The Role of Civil Society in Building a Stronger, More Peaceful World

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State, Secretary of State
Address at Indonesian Civil Society Dinner
Washington, DC
February 18, 2009

We have been very excited about our trip to Indonesia, and I want to make sure that all the cameras get in place because – (laughter) – we were talking about the importance of a free press at our table, and I know how hard these men and women work. And I always worry when they carry those big cameras around that they’re going to run into somebody.

Well, let me start by thanking you for joining us this evening, and to reiterate the greetings from President Obama, who feels such a special kinship with the Indonesian people and with a country that influenced him so deeply as a young boy. He has said many times that his experiences here have helped to shape his values and his vision of a world where people of different backgrounds, identities, and faiths could unite around their common human aspirations. And that certainly is a message for all peoples and nations to remember now as we confront the urgent global challenges of this century.

When I was last here 15 years ago, I was privileged not only to visit in Jakarta, but to travel outside of Jakarta. I remember a visit that I made to a local maternal health program in Yogyakarta, where mothers took their newborns for routine medical checkups and other basic health services. Now, the program wasn’t housed in a clinic or a hospital. In fact, it wasn’t in a building at all. It was under a tree in the village where the mothers gathered once a week to meet the health practitioners who came to weigh the babies, distribute information about nutrition, and offer counseling about family planning.

I’m often asked as I travel around my own country, why should the United States or other nations support development and civil society in other countries than their own; why should a program offering health services under a tree in a village in Indonesia matter to people working in a factory in Indiana or Islamabad or the Ivory Coast? Well, my answer and the answer that you will hear from the Obama Administration is that building civil society and providing tangible services to people helps result in stronger nations that share the goals of security, prosperity, peace and progress.

There are really three stools on which democracy sits: the government, the private business sector, and civil society. If one of those legs on that stool get out of balance, then the whole system does as well. You need a competent, functioning, non-corrupt government that can deliver services to their people, democratically-elected so that all people feel that their voices were heard. You need a private business sector that is competent, non-corrupt, creating jobs and investing in a country so that democracy produces the prosperity that people are looking for. And you need a civil society that exists between the government and the private sector, very often advocating for changes in both, and fulfilling the needs of people that cannot be met by the government or the marketplace alone. Education and healthcare, religion and family all belong in that space of civil society.

And it’s important in today’s world, where we face old challenges like intolerance and discrimination and poverty and despair with new challenges that come from our interconnectedness that we do all we can to support those three stools. But tonight, we really want to focus on the role that civil society has played and will play not only in Indonesia, but in other nations as well.

Now I will have a lot of government-to-government engagement. That is our traditional foreign policy approach. And we post ambassadors in other countries, we send cables to foreign embassies, we hold bilateral meetings and summits and negotiate agreements and treaties. And diplomacy will remain very important. But by itself that is not sufficient to make the kinds of changes we need to meet the challenges that we face together.

So I hope that one of the messages that I will be able to leave behind is that the United States will of course pursue government-to-government engagement. But we want to engage more with the people of the countries with whom we seek partnerships. I know very well that in this room, there are people who have advocated and struggled on behalf of the environment and human rights, on better education for all children and access to healthcare. That is essential work in a democracy.

Now the United States may be the oldest functioning democracy in the world, but we could have a meeting just like this back home, where people who are struggling for human rights and education and good governance and healthcare or climate change and environmental possibilities that would improve our situation, as well as clean energy, would be equally engaged and just as passionate as all of you are, because the work of democracy never ends. Even though we’ve been at it for a long time, I would not tell you that we are by any means perfect. We have a lot of work still to do ourselves.

We were talking at our table about elections. When you have an election, some people win and some people lose. In a new democracy, that is sometimes hard to accept, because all of a sudden, you believe, well, we have a democracy, I have a political party, so I have people telling me they’re for me, therefore I am going to win, and it doesn’t turn out that way. Well, I’ve had that experience, and I know – (laughter and applause) – how important it is in a democratic system that you accept the results of elections and you work continuingly inside of the system, or outside, to bring about the changes in a peaceful way.

And how also, in a democracy after an election, you have to find common ground. People may get elected that you have great differences with or small differences, but you seek for ways to work together and to build a stronger democracy. I was the most surprised person in the world when President Obama asked me to be the Secretary of State. But I knew that it was part of my commitment to my country and my belief in our shared agenda that led me to say yes, what an honor and a privilege. (Applause.)

And so as we chart our new Administration, we are reaching out to the rest of the world with humility. We know we don’t have all the answers. We believe strongly in our country and in our values. But we want to find common ground with likeminded people around the world. When I think about the challenges that we face – and global climate change is a perfect example – I think about the need to protect the forests and the coral reefs of Indonesia. That’s a long way from the United States, but it is a problem that will affect our children and our children’s children. Protecting forests and coral reefs in Indonesia helps our whole planet get healthier.

I’ll be going to South Korea and to China later this week to talk about how we will all work to change how we produce energy. So how do we become problem solvers? How do we take whatever differences we have and realize they are dwarfed by our common humanity? My husband loves quoting the fact that now we understand the human genome. Scientists have mapped the chromosomes and all of the material and what it does to make a human being who we were, and that we are 99 percent alike. We have differences of skin color and height, of eye color and hair color. We have differences of religion and ethnicity and language. But that’s a very small part of who we are compared to the rest of humanity.

And as I was listening at our table about the efforts here in Indonesia to continue the tradition of a tolerant, embracing Islam, I was reminded of how that is one of the most important contributions that Indonesia can make, not just to the Islamic world, but to the whole world, to recognize that common humanity. So our hope is that arising out of this visit, we will find even more ways to work together. To work together on the environment and clean energy, to work together on education and healthcare, to promote more exchanges at all levels of society, to find ways that we can improve our understanding with each other, and to help support good governance and the rule of law, free elections, a fair press, religious tolerance and human rights, as well as the greater participation of us in finding peaceful resolutions to conflict.

I also have to compliment Indonesia for the growing role that women are playing at all levels of society. I met with the Foreign Minister earlier today and there were three women at the table on the Indonesian side. And a recognition of the role that women have to play and the opportunities for women to assume leadership positions as many of you in this room have is another contribution that Indonesia is making. As I travel around the world over the next years, I will be saying to people, if you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity, and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia. (Applause.)

So for me, this is a personal delight to be able to return here and renew some old friendships and make some new friends, to represent my country, especially with a President who has such personal feelings of kinship to the people here. I’ve already been asked over and over again, when is he coming? (Laughter.) Now I know a little bit about the difficulties of being a president, and I want to share this with you if you don’t tell anyone. (Laughter.)

Being president is hard. There are a million problems that come your way. If they were easy problems, someone else would have solved them. So they end up on the desk of the President. And the President has to cope with all kinds of pressures and hardships and challenges. So for a president knowing he can go somewhere in the world where he is so loved as he is loved in Indonesia, he may just want to wait until he really needs that visit, and you can – (laughter) – you can lavish on him all of the love that you are telling me you feel for him. I will speak with him soon and tell him that he is well liked and well regarded, and that he should look for the opportunity to come as soon as his schedule permits.

There is a lot of work ahead of us. I mean, the successes and changes that have taken place in Indonesia over the last several years have reverberated widely. You may think you’re working just to improve the conditions of people here, but it has implications that will affect the thinking and the acting of residents in countries very, very far from this place where we share this dinner tonight. Your persistence, your optimism, your open-mindedness has already begun to show such fruits. And the leadership role that Indonesia will be able to play in the world is just beginning.

So I thank you for not just joining me this evening, but for what you have done day in and day out over the years to help realize the dreams and fulfill the vision of what Indonesia truly can become. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)

# # #

PRN: 2009/T1-16