfere in Colombia's politics, or be an imperialist country. And I told everybody there that I didn't want anything out of Colombia except a decent life for the people there, with a way to make a living on honorable circumstances that didn't put drugs into the bodies of American children and children in Europe and Asia and throughout the world.
But the point I want to make is, there are a lot of people who believe that with more open borders, greater access, smaller and smaller technology -- you know, you now get a little hand-held computer with a keyboard that's plastic, that fits inside of your hand, that has a screen that hooks you up to the Internet -- and we know that, for example, terrorist networks in the world very often have some of the most sophisticated uses of the Internet. We know that if we get more and more open we may become more vulnerable to people who develop small scale means of delivering chemical and biological weapons. And all these scenarios are real, by the way. We've spent a lot of money in the Defense Department trying to prepare for the adverse consequences of terrorism, using chemical and biological weapons.
So you've got that on one side. You've got the people that say that globalization of the economy is going to lead to increasing inequality and oppression, and whatever happens is going to destroy the environment, and if it doesn't, the organized forces of destruction will cross national borders and wreck everything, anyway. That's sort of what you might call the modest dark side.
And then you've got people like me that don't buy it. That basically, I think if you look at over the last 50 years, that over a 50-year period the countries that were poor, that organized themselves properly and rewarded work and had lawful systems and related well to the rest of the world and traded more, grew much more rapidly.
If you just look at the last 10 years, with the explosion of the Internet, countries that are highly wired, even though they're poor, had growth rates that were 6, 7 percent a year higher than they otherwise would have been. And so, finally, there is no alternative. It's not like we're all going to go back to huts and quit talking to each other.
So if we believe that every person is a child of God, that everyone counts, that everyone should have a certain level of decency in their lives and a certain fair chance to make something, what are our obligations? And I just want to mention three things that are before us today that I think are quite important. And a lot of you in this room have been involved in one or all three.
The most important thing I'd like to talk about is debt relief. There are many countries that, either because of internal problems or abject misgovernment, piled up a lot of debt that can't be repaid. And now every year they have to spend huge amounts of their national treasure just making interest payments on the debt -- money they can't spend on the education of their children, on the development of public health systems -- which, by the way, are under huge stress around the world -- and on other things that will give them a chance to take advantage of the new global economy in society.
Now, there are people who don't favor this sweeping debt relief. They say that it rewards misconduct, that it creates what is known -- not in your business, but in the economics business -- as a moral hazard. (Laughter.) In economic terms, moral hazard is created -- the idea is, if you don't hold people liable for every penny of the mistakes they made, or their predecessors made, then somehow you've created a mess in which everybody will go around until the end of time borrowing money they have no intention of paying back.
And there's something to that, by the way. It's not a trivial concern to be dismissed. The problem you have is that a lot of these countries were grievously misgoverned, often by people who looted the national treasury. And when they get a good government, a new government, a clean government, when they agree to new rules, when they hook themselves into the International Monetary Fund, to the World Bank on the condition that they'll change everything they've done, they still can never get out of debt and can never educate their kids and make their people healthy, and create a country that is attractive to investors to give people opportunity.
Which is why the Pope and so many other people urge that we use the year 2000 as Jubilee Year to have a sweeping debt relief initiative. And there's a whole thing in the Judeo-Christian religion about how the Jubilee is supposed to be used, every 50 years to forgive debts, to aid the poor, to proclaim liberty to all, and there are trends -- there are similar traditions in other faiths of the world, represented in this room.
So for those of you who have been working on this, I want to thank you. What I would like to tell you is, I think that it is very much in the interest of America to have big, large scale debt relief if the countries that get the relief are committed to, and held accountable to, good governance and using the money not to build up military power, but to invest in the human needs of their people. (Applause.)
We worked very hard to develop a plan. And a lot of you are involved in other -- in developing countries throughout the world. There are a lot of people here, I know, that are involved in Africa, for example, where a lot of the -- where many of the countries most in need are, but you also see this in Asia and Latin America, which is a very important thing.
We developed a plan with other creditor nations to triple the debt relief available to the world's poorest nations, provided they agreed to take the savings from the debt payments and put it into health and education. The United States, I announced last year that we would completely write-off the bilateral debt owed to us by countries that qualify for this plan -- that is, they've got to be too poor to pay the money back, and well enough governed to assure that they'll take the savings and put it into health and education.
That's as many as 33 nations right now. I'll just tell you, in the last year, Bolivia -- an amazing story, by the way -- the poorest country in the Andes, has done the most to get rid of drug production. The poorest country has done the most to get rid of drug production. Astonishing story. That ought to be worth it to us, to give them debt relief, complete debt relief.
But they saved $77 million that they spent entirely on health education and other social needs. Uganda, one of the two countries in Africa that has dramatically reduced the AIDS rate, has used its savings to double primary school enrollment. Honduras has qualified but not received their money yet, they intend to offer every one of the children in the country nine years of education instead of six. Mozambique, a country which last year, until the floods, had the first or second highest growth rate in the world, after having been devastated by internal conflict just a few years ago, because of the flood is going to use a lot of their money to buy medicine for government fundings, because they've got a lot of serious health problems that are attendant on the fact that the country was practically washed away.
Ten nations so far have qualified for the debt relief; 10 more I think will do so by the end of this year. We've got to make sure the money is there for them. Last year, I got -- the Congress was supported on a bipartisan basis the money for America to forgive our bilateral debt relief. And we have to come up with money that -- for example, if somebody owes a billion dollars, even though we know they won't pay, because they can't, it gets budgeted at some figure. And we actually have to put that money in the budget before we can forgive it.
But the Congress did not appropriate the funds for the highly indebted poor countries initiative to forgive their multilateral debt relief. Most countries owe more money to the International Monetary Fund than they do to America or France or Germany or Britain -- or Japan or anybody else.
So if we want this to work, we have got to pass legislation this year to pay our fair share of this international debt relief initiative. Now we have members of both parties from dramatically different backgrounds supporting this. It's really quite moving to see, because a lot of times this is the only thing these people have ever agreed on, it's really touching.
You know, we have a lot of Democrats who represent inner city districts with people who have roots in these countries -- allied for the first time in their entire career with conservative, Republican, evangelical Christians who believe they have a moral responsibility to do this, because it's ordained. And then all kinds of other people in the Congress. But it's given us a coalition that I would give anything to see formed around other issues, and issues here at home -- anything. And it could really -- if we can actually pull it off, it can change the nature of the whole political debate in America because of something they did together that they all believe so deeply in.
What's the problem? The problem is there is competition for this money and some people would rather spend it on something else, where there are more immediate political benefits. None of these people have any votes we're helping. And some people do buy the moral hazard argument.
But I'm just telling you, I've been in these countries and I know what many of their governments were like five years ago, 10 years ago, and I just don't think it washes. If you want people to organize themselves well, run themselves well and build a future, we've got to do this. And I think it is a moral issue.
How can we sit here on the biggest mountain of wealth we have ever accumulated, that any nation in all of human history has ever accumulated, and we're not just throwing money away; we're only giving this money to people who not only promise to, but prove they are able to take all the savings and invest it in the human needs of their people.
So I would just say, anything that any of you can do -- Bolivia is waiting for more money that they haven't gotten. Honduras is waiting for money that they haven't gotten. They're going to spend this money to send kids to school for nine years, instead of six. This is not a complicated thing.
And I would just implore you, anything you can do to urge members of both parties to make this a high priority. Let me remind you, we've got a budget worth nearly $2 trillion, and this money is for two years. So we're talking about $210 million in one year and $225 million in the second year to lift the burden off poor people around the world only if they earn it, in effect. So I would just ask you all, please help us with that.
And let me just mention two other things very briefly. The public health crisis in a lot of these countries is threatening to take out all the gains of good government, and even debt relief. There are African countries with AIDS infection rates in the military of 30 percent or more. A quarter of all the world's people every year who die, die from AIDS, malaria and TB, those three things. A phenomenal number of people die from malaria, in part, because there are no public health infrastructures in a lot of these places.
So the second thing I want to ask for your help on is, we want to double, or increase by $100 million -- it's about a 50 percent increase -- our efforts to help countries fight AIDS. We want to increase, dramatically, our contributions to the global alliance for vaccines that helps countries who are poor, afford the medicine there.
I just got back from Nigeria, and the President of Nigeria, who was a military leader in prison because he stood up for democracy and against a corrupt government that was there before, dealt with all these taboos that have gripped Africa and kept Africa from dealing with AIDS in an astonishing way. We went into an auditorium, and he and I stood on a stage with a 16 year old girl who was an AIDS peer educator, and a young man in his mid 20s -- this is an amazing story -- or maybe he's in his early 30s now, he and his wife are both HIV positive. He fell in love with a young woman who is HIV positive.
Her parents didn't want them to get married, his parents didn't want them to get married; they were devout Christians; their minister didn't want them to get married. And he finally convinced the pastor that he would never love anyone else, and the pastor gave his ascent to their getting married. Within four months of their getting married he was HIV positive. She got pregnant. He had to quit his job to go around and scrounge up, because his job didn't give him enough money to buy the drugs that would free their child of being HIV positive. So he finally was -- let go of his job, excuse me, because he was HIV positive, and they were still afraid and prejudice. So with no money he found a way to get the drugs to his wife, and they had a child who was born free of the virus. (Applause.)
So we were sitting there with hundreds of people in Nigeria, and the President is talking about this. So this guy comes up, and he tells this story, and about what a blessing God has been in his life, and how much he appreciates his pastor for marrying them, and how much he appreciates their families for sticking with them. And then the President of the country called his wife up out of the stands, and he embraced her in front of hundreds of people. Now, this is a big deal on a continent where most people have acted like, you know, you might as well have small pox and you were giving it out by talking to people. This is a huge deal. And the President got up and said, we have to fight the disease, not the people who have it. Our enemy are not the people with it; we have to fight the disease. It was an amazing thing. (Applause.)
Now, I think these people ought to be helped, so we -- but it's $100 million I want to come up with for that, and I forget how much we're given to the Vaccine Alliance. And in addition to that, I have asked the Congress, after meeting with a lot of our big drug research companies -- not just the big pharmaceutical companies, but a lot of them that do biomedical research -- to give us a billion dollar tax credit to encourage companies to develop vaccines for AIDS, malaria and TB, because we have to do that, because they don't see any front-end benefit in it. And they have to -- they can't justify the massive amounts of money that are needed to develop these vaccines, because they know that most of the people that need them can't afford to buy them.
So if they develop them, we'll figure out how to get the money to get them out there. But first we've got to have them developed. So I've proposed a tax credit, more money to help buy the medicines that are out there now, and a hundred million more dollars directly to help these countries to fight AIDS. I want to ask you to help me get that money. It ought to be an American obligation. This is a serious global problem.
The last thing I want to say is that there was a remarkable meeting in Senegal not very long ago, where essentially an alliance of the world's developing and developed countries made a commitment to try to make basic education available to every child in the world within 15 years. And one of the reasons that kids don't go is they're not sure it makes sense, or their parents -- there are even countries -- in the poorest countries where the parents, no matter how poor they are, have to pay some money for their kids to go to school. Lots of problems.
So Senator George McGovern, who is our Ambassador to the World Food Organization in Rome, and Senator Bob Dole came to me with Congressman Jim McGovern -- no relation -- from Massachusetts. And these three people from different worlds asked me to support an initiative to try to get to the point where the wealthier countries in the world could offer every poor child in the world a nutritious meal in school if they'd show up to school.
And they reasoned that -- even though there are lots of other issues, and by the way, I won't go into all that, we've got to do a lot more to help these schools in these developing countries -- but they reasoned that if we could do that, there would be a dramatic enrollment, especially among young girls, who are often kept at home because their parents see no economic benefit, and in fact a burden, to having their daughters go to school. But there are a lot of young boys that aren't in school in countries, too.
So we, thanks to Dan Glickman, got $300 million up, and we are doing a test run. And we're going around to countries that want to do this. And with $300 million -- listen to this -- we can feed 9 million school children for a year in school. But you don't get fed unless you come to school.
Now, for somewhere between $3 billion and $4 billion, we could give a -- if we can get the rest of the world to help us do this, we could give a nutritious meal, either breakfast or lunch, to every school-aged child in every really poor country in the entire world for a year.
Now, you don't have to do anything about that now; I just want you to know about it, because we have to go figure out how to do this. And let me tell you why. Dan has got to figure out, how is this stuff going to be delivered to remote areas; or is it going to be in dried packages then hydrated and heated. How are we going to do this without messing up the local farm economies. The last thing we want to do is destabilize already fragile farmers. There are practical things. But we have many countries that are interested in this.
When I was in Colombia on the drug thing, the President's wife asked me about this program. She said, can we be part of that, or are we too well off? You know, she said, we're not really all that rich, with all these narco traffickers taking the money. We were talking about it.
But the point I want to say is, we have reaped great benefits from the information revolution and the globalization of the economy. We, therefore, have great responsibilities. We have responsibilities to put a human face on the global economy. That's why I think we're right to advocate higher environmental and labor standards, try to make sure everybody benefits.
We have a responsibility to lead the way on climate change, not be stuck in denial, because we're still the number one producer of greenhouse gases -- although shortly, unless we help them find a different way to get rich, China and India will be, just because they've got more folks.
And in the short run, we have a very heavy responsibility, I believe, to broaden and simplify this debt relief initiative; to lead the assault on the global diseases of AIDS, TB and malaria that take out a quarter of the people who die, most of them very prematurely before their time every year; and to do more to universalize education so that everybody, everywhere, will be able to take advantage of what we're coming to take for granted.
Now, we've had a lot of wonderful talks over the last eight years, but I think that I do not believe that a nation, any more than a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a particular religious faith, can confine its compassion and concern and commitment only within its borders, especially if you happen to be in the most fortunate country in the world. And I can't figure out for you what you think about whether these sweeping historical trends are, on balance, good or bad. But it seems to me if you believe that people are, on balance, good or bad or capable of good, we can make these trends work for good.
And I'll just close with this. There is a fascinating book out that I just read by a man named Robert Wright, called "Nonzero." He wrote an earlier book called "he Moral Animal," which some of you may have read. This whole book is about, is all this stuff that is happening in science and technology, on balance, good or bad, and are the dark scenarios going to prevail, or is there some other way?
The argument of the book, from which it gets its title, is basically an attempt to historically validate something Martin Luther Kind once said, "The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice." It's pretty hard to make that case, arguably, when you look at what happened with World War I, with Nazi Germany and World War II, with the highly sophisticated oppressive systems of communism. But that's the argument of this book, that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.
The argument is that the more complex societies grow, and the more interconnected we all get, the more interdependent we become, the more we have to look for nonzero sum solutions. That is, solutions in which we all win, instead of solutions in which I win at your expense.
It's not a naive book. He says, hey look, there's still going to be an election for President. One person wins, one person looses. There's still going to be choices for who wins the company or who gets the pulpit. (Laugher.) There will be choices. It's not a naive book. But he says that, on balance, great organizations and great societies will have to increasingly look for ways for everyone to win, in an atmosphere of principle compromise, based on shared values, maximizing the tools at hand. Otherwise, you can't continue -- societies cannot continue to grow both more complex and more interdependent.
So I leave you with that thought, and whatever it might mean for you, in trying to reconcile your faith with the realities of modern life. And, again I say, as Americans, we have, I think, a truly unique opportunity and a very profound responsibility to do something now on debt relief, disease and education beyond our borders.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
END 10:25 A.M. EDT