Wednesday, May 19, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Strobe Talbott has been tracking — and making — international news for decades.
He was Time magazine’s principal correspondent on Soviet-American relations through the 1980s. Then he became deputy secretary of state for his college buddy and fellow Rhodes Scholar, Bill Clinton, from 1994-2001.
Since July 2002, Talbott, 64, has been president of the Brookings Institution, the Washington, D.C.-based think tank that launched a partnership with UNLV called Brookings Mountain West in September.
Talbott will speak to the UNLV Foundation board about the partnership between Brookings and UNLV and about “Fast Forward,” his new book on climate change, at 9 a.m. today in the Greenspun Hall Auditorium on the UNLV campus. The meeting is open to the public.
The following are edited excerpts of the Sun’s interview last week with Talbott.
Why did Brookings want to set up shop in Las Vegas?
One of the main forces that got us out of the Beltway was Bruce Katz, a vice president at Brookings. He got us to go to Vegas because he believes Vegas is part of a very important metropolitan area, and it’s really a global city that has ambitions to become a national and world leader. It also faces problems that are not unique to Las Vegas but are national problems: climate change, devastation of the housing market, devastation of the job market, impact of the bad economy on city budgets. All of these come together in Las Vegas. UNLV President Neal Smatresk has been very encouraging of this. But Brookings Mountain West came to fruition largely thanks to the support of the Las Vegas Sun’s editor, Brian Greenspun, who is a Brookings honorary trustee, and his wife, Myra Greenspun.
Who are your scholars and what are some of the issues Brookings Mountain West is analyzing?
In our first year, we’ve had at least eight Brookings scholars come out and actually be in residence at UNLV. Some of our scholars are tenured professors at great universities and some are not academics, like me. I was a journalist and government official in the State Department. But I also wrote books. We aim for a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds. At Brookings Mountain West, we’re looking very hard at the economic challenge that has been so devastating out there. We’ve put together something called the Mountain Monitor, a quarterly economic index of various metro areas in the Intermountain West. It’s regarded throughout the region as a primary source for really good analysis. We’re also talking about climate change out there.
How does Brookings work with the organizations in places such as UNLV?
Our scholars, either as individuals or as teams, will get together and analyze the tough problems facing a region or nation or world. And they look at how to do better. For example, the U.S. health care system is broken. So we say, “Let’s put together a center that brings together a number of scholars from different viewpoints and figure out how to make the health care system better.” First they get the right people with diversity of perspective, then frame the main issues, figure out how to research the problems, do the research and then come up with policy suggestions. That’s how we created our Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform. The Brookings Mountain West project in Las Vegas is another example. The very nature of America and its governance is changing. It’s now not so much about policies from D.C. or even what comes from city halls or even state capitals. What’s increasingly important are these metros, clusters of cities that are beginning to coordinate and collaborate because they face issues that don’t stop at the city limits, issues such as high-speed light-rail or infrastructure or water policy.
UNLV continues to face potentially debilitating budget cuts. Is there any worry the university won’t be a good long-term partner?
We’re very concerned on a nationwide basis about budget cuts affecting important institutions of higher learning, whether it’s UNLV or the entire University of California system. I wouldn’t want to downplay that. But we have zero doubts whatsoever about the promise and virtue of the Brookings-UNLV relationship. We certainly understand these are really tough times monetarily. We’re going through it too, with our own budget. Our endowment is invested in the stock market, which is down, and corporations are cutting support for nongovernmental organizations. And individuals who normally support us aren’t as wealthy as they were and can’t be as generous as they were. The same holds true for foundations. We’re all facing the budget squeeze, and we have to do an even better job of using our money wisely, cutting costs and justifying the funding we do get.
How is the Brookings Institution funded?
We have an annual budget of around $80 million. We get those operating funds from a combination of sources — an endowment, corporate support, individual support, foundation support — and we get a tiny bit of money from the U.S. and foreign governments. We have a motto: quality, independence, impact. I want to stress — and this is really important — that independence means nobody calls the tune here except the scholars themselves. We don’t do contract work. We’re like a university in that respect. We’re politically independent. We’re nonpartisan and that’s a lot different than bipartisan. Bipartisan is good but it limits the discussion to Democrats and Republicans. We believe truth and wisdom often come from outside either party. We have people who have served in government in Republican administrations, Democratic administrations, we’ve got registered independents. Our scholars are open-minded. They believe in listening to people they disagree with and they believe in civility of discourse. We take that very, very seriously.
One of the collaborations coming out of Brookings is your upcoming book, “Fast Forward: Ethics and Politics in the Age of Global Warming.” How did that come about?
I’m a co-author of that book with Bill Antholis, managing director of the Brookings Institution and director of Brookings Mountain West. That partnership with UNLV supported research for the book. We also partnered with the climate center in Princeton, N.J., on this. So it really was a collaborative effort.
The book is a comprehensive look at the history of the politics of climate change right up to recent events. What do you hope to achieve with this book?
We’re trying to get out two or three main messages. The problem is real, urgent and requires all citizens to understand it and to use their leverage as citizens through the ballot box and influence on elected officials to get the U.S. off the dime. The U.S. has not done anything meaningful at a federal level on climate change, as opposed to individual cities and states. There are cities like Seattle that were doing more on climate change than the federal government. That has to change because we’re not going to have effective policy if it’s a patchwork of regional and state policies. The other take-away is very important and I wish it were easier for people to recognize. My generation, today’s adults, have to address this problem in a meaningful and effective way or our kids and grandkids and great-grandkids are going to suffer. It will be too late by the time they’re adults if climate change gets out of control.
Who are you trying to reach with this book?
Everyone. It’s always a mistake to undersell the intelligence and common sense and understanding of real people in the real world. One of the great things about having a connection to UNLV is it connects us to the real world. We get out and meet them here. We are under no illusion at Brookings that we live in the real world in D.C. It’s the most partisan town in America, and one thing that has impressed me is you have tough partisan fights in Nevada, but I have found that precisely because people at local and state levels have to deal with real problems in real time, they’re more likely to overcome the worst of partisanship and make things happen. There’s not enough of that in Washington. For example, the climate bill presented May 15 had a Republican co-sponsor, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, but because of the toxicity of partisanship in the Beltway, Graham stepped back from sponsoring it. So that means it might not pass. It might not have enough Democratic support to get it through filibuster or it will have to get some Republican support, which is really hard to do. We’d like our book to influence that debate.
What do you think of the climate bill?
It is a good bill, and it should pass, but that does not mean it’s a perfect bill. For the first time, it establishes a price collar for carbon. The essence of the problem, a key problem, is that for all these decades, we have been pumping carbon into the air and endangering the planet and attaching zero cost. We’ve made a cheap form of energy that is exacting a terrible cost in terms of public health, environment and climate. We have to make sure all those hidden societal costs are covered by the pricing of the product or source of energy. There are two ways to do that. One is to place a realistic price on carbon so the laws of the marketplace will drive people to use other forms of energy, and the other is to build the green energy sector. That would also be helpful in the Las Vegas area because of the jobs it would create.
Do you think legislation like this will help in forming an international agreement at the next climate summit?
I do think it will help in the summit in Cancun this year. The president did pretty good with a weak hand last year in Copenhagen. He had no legislation to back him up. He must not be in the same position later this year, otherwise it really weakens his ability to lead internationally on this issue. But does domestic legislation on climate change mean Congress is likely to agree to a treaty or international agreement on climate change? We argue in our book, somewhat controversially, that we should not make the holy grail the legally binding treaty. It’s just too hard domestically. We propose a more informal but more rapid process involving the United States, the European Union, India and China.
The book’s foreword says more Brookings books are coming. What kinds of topics can we expect?
The next book coming out as part of this series is by a colleague of ours, Darrell West, who is head of our governance studies program. He’s going to address immigration. That’s a key issue for the nation, but especially your region. That book will be out in a matter of weeks.