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Democracy, Human Rights, Refugees: Remarks at the Center for American Progress' 10-year Anniversary Policy Conference

Thank you very much. Thank you.

Neera, thank you very, very much. Thank you all. It’s wonderful for me to be here. Neera and I come from the same part of the country and share many of the same values, but none more important than our devotion to the American League Champion Boston Red Sox. Yeah. (Applause.) No boos, no boos. No boos allowed. (Laughter.) Anyway, in her role, obviously, as CAP’s John Farrell – for those of you who follow baseball, you know what I’m talking about – he’s the manager of the team, guys. He got them there. So anyway, she obviously has been extraordinary in her leadership at CAP. And this institution, I think everybody knows, has been strong and steady ever since she took that over.

And frankly, before Neera and John Podesta, our fearless leader here, opened CAP’s doors a decade ago, which is what is being celebrated here today, everybody here knows that they did an extraordinary job of helping to steer President Clinton’s administration during a time of unprecedented prosperity at home and also importantly, from my point of view today on a day-to-day basis, a period in which America enjoyed and earned huge respect around the world.

President Clinton understood very clearly that in a complex and changing world, our friends and our foes alike are going to be more impressed, as he said, “by the power of our example than by the example of our power.” And the person who President Clinton said best exemplifies that particular principle in these times is President Obama. I would say to you that over the last five years that the power of our example has been strong, a lot stronger than some people may perceive in a world of 24/7 cacophony. But the fact is that whether in Afghanistan, where we’re etching out a drawdown in a bilateral security agreement, or Iraq, where we did drawdown and leave, or the Far East, where we have a repositioning and rebalancing, or in the START treaty, or in our efforts in the Middle East today, our efforts to lead on Syria, on many other things, the President’s engagement, I believe, has underscored many times over how America plays an absolutely indispensable role in promoting peace, security, and shared prosperity around the world.

And I will tell you I thought I had a pretty good sense of those things as the chairman of the Foreign Relations committee and a 28-year veteran of that committee. But I will tell you that it has become far more clear to me in these many meetings and in these many journeys how absolutely true it is that we are indispensable, and that if we’re going to move in the directions we want to, whether it’s climate change that you were just talking about, or a host of other challenges, we’re going to do it with our leadership, with the highest standards.

It’s my privilege to serve as the President’s Secretary of State. Every day, I get to witness how much good, how much engagement we offer, how much our diplomats do around the world. And I remember an observation that my dad made, who was a Foreign Service officer for a period of time, that he shared with me about diplomacy. He said good diplomacy comes from the ability to be able to see the world through someone else’s eyes, through the eyes of the people in another country. But today it’s become much clearer to me, more than ever before, that it isn’t just about how people in another part of the world see their own challenges. We also have to be far more conscious about how our leadership looks through other people’s eyes.

Now as Neera mentioned a moment ago, I just literally landed, just came back from a marathon session with Prime Minister Netanyahu, with the London 11 Syrian support group, with Saud al-Faisal in Saudi Arabia and others. And in the past eight months, over more than 100 days abroad in every corner of the world, I have seen how our allies, our partners, and those who wish to challenge us or do us harm – they’re all sizing us up every day; they’re taking our measure.

And what we do in Washington matters deeply to them. And that’s why a self-inflicted wound, like the shutdown that we just endured, can never happen again. (Applause.) As President Obama said, the shutdown “encouraged our enemies…emboldened our competitors, and it depressed our friends who look to us for steady leadership.”

I will tell you, apart from the jokes that some of the summits that I went to about whether because we weren’t being paid, one country or another could buy our meals, there were real consequences to our not being there. And now that this recent moment of politics has passed and since I’m no longer in elected office myself, I wanted just to come here this afternoon as you celebrate a 10th anniversary and contemplate the progressive challenges ahead, I wanted to reflect on the damage that events like the one we’ve just been through can do to the esteem in which the United States is held in the world, a key component of our national power.

Now let me underscore that none of what occurred is irreparable or irreversible and the strength of our principles and the strength of our people are still the envy of the world. But being a responsible democracy requires that we don’t walk ourselves to the brink every opportunity we get – that we don’t play games with our credit rating or our credibility.

During the shutdown, I was attending the APEC Summit in Indonesia, the ASEAN Summit in Brunei, and the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Malaysia. And I spoke with our allies throughout Asia, throughout the entire Asia Pacific region, all of whom were assembled at these various summits. And that is a region that matters deeply to us. It matters to our economy. It matters to our security. And our economy and our security are closely intertwined in this complex world we’re living in today. The leaders in that region agreed that the strength of our partnership is much greater than a moment in politics – thank heavens – but those politics also, I’m telling you, clearly weighed heavily on their minds.

And it has entered into the calculation of leaders. As we negotiate with Iran, as we negotiate with the Middle East peace process in Israel, can we be counted on? Will the Congress come through? Can the President make an agreement which will be held?

Believe me: The shutdown, and the dysfunction, and the simplistic dialogue that came with it, didn’t impress anyone about the power of America’s example.

And you didn’t need to talk to an Asian foreign minister in order to get a sense of that. Just go online and read any of the number of dailies of our allies’ papers.

London’s Daily Telegraph said, “The U.S. is recklessly throwing away its future.”

A major daily in Seoul urged America “to stop holding their citizens and the world economy hostage.”

The biggest business daily in Germany reported, “The damage done is great and it has shaken America’s reputation.”

Notice how none of these assessments blamed one political party or another. They took no interest whatsoever in opinion polling, hypothetical electoral consequences, 2016, who won the news cycle, who would win the Senate. Nope, none of it. They simply wanted to know: Will America be a credible partner tomorrow?

I personally have every confidence that we can and that we are. But others are going to need to see us steer a steady course in order to rebuild their confidence. In the days to come, if we let domestic differences overwhelm diplomacy, those differences will undermine our shared values, and most importantly, our shared interests. The question is no longer whether our politics stops at the water’s edge, but whether our politics stops us from providing the leadership that the world needs.

The question is whether America will lead the $6 trillion global energy economy, which is the solution to what the panel was talking about, and as Al Gore, I am confident, will describe to you. Energy policy is the solution to global climate change, a $6 trillion market. The market that made America rich in the 1990s was a $1 trillion market with 1 billion users. The energy market is a $6 trillion market with about 5 billion users, and it’s going to rise to 9 billion users over the next 20, 30 years.

So you and I know that if we make the right choices, we can get there. The question is whether America is going to continue to be a global model for entrepreneurship and the magnet for the world’s brightest minds. You and I know if we take the steps to shore up our economic strength at home and we continue to welcome foreign citizens who seek to fulfill their aspirations in the United States, we can get there. But we have to make that choice.

The question is whether we’re going to invest in education and RD at home, and ensure that the United States can compete and win in this highly competitive global marketplace. You and I know we can do that, but we have to make this a priority at a time of enormous pressure to drastically cut government spending.

Now, I have to tell you, when these questions are avoided altogether, when they’re put on the back burner, when we tie one hand behind our backs, whether through political stalemates or even shutting down the government, we’re just getting in our own way. And we diminish our influence and we frustrate our own aspirations.

The simple fact is that the shutdown created temporary but real consequences in our ability to work with our partners and pursue our interests abroad.

The shutdown didn’t just shutter the World War II Memorial, as unfortunate as that was – it stunted our ability to promote the principles and values that our veterans sacrificed for.

The shutdown didn’t just shutter the Statue of Liberty – it temporarily closed the doors to refugees and students who were seeking visas to learn here and to contribute to our economy.

The shutdown delayed security aid to Israel, one of our closest allies, obviously, and a critical democracy in a region that’s undergoing tremendous upheaval. Why would in common sense, why would you want to do that?

The shutdown sent hardworking public servants home, including officials whose job is to enforce the sanctions against Iran – sanctions that actually helped to create the pressure that have brought us to this moment of cautious possibility in the region.

The shutdown furloughed four Nobel Laureates who were working in the federal government, to put critical research funding on hold for Nobel Laureates of tomorrow.

Negotiations were also delayed on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a trade deal President Obama has championed in order to continue to increase American exports around the world and to create jobs here at home and help Europe, help the Far East, begin to create the jobs to come out of the economic doldrums.

So this political moment was far more than just symbolism, far more than just a local fight. It matters deeply to our power and to our example. And while this chapter is temporarily over, we’ve got another date looming, and the experience has to serve as a stern warning to all. It should force us to consider in the weeks and months ahead what the world will look like if America is less present and less credible. Make no mistake, the greatest danger to America doesn’t come from a rising rival. It comes from the damage that we’re capable of doing by our own dysfunction and the risks that will arise in a world that may see restrained or limited American leadership as a result.

That doesn’t mean by any means that America ought to serve as the world’s policeman. That’s not what I’m talking about, and that’s not what President Obama’s talking about. We can’t solve every problem, certainly not on our own, but we remain the indispensable partner, the anchor of global security, and a catalyst for global prosperity.

So as I’ve said before, this is not the time to retreat or retrench. We need to be out there, and we need to be engaged with the world. Why? Because for every billion dollar in goods and services that we export, we create 5,000 jobs here at home. Because when we help other countries stand on their own two feet, we create trading partners for our businesses. In fact, 11 of our 15 biggest trading partners used to be the recipients of American aid. Korea, Republic of Korea, is now a donor, where 15 years ago it was a recipient of aid. No other nations bring so many countries together in support of global standards, international norms, where we encourage a race to the top, not to the bottom.

And looking ahead, as we fulfill our moral responsibility to combat climate change, to improve global health, to ensure that women have the same rights as men, and give voice to those who have none, we are the ones who will give people around the world the courage to be able to speak up and the confidence to be able to work together.

I’ve seen it, I know it. There’s no arrogance in saying that. I know there are some Americans who don’t care how the world sees us, but in an integrated world, a genie that no politician can put back into any bottle, we have lost the luxury of looking only inward. Today, isolationism is the enemy of economic prosperity and security at the same time.

My friends, the 21st century, like the last one, we’re going to see competition between different ideals and different systems of governance. And as a model for a whole bunch of nations, I think we have a special responsibility to demonstrate that democracy does deliver for its citizens. When democracy appears dysfunctional, aspiring peoples are all the more likely to settle for some other model. Extremists and autocrats rush to fill the vacuum. And the bigger their platform around the world, the greater the danger to our security here at home. Mark my words, it is connected.

I’ve often said that America is not exceptional because we talk about ourselves as being exceptional and beat our chests and stand up and say, “We’re exceptional.” It’s not because we say we are. It’s because we do exceptional things. And we’ve always done that. We’re the nation that defeated the Axis powers, and then invested billions of dollars in their recovery – and we never asked to be paid back. That’s exceptional.

We’re the nation that faced down the Soviet Union with the force of our ideals and alliances – and without resorting to the force of arms. That’s exceptional.

We’re the nation that saw the human toll of AIDS spiraling out of control in Africa, most people thinking we’d never rein it in, and we mustered the will and the resources to lead a global response that is now looking at the possibility of an AIDS-free generation. That is exceptional.

We’ve led the effort to reduce child mortality by 60 percent in Afghanistan over the last decade, and three million more Afghan girls are in school, and raised life expectancy by 20 years for the average Afghan citizens.

My friends, there are so many ways, so many examples, of where we have helped others with no request in return, and they’re all exceptional.

So as we did all these things, of course our leaders confronted deep disagreements, didn’t we? Even as we did those things. But guess what? Those leaders shared an even deeper commitment to our responsibilities in the world. They understood that while our differences can be clear, they cannot be crippling. The power of our example has never come from the purity of any one ideology. It’s come from the principled action of all of us together as one nation.

And as the aspirations that make America great go global, there are incredible opportunities for America to benefit and also to provide leadership. The work we do over there – the exports we sell, the democracies we support, the high standards that we set – all of them can create jobs and opportunity right here at home. We cannot afford to cede the best possibilities of this young century to others who have decided to be more disciplined than we have.

The world watches us, but I’m telling you, I can feel it. I hear it. The world will not wait for us. The shutdown is now behind us, but the answers to many of the same questions still stare us in the face and await us. In the weeks and months to come, we need our conversation to be worthy of the confidence and trust of the American people, and recognize it is part and parcel of the power of America’s example in the world.

In this time of challenge and opportunity, we need to commit to reaching out across the aisle and across the world, as Americans did before us, so that we can do the exceptional things that America has always done, and that Americans expect us, as their leaders and as their government, to do. That’s how we meet our responsibilities to the nation, that’s how we meet our responsibilities to the world, and that’s how we meet our responsibilities to the next generation. That’s how we make the power of our example even stronger today and in the years to come.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)