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Former leaders find that all the world's their stage

As Blair and Chirac step down, they look to the examples set by Clinton, Mandela, and others for life after public office.

Europe's loss may be the world's gain. Two of its heavyweight statesmen are retiring from national politics, but that doesn't mean they have finished with trying to make a difference on the world stage.

According to aides, both Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac are looking to follow the example of Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, and others in setting up the kind of foundation that seeks to make the world a better place.

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Mr. Chirac plans to focus on Africa and development, while Blair is reportedly toying with the idea of interfaith dialogue, particularly among the three Abrahamic religions.

It's the kind of freelance troubleshooting becoming far more noticeable in a diplomatic world teeming with stubborn transnational problems and eager ex-statesmen. These days, politicians tend to reach the top earlier and live longer, leaving them with years of opportunity after holding office (Blair is 54, as was Mr. Clinton when he stepped down.)

"I would hope that Tony Blair could play a positive political role – he still has 20 years of juice in him," says Denis MacShane, a member of Parliament and former minister in Blair's government. "Blair's name opens more doors than any British prime minister's has done in decades."

Globalization meanwhile, is generating problems that, as Clinton is fond of saying, are too big for governments (think climate change, HIV/AIDS, poverty), and sometimes too intractable for the UN.

"What they bring ... is an enormous reservoir of knowledge of having dealt with these problems," says Geoff Pigman, an expert in global governance at Bennington College in Vermont. "They also bring a huge network of contacts within their countries and internationally. These are dynamic individuals who serve early ... and are not willing to let go the desire to influence things. They think they can still make a contribution."

Blair's plans have not been confirmed as he doesn't leave office until June 27. Mr. MacShane says that despite taking a hit from his Iraq campaign, Blair is well placed to spearhead greater understanding between the three monotheistic faiths.

"He is known as a friend of British Jews, he carries the Koran and the Bible around with him, but he never allowed religion to stand in the way of social development," MacShane says, noting in particular Blair's moves to champion gay rights.

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He adds that there would appear to be a niche for "a man who can go round the world and say it is possible to believe and be a good evangelist while respecting such things as society and the rule of law, and don't mix the two together."

Chirac's aides say he is the kind of international heavyweight who can get traction on issues like Africa and development. "An engine like Chirac will move things forward," said Michel Camdessus, his foundation manager. "It is very important that ideas can circulate, that actions can be mounted, with men who had great responsibilities but who are no longer hemmed in by the diplomatic trappings," he told Le Monde.

Jimmy Carter may be the best example of a head of state better known for his postpolitical career, having engaged for decades in ad hoc diplomacy, mediation, and foundation work promoting human rights and Habitat for Humanity. George H.W. Bush and Clinton garnered considerable attention – and praise – for their work in the 2004 tsunami recovery and more recently, in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. In both cases, the duo was tasked by President Bush to help. Other examples of leaders who enjoyed a vigorous career after power include Germany's Willy Brandt, Brazil's Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, and South Africa's Nelson Mandela.

Their efforts are not isolated but, in recent years, have tended to mesh together in informal networks like the Club of Madrid, the Clinton Global Initiative, or the Davos World Economic Forum.

"We are seeing this whole emergence of these new types of structure of global governance which function more as a network rather than a top-down hierarchical notion of government," says Dr. Pigman.

Yet Blair and Chirac may discover nagging limitations on their influence ex-officio. Experts say that while they will be able to raise money, spearhead projects, and wow globalization forums, their influence will be small compared with the trappings of a head of state.

Yes, it will be easier to speak more frankly about issues now, but they have fewer tools at their disposal. Bill Gates presides over the richest private charitable foundation, but even his generosity is dwarfed by aid budgets of rich countries.

Personalities can make a difference, "but their position makes a bigger difference," says Jan Aart Scholte, an expert at Warwick University in England. He says the kind of foundation set up by Bill Clinton, which has galvanized billions for AIDS and climate change, is great "as a supplementary initiative, but if we could get leaders in office to tap into the resources of states, it will be far greater. People in office can make a lot more happen...."

Carne Ross, a former British diplomat and expert at the Chatham House think-tank, agrees. [In political office], they can institute debt forgiveness deals, and aid budgets are generally larger than private foundations." As a diplomatic adviser, he says his interlocutors have already "switched their focus to [his successor] Gordon Brown and are not interested in Blair's plans for the future."


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