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Strobe Talbott

Climate change and the loss of American hegemony

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Diplomat, journalist, author. Strobe Talbott has not only written about foreign policy, he's helped shape it. Talbott was a recent lecturer at the Sun Valley Writers' Conference and is the guest for the Thursday, Dec. 16, edition of Dialogue on Idaho Public Television. Talbott, the current president of the Brookings Institution, was a longtime journalist for Time magazine and deputy secretary of state for the Clinton administration, specializing in U.S.-Russia relations. The author of a dozen books, Talbott's latest work, Fast Forward, examines what he views as the dire need for political action to mitigate global climate change.

With everything that's been written about climate change, why did you want to add your voice and a sense of urgency to it?

Because nowhere near enough is being done about it. This is unlike anything we've ever had to deal with. It definitely, definitely threatens the human enterprise as we now know it. And it requires near-term action by the United States of America, and our government is kind of dead in the water on the issue.

When you look back on your time in the Clinton administration, do you have any regrets?

I have some regrets about Russia. I wish we had used our influence and our resources better and earlier to help head off the degree of corruption that accompanied the opening up of the former Soviet Union.

How did you transition from being a journalist to being a diplomat?

When I was transformed overnight from a journalist into a diplomat, I felt a little bit like Chevy Chase or Dan Aykroyd or Bill Murray in an out-of-body movie. My first reaction was, "Oh my God, I'm not prepared for this."

In fact, journalism had prepared me in a number of ways. And one was that it had taught me to listen carefully to other people and to understand positions before I took a position on them, which I think is an important part of being a diplomat.

People are worried about losing American hegemony.

Well, we've already lost American hegemony ... and I think that's actually an illusion that we should lose. We are the most powerful state, not only in the world, but in history. But that's different from saying we are the boss of the world.

Absolute sovereignty is an illusion. Our borders are porous. Money can move around the world in an un-moderated way. Pathogens, germs, move around the world. Weather, climate, doesn't respect national boundaries. So what happens in other parts of the world influences our lives. What happens in this country affects people in other parts of the world.

You are in charge of Brookings. Some call it left-leaning, others centrist.

We call it independent. The word we use is nonpartisan rather than bipartisan. Bipartisan suggests that truth and wisdom reside either in the Republican Party or in the Democratic Party. Our view is "Well, not necessarily." Good ideas, sound ideas ... often come from outside either of the parties. Really good discussion produces really good ideas, and really good discussion involves civility of discourse and listening to the other person and looking for ways to find common ground.

You have an offshoot called Brookings Mountain West in Las Vegas.

We're very proud of it. This is a part of the country that represents some bad news that we have to deal with, and some good news that we have to encourage. The bad news is largely economic and also environmental.

But the other thing that is going on is that there is more cooperation among cities and communities within the Intermountain West region, and that is, we think, a model for the way this country is increasingly going to govern itself.

How are you feeling about the era in which we are living?

I'm an inveterate optimist. That said, my optimism is in a kind of a delicate balance with my concern, particularly about the issue of climate change. One of the poignancies and urgencies of the current moment is that your generation, my generation--the same generation--is the first generation really to know that we do live in an era when, for man-made reasons, the climate is changing in potentially dangerous ways.

And we're the last generation that can really do something about it. That puts a huge responsibility on us.

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