Bill Clinton schedules his annual Clinton Global Initiative for the same week that the United Nations General Assembly convenes each September in New York. Naturally, it’s a time when Manhattan’s streets are jammed with the type of people – heads of state and corporate leaders looking to impress them – that Clinton needs on the invite list for a four-day conclave he says has already gathered nearly €35bn over its first four years. But it’s also a good time for counterprogramming. How better to show off Clinton’s annual philanthropic-political mixer than by highlighting the contrast with a slow-moving, underfunded bureaucracy hindered by historical rivalries and opportunistic alliances sitting across town?
This year’s instalment, which starts on Tuesday, is certain to feature more pep than last year’s. Then, Clinton found himself in the odd position of hustling large contributions one week after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, as the policymakers who usually fill his panels were busy trying to save the banks. Clinton’s political influence, too, was trading lower after wife Hillary’s loss months earlier, as allies of Barack Obama accused him of having used sly, racially coded language in appeals to white voters on her behalf.
As Obama prepares to preside over his first international summit, in Pittsburgh, Clinton debuts a new role: husband to America’s top diplomat. While he has less clout than he did as president, he may be better off than he would have been as first spouse. The White House has never been the best forum for the “two-for-the-price-of-one” partnership the Clintons promised voters in 1992, anyway. Instead, they now control a vast his-and-hers diplomatic operation, a marital fusing of hard and soft power.
For a while, it seemed as if Bill would be the biggest impediment to Hillary’s appointment as secretary of state. Obama’s advisers were wary of bringing his unpredictable, footloose style into the orbit of a White House they had built on discipline. To defuse allegations of policy and financial conflicts, Clinton agreed to voluntarily pull back on his personal fundraising and release the names of donors to his foundation. That list, which put Steven Spielberg and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in proximity as top donors, showed the extent to which a private-sector Clinton had managed to successfully commingle business and government power in the name of charity.
But since Hillary’s appointment, there’s been little evidence that either Obama’s advisers or State Department lawyers have been too worried. Bill has accepted a two-year assignment as a UN envoy to Haiti, where he heads next month on a trade mission, and has travelled to Pyongyang to free two jailed American journalists. There Bill’s ambiguous role was a gift: he could present it as freelance humanitarian work and even the North Koreans could feel that they were speaking to someone carrying a White House brief.
“I think his wife being the Secretary of State is secondary. It might even cut the other way,” says Nina Hachigian, a former Clinton administration national-security aide who now works as a fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think-tank. “I can just imagine an internal debate where voices in favour of bringing him in cite the fact that he has enormous experience, talent, and stature; but others raise the point that there will be the inevitable distracting questions to answer about whether he is working for her.”
Already it’s clear how Bill’s philanthropic strategy can bolster Hillary’s policy moves. One of the goals of this year’s initiative, he has said, will be funding campaigns for global women’s rights and equal education for girls – long-time crusades for Hillary that she has called new State Department priorities. Bill seems to have found the better part of the deal: he, too, comes to the issue with moral standing and the perceived backing of the US government, but a freer hand with others’ money and no pesky Congress to get in the way. Has Bill found a way to the get the likes of Lakshmi Mittal and the Dutch National Lottery to bankroll America’s diplomatic agenda?