Several elements of this Davos Diary were picked up and run in other places, which is gratifying. However, in one instance, it is embarrassing. In the item on the panel on Middle East nuclear proliferation chaired by Tom Friedman of the New York Times, it suggests that Friedman made a statement that suggested that none of the nations in the area should have nuclear weapons and that this was a source of embarrassment re: Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf, who was on the panel and whose nation does. Had the entry stated that it was Afghanistan's President Karzai who made the statement, it would have been accurate. That is what I intended to write and what my brain actually recalls having written. Being as how it was the truth and all. If it came out of my head otherwise or was somehow altered along the way, I apologize. Readers of the blog may recall I sustained several blows to the head along the way and anything is possible. Suffice it to say, Friedman ran the panel wonderfully with a light and informed touch and Karzai's misstatement was humorous and even he responded to his error with somewhat more grace than I have responded to this one.
Farewells and Foreplay
As the final night of Davos 2006 drew to a close on Saturday, Indias efforts to end its promotional blitz with a crescendo ran up against the irresistible energy of another of the years big stories. Following the traditional closing awards and a classical concert in the main ballroom, an Indian celebration was to be the culmination of the weeks events, underscoring with music, food, dancers, drummers and gifts for all the participants the markets of tomorrow message of the event. But the Indian preparations were so elaborate that for hours, while guests milled around waiting for the show in the main ballroom to start, that what was to be a secondary event in a neighboring building stole the spotlight. That event: a New Orleans-themed party which, ironically enough, was staged in a room that typically houses a swimming pool. No doubt the theme was intended as a tribute but it was certainly strange to listen to a great New Orleans jazz band, eat jambalaya, and watch the ultra rich and powerful dance in tuxedos and evening dresses while being festooned with all manner of Mardi Gras baubles even as the city in question remained an open wound back in the states.
Meanwhile, in the ballroom, the crowd waited, listening to Indian music, being draped with Indian shawls and presented with bracelets and bindis. And waited. And waited. They waited longer than I did and reportedly, after a couple hours, the room opened and the celebration began, highlighted by cooking from some of Indias greatest chefs flown in for the event. Even with the delays, the mood was festive, especially among those I talked to who regaled me with tales from the weeks most successful program element, Everything You Wanted to Know About Relationships But Were Afraid to Ask.
Why was it so popular? Had the worlds elite gone all soft? Was this part of the process of building a global community one couple at a time? Well, not exactly. You see, the session was popular because it was about sex. Not abstract sexuality. Not biology. Bedroom sex. It was sex tips for moguls and their wives. Quite explicit. Still, even in a discussion about such a basic subject, you could sense the strains of Davosian idealism permeating the conversation.
Take foreplay, for example. It was recommended to all present that the ideal approach to foreplay was at least one hour and fifteen minutes of touching without actually directly stimulating any sensitive body parts. An hour and fifteen minutes? Among this audience of time-strapped type A personalities? Right. What do you think is more likely: an hour and fifteen minutes of CEO foreplay or peace in the Middle East? Kind of makes you feel more optimistic about Hamas already. (Though one wife could be heard to say that her husbands most sensitive area was his Blackberry and the only way she could get him to commit to an hour of anything would require that he be allowed to bring that with him to bed.)
In that respect, it was a good way to end this Davos. Whatever you might say about the meeting, this is an event that is relentlessly oriented toward fulfilling the World Economic Forums rather grandiose slogan of being Committed to Improving the State of the World. It brings together a group that includes many who are actually in a position to help advance that objective. Certainly, it addressed many of the issues most critical to that goal including: Iraq, Iran, the Palestinian Territories, development, poverty, health, technology, the environment, economics, trade, immigration, religion, ethics and the creative imperative (though I am still not quite sure what that means). And while the language of the Forum is often strangely stilted in a kind of modern day Esperanzathe civil society-ese of Euro-do-gooderyreal dialogue takes place, meaningful messages are sent amid the rhetoric and the posturing and the event ends with a real sense of hope in the air. At least it did yesterday for many of the delegates, notably for the Indians and the Chinese who were the belles of the ball regardless of when it started, for the Iranians who got the message that they will probably be able to keep their nuclear program, for Hamas who got a first reaction from global elites that was very cautious but left open the possibility of dialogue, for Bill Clinton whoeven if his wife does not become President in 2008will always be the First Man of Davos, and, of course, for all those who left hopeful that greater prosperity, peace, and vastly extended foreplay are in their futures.
They were on the same stage: Ur-Davosian Klaus Schwab and Ultra-Davosian Bill Clinton. Its strange how Clinton has become the cynosure of the collective eyes of the freeze-dried elites of Davos. In recent years, it is Clinton who has come to symbolize the enlightened leader and the concerned global citizen. Part of this is due to the fact that he is a concerned global citizen. But part is due to the fact that he is in some respects the fantasy of all in attendance: a sensitive American, a chastened American, an American with visible flaws, an American with immense charm, an American who truly loves to interact with people from every corner of the world. This year he looked exceptionally tired as he engaged in his standing-room-only conversation with Schwab. He had deep circles under his eyes and women in the audience literally buzzed with concern about his physical well-being. Some worried if he was depressed. But he won them all again with thoughtful observations about the big issues of the day. Hamas were despicable but we have to remain open to conversation, even with people we dont like, confident that conversation wont undermine our own essential character.
With Iran, he noted that Iranian society was itself divided and that we should work to support those whose interests are most aligned with ours even as we attempt to contain the theocrats who seek to attack us. With Iraq, he argued it was time to stop dwelling on whether or not we should be there and recognize that it is in all our interests that we are successful...that we should find a way to redeploy our troops so they are safer, that more of the front-line security functions are conducted by Iraqis and that we help the Iraqi leadership at least have a chance to succeed. He spoke emotionally of meeting a Jordanian doctor who was tending to his own four month old child who had been wounded in the hotel bombings in Amman. The doctors wife, the childs mother, and his mother-in-law had been killed in the attack while attending a wedding the doctor had to miss due to his work at the hospital. He still has that exceptional knack for making his points with stories about people. He has empathy.
And, of course, he used humor to considerable effect. When Schwab concluded with a final question about what advice Clinton might give to the next President who, Schwab noted, might be someone in the audience (John McCain was there) or even someone to whom Clinton was married, Clinton quickly noted that given the times we live in it was important that he point out that he was not in fact, married to Senator McCain. It brought down the house and the tired but enduring darling of Davos ended his session to the echoes of thunderous applause reverberating through the Congress Center's main ballroom.
Who are We? Why are We Here?
An old Davos hand with whom I had breakfast pronounced the theme of this years meeting to be Europes growing irrelevance. I mentioned this to a former senior Bush Administration official and his response, Thats a comment only a European would make, because only a European would even care. The only people more irrelevant than Europeans are Canadians.
But the old Davos hand had a point. The steady drumbeat of events at this meeting underscored the growing sense that Europe is behind the power curve and falling further and further back. Its not just that the theme of this years Davos has ostensibly centered on China and India.. Nor is it just that the Chinese hardly bothered to attend which sends a strong message about just how important they think this institution is to their prospects for future growth. (Certainly they view the announcement of a WEF representative office in China more as a sign that the WEF needs them rather than the other way around.) The mournful tolling for Europe could be heard in countless ways throughout the event. It could be heard in the warnings German Chancellor Angela Merkel got in her side meetings about her country becoming too dependent on Russian oil. It could be seen in the cover story of Time Magazine that depicted a Germany divided not by a wall but by economic and social divisions. It could be heard in the comments of a French minister that Europes lack of growth for the past decade has been unacceptable. It could be seen in the cancellation of the session scheduled for this afternoon called Does Europe Have a Foreign Policy? It was a rhetorical question obviously. It doesnt. But worse, no one seemed to care. (Though there was some unease expressed by Iran experts with whom I spoke about Europes lack of resolve and reports Merkel said she does not want to confront the Iranians...that she would rather engage them.)
Perhaps in the most practically resonant way it has been seen in the mini-drama that has taken place in and around the WTO related discussions between the EUs Peter Mandelson, the U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman and others over trying to break the impasse over agricultural subsidies that is currently stagnating progress on the Doha Round of global trade negotiations. You would think that the fact that the EU position was what the pivot point of the round was a sign of the continents relevance. Rather, their intransigence on the issue, their clinging to a Common Agricultural Policy that is widely regarded as among the most protectionist trade measures in force anywhere in the world, is really a sign of the desire among powerful political groups in Europe (such as farmers) to cling to an artificially competition-light past that is unsustainable and also a sign that the EUs Brussels leaders are unable to act over the opposition of strong members such as France. The French, of course, cant embrace or even seriously consider real near term reform because a move in that direction would have their farmers in the streets while the memory of the rioting of frustrated immigrants in the Paris suburbs was still redolent. So the world waits, frustrated at the inability of the leading voice for community and fair play (the EU stance when they thought it leveled the playing field between them and the dominant U.S.) now adopts a stance that is very much akin to the rest of the world be damned. And of course, they complain that it is the rest of the world that is being unreasonable.
In the end, a key problem for Europe is that even were they willing to act on critical issues like Iran (where their stance has been anything but helpful) is that they have in their structure traded flexibility and speed for union (and its unwieldy nature). Whether they learn and adapt will ultimately determine whether they can regain relevance globally...and as a distant corollary of tertiary significance at best, whether the World Economic Forum can be hosted year after year in the Swiss Alps when the economic center of gravity of the planet is moving ever more rapidly eastward.
The Lost Latins
The greater Middle East is a big issue here, but it is not alone. The Indians have continued to impress the delegates with a very compelling story. A session today described Indias growing middle class that now outnumbers the population of the United States. A series of cocktail parties every night (Infosys gathering tonight is a hot ticket as was the CII event last night). This is good on many levels as it has brought delegates into contact with India's extraordinarily well-educated and thoughtful business and government leadership. It also provides fairly substantial portions of Indian cuisine in the stead of the fairly tasteless continental fare that is typically found at Davos bashes.
What you wont find here is a solid contingent of Latin Americans, Africans, or representatives of many parts of Asia. Current and former Latin government and business leaders with whom I spoke lamented this, recalling that just a couple of years ago Davos hosted 8 Latin Presidents, hundreds of delegates and a program that ran so late into the night the hosts ultimately gave up and didnt even try to serve dessert, which would have required staying into the wee hours. Since then, however, the leadership in South America has changed in a big way. Brazils Lula, has been battered by scandal and is struggling to stay in office. The leftist union leader is now viewed as a comparative moderate when viewed against Venezuelas Hugo Chavez, Argentina's Nestor Kirchner (characterized to me today by one Latin government leader as insane), and Bolivias recently elected Evo Morales (who was taken to task by one Bolivian with whom I spoke for accepting an all expenses paid victory lap around the world underwritten by Chavez who ensured it would start in Cuba and dressed it up with a major gift of oil). With potential populist outcomes later this year in Peru, Nicaragua and Mexico, virtually all of the Latins with whom I spoke expected that the continent will have an even lesser role in Davoses of the near future. Sadly theyre probably right.
Today started for me with a close encounter with a bedraggled, aged-looking Michael Douglas who was walking alone to meetings in the Congress Center. He looked nothing like a star. In fact, he barely looked like a business leader. Well, not an American business leader. He looked like he came from, well, a large European country known for its cheeses, bread and irrational love of Jerry Lewis.
The real highlight of my day filled with meetings (I have to do something to underwrite all the time spent writing this diary...unless the two of you who are reading it send a check in my name to Foreign Policy), however, came as I hurried to a private Indian business connection event at the Congress Center. Naturally, I donned the ugly grey hiking sneakers I always wear to cross the street (given that much of the town is seemingly under a layer of permafrost), and hurried along the sidewalk weaving around throngs of people until, stepping around one group, I found myself horizontal, floating in the sky and then landing hard on my back. Fortunately, my permanently deployed airbag-equivalent saved me from permanent damage. However, naturally, I did this precisely one foot from a friend who watched the whole thing. She expressed really genuine concern for me. But if she really cared she would have looked the other way as I launched myself into the Davosian gutter. I hopped up, dusted myself off, and thought: great...something to write about in the diary.
For those of you who took comfort in my comments on business preparedness for Avian Flu yesterday, I have a clarification to offer. I had lunch today with Dr. Alfred Sommer, the brilliant and very menschy former Dean of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the leading school of public health. He was getting ready for a television interview and his conclusions were quite different. Business may well be prepared. But government is not. He cited the lack of investment in building our ability to ensure early detection, not to mention the extra ventilators, temporary hospital facilities, and vaccines we will need. He pointed out that Tamiflu, the drug we are relying on to help treat the disease, is not the optimal treatment and that virtually all the drugs we need are made outside the United States. He suggested that its pretty unlikely that producers of the vaccines will choose to ship the drug to the U.S. rather than care for their neighbors. Imagine how that would unfold. The U.S. is hit by an avian flu pandemic. While the disease is likely to run its course through society in just a couple of months, the toll will be terribly high. Can you imagine if thousands of Americans were dying (probably those without access to good health care leading the group) and vaccines existing somewhere say, in Europe, but not available to us because it was being used or stockpiled there for a potential future outbreak? How would Dick Cheney react to that? Chilling.
Hamas Wins. Now What?
The Hamas victory in Palestine still resonates through the Congress Center. Late yesterday, a standing-room only crowd attended a dinner discussion focusing on the future of the territories and got a very mixed picture. One of the events designated Young Global Leaders, Michael Tarazi, demonstrated that at least one person in Davos was not upset with the WEFs Global Agenda magazine for publishing an article urging a boycott of Israel. Tarazi, billed as a legal advisor to the Palestinian territories, argued that the idea of two states on the land of Israel is dead, and that the territories and Israel should simply blend together into a state open to all. It sounds benign enough, but its simply an argument for Palestinian control, because they would outnumber Israelis due to their much higher birth rates.
As you can imagine, Israelis arent thrilled with the idea of living in a country ruled by Hamas. Tel Aviv University President Itamar Rabinovitch said as much, arguing that Tarazis idea would set matters back 30 or 40 years. Most of the panelists, however, took the position that there might well be a silver lining to the Hamas cloud. Some emphasized that Israels Likkud Party and many of its leaders, including Ariel Sharon, had terrorist backgrounds. Others made the having to run a government will change them argument. Elsewhere, off the record, Middle East experts shook their heads in dismay. The timing of the Hamas victory could not have been worse. Sharons stroke had already weakened the peace process. This virtually dooms it. The possible election of hard-liner Bibi Netanyahu in the upcoming Israeli elections would be the final straw.
Others wondered how increased tensions would affect the ongoing crises in Iran and Iraq. One Middle East specialist who has been intimately involved in post-war Iraq told me that most pundits have misinterpreted the situation. Its not about the U.S. invasion or an Iraqi civil war, he insisted. Its part of a classic geopolitical struggle between the United States and Iran for influence in the Gulf. It began decades ago when, after the Khomeini revolution, Washington embraced Iraq (including Saddam Hussein) to counterbalance Iran. Today, in the eyes of this specialist, it has been resolved. And the winner isIran. The majority of Iraqis are Shiites, linked by religion to Iran. The Baghdad government has ties to Tehran. No major oil company can sign a deal to work in the Iraqi oilfields without getting Irans approval first, he said. An alliance between Iran, a pro-Iranian Iraqi government, and a pro-Iranian Syrian government seems like a real possibility. Throw nuclear weapons into the mix and you have a regional force that is alarming not only to Israel but also to Egyptians and Saudis, who fear Iranian aspirations.
Obligatory Israel/Palestine Controversy
Yesterday, a message sent over the Davos proprietary email system for delegates carried a grave acknowledgement by Klaus Schwab that a magazine called Global Agenda, published in conjunction with the Forum and with the Forum logo on its cover, had run, without his knowledge or approval, an article calling for a boycott of Israel. I knew something was up when, in the middle of a session I was moderating on global risks, Richard Edelman, CEO of a leading PR firm and one of the featured participants, hopped up and excused himself. He whispered that Klaus Schwab needed him urgently. Could it have been the boycott Israel flap? I suspect it was. Schwabs email read, in part:
With great concern and pain, I just learned that Global Agenda, a publication distributed to our members at the Annual Meeting 2006, contains an article calling for a boycott of Israel. This article is totally in contradiction to my own, and the Forums, mission and values. For 36 years I have been committed to fighting for mutual understanding in the world. The Forum has been deeply involved in the efforts to create better relations and reconciliation in the Middle East and throughout the world.
As soon as I learned about this article, I immediately investigated how this situation could have developed. I concluded there was an unacceptable failure in the editorial process, specifically an insufficiently short period for review of contentfor which there is no excuse. I, on behalf of the Forum, profoundly apologize and express my regrets to everyone. I can assure you that appropriate steps have been instituted to ensure that this will never happen again.
What steps? One can only wonder. The mishap sent a shudder through the normally unflappable Forum staff, with some senior officials pointing fingers at others but all underscoring Schwabs personal outrage and discomfort. The fact that the magazine began with a letter from Schwab in which he wrote: This magazine and the work we will do at Davos and in the coming year will set the global agenda... certainly didnt help.
For the record, the approach of the magazine seemed to have been to provide a wide range of views. The article in question was written by academic and Palestinian activist Mazin Qumsiyeh (the article is no longer on the magazine's Web site, but is available here.) But he was not the only author who might be seen as extremist in one direction or another. Contributors include Andrs Manuel Lpez Obrador, the populist Mexico City mayor who many fret will become that countrys Hugo Chavez, World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz, new German chancellor Angela Merkel, EU minister Peter Mandelson, Michael Ledeen, and lefty whack-jobs like Noam Chomsky. Oh, and the Pope.
Tonight, I attended a dinner called Dying Breeds: Concepts, Values and Ideas that Will Disappear. The objective was to brainstorm over mozzarella bits and poached salmon and apple parfaits (no, I didnt) and identify the big changes in the landscape of our minds that are likely to overtake oldthink. Interesting results. The speakers were diverse including an American Christian minister, a couple of CEOs, some journalists, a couple academics and a certified futurist, and virtually none had an idea that was optimistic. Virtually all (with one exception) saw good values (privacy, security, community, the separation of church and state) evaporating. The one exception: Peter Schwartz of Global Business Networks who suggested that the war on drugs would end...because we would have access to more, better, specially customized drugs made at or near home (sound familiar?). So, even that was not exactly optimistic.
No one saw a negative value disappearing. This led to an exchange with a Newsweek reporter I sat next to who noted that she covered tech and that for her, there are two Davoses. The tech meetings, she said, were full of really leading thinkers who were extremely energized and optimistic about the future...in fact, you had the sense they were actively helping to invent it. They also were primarily from the United States and Asia. The older, trans-Atlantic meeting was more downbeat, projecting future problems from past histories. The best anecdote from the dinner came as one of the guest recounted an earlier session during which Richard Branson, attempting to speak of the threat of Avian Flu (a big topic here as you may have gathered), instead referred to aviation flu. Shows how close to home that particular threat is to airline moguls in our midst.
Also of note: throngs around Angelina Jolie as she made her way through the conference center. Huge mobs of very unjaded, very uncool delegates seeking to get closer to the actress, no doubt to praise her for her role as a UN goodwill ambassador and her apparent commitment to adopt one child of every disadvantaged nationality on the planet. Imagine that crowd of bigwigs from many lands clustered around her. See how she is bringing the world together? Bonos announcement of his new line of Red products for which the profits go to fight AIDS was, by contrast, tame. Advice for Bono: start adopting kids ASAP. I think thats the difference. Right?
Searching for Answers in the Muslim World
Late this afternoon, there was a packed session chaired by Tom Friedman that included Queen Rania of Jordan, Pakistans President Musharraf, Afghanistans President Karzai, and Hajim Alhasani, President of the Iraqi National Assembly. The topic was Muslim societies in the modern world, but the discussion was wide ranging. There was a uniformly negative reaction to Iran getting nuclear weaponshighlighted by the awkward moment when, after arguing that no nations in the region should have nuclear weapons, Karzai realized that sitting four feet away from him was Musharraf, who does. Unperturbed, Musharraf performed his practiced tap dance explaining how Pakistan got to where it is. The panel also covered womens rights, why terrorists should not be characterized as Islamists, the future of the regions conflicts, and Kashmir. Rania was graceful and articulate, Karzai somewhat less attractive but just as articulate, Musharraf deft and periodically charming. Alhasani looked very out of place, a mere pol among maestros, and one not above blowing air kisses toward the distant posterior of the man from Crawford, Texas who made his job possibleThe news of Hamass landslide victory in the Palestinian elections dominated the chatter on the floor of the Congress Center and throughout town. Attendees split into two groups: well-known experts expressing genuine surprise and another I knew it all along group. Among the notices posted to participants was one announcing that, due to its popularity, the panel discussion entitled Everything You Wanted to Know About Relationships But Were Afraid to Ask would be repeated.
I spent the morning moderating a pandemic scenario that actually was faintly comforting. Business leaders such as Lehman Brothers Vice Chairman Tom Russo and Metro CEO Hans-Joachim Korber described thoughtful and detailed preparations while health experts like the United Nations David Nabarroone of the few high-level people in the world paid primarily to think about Avian Fludescribed the progress they had made in raising consciousness and preparedness on the issue.
Later, the risk discussions I participated in turned to the big threats facing the world on the geopolitical front and featured heavyweight wonks including former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, soft-power guru Joe Nye, nuclear non-proliferation thinker Graham Allison, former Israeli Ambassador to the United Sates Itamar Rabinovitch, and leading academics and authors such as Timothy Garton-Ash, Ken Pollack, and Angela Stent. The conclusions? They are worried. Really really worriedabout the Middle East, the Iraqi black hole, confrontation with Iran over nukes, the rise of Hamas (though some professed a more sanguine view--that having to rule, to fill a few potholes, would force the party to change focus or lose office), the decline of democracy, instability across Eurasia, Vladimir Putin, WMD terrorism, global warming, pandemics, the anti-globalization movement, social and economic inequity, and presumably the proliferation of major annual conferences (certainly dangerous contributors to global warming).
One group of participants (me included) tried to put things into perspective by noting that violence worldwide is down, lifespans are up, overall wealth is increasing, and we no longer live under the threat of global thermonuclear destruction. These are, by any measure, the best of times. The observations were greeted with bemusement. I would have enjoyed the panel discussion more, given my generally pessimistic disposition (my father's nickname for me as a boy was Eeyore), had it not been for the fact that it was moderated by David Young, Oxford Analytica primo who, as discussed earlier, commented on my girth. Im not over it. (But I did eat a lot more fruit today and fewer of the pastries that seem to be everywhere in Davos.)
Holy crap. Not only has Bono arrived, seen hobnobbing with Angela Merkel while wearing a beat up cowboy hat (him...not her), but Brangelina is here. This is Angela Merkel times Bono times both Google founders plus Pervez Musharraf raised to the power of all 77 government ministers that are here. Brad and Angelina...together, plus in utero a tiny creature who will also have giant conscience, and lips. Finally, things are heating up. And I have to spend the day talking about pandemics and societal risks when I could be gawking at Mr. And Mrs. Smith.
Its past midnight in Davos. The parties are winding down. The shuttle buses are nearly empty. The streets of the town are more or less deserted save for the younger delegates and aides to the biggest of the big shots who are looking for one last beer, a chance to party at a global party where risqu is taking two canaps at once.
The papers in the morning will have headlines from the Davos program. German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a very predictable speech announcing that the world is changing and something must be done about it. Germans I spoke with here lamented that delegates cant see her real charm, visible best in small groups. One spoke of her tomboy like sense of humor. But others were just frustrated that she took such a conservative tack. Did they forget she was the conservative candidate? That she won by the narrowest of margins?
I personally met with Merkel. Well, OK, I personally came within 3 feet of Merkel before her security detail gently slammed me into the wall of the Post Hotel where she was going to attend the welcome dinner. She was closely followed by about 20 aides and security people, and yet from a distance she managed to look like just another former physicist out for a walk in the Alps. Moments later, with a much smaller entourage (his wife and two security guards) U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan arrived also to attend the dinner. What made the spectacle slightly ugly was that the other big dinner in that hotel tonight, sponsored by Deutsche Bank in honor of India, was starting at the same time and so for perfectly good security reasons, arriving delegates, many of whom were Indian, were directed around to take the side entrance.
That aside, Indians have nothing to complain about here. India and China were to be the centerpieces of the event and due to the fact that only a limited number of Chinese people showed up (one Vice Premiere among them) the Indians kind of have center stage all to themselves. The conventional wisdom is that Chinese business leaders dont speak enough English to do well at this primarily English-speaking event. And the Forum organizers tried to put the best face possible on it by announcing today their agreement with the Chinese to open an office in China. Ive spoken with senior Forum executives including founder, president and leading light Klaus Schwab, and it is clear that they really are committed to trying to broaden the appeal of the Forum to China and Asia writ large (no doubt in the context of keeping Davos relevant). But, one wonders whether the Chinese are still not fully comfortable with ebb and flow of real debate and the criticism that they would no doubt receive from the masses of NGOs here. That the meeting commences on a day when newspapers worldwide were reporting the decision by executives at Google, some of whom are also stars here at Davos, to self-censor their search engine sites in China doesnt help that impression. Nor does the copy of a German-language Falun Gong publication that sits among the other business titles on the table for delegates in the lobby of my hotel.
Dinner tonight for me was a discussion on development and democracy that was high-minded and, often, pretty aggravating as aid professionals argued that they were doing the right thing arguing for conditionality between democracy development and economic development even though there is absolutely no evidence that there is a causal connection between the two. This was recognized by some in the star-studded group (as development discussions go) that included some very sound, practical perspectives from the likes of Nigerian Central Bank Governor Charles Soludo, Egyptian Finance Minister Youssuf Boutros-Ghali, U.S. Congressman Jim Kolbe, and Maureen O'Neil, President of Canadas International Development Research Center. Vaira Vike-Freiberga, President of Latviaa country that has gone from aid-recipient to donor in less than a decadealso offered a persuasive moral argument that when societies are in deep distress, debating the conditions of helping them is just wrong.
At my own table, I think I aroused the ire of Yoriko Kawaguchia former Japanese minister and current member of that countrys house of delegatesby arguing that we needed to move away from the generalized language of sentiment surrounding aid and focus on specific objectivesand try to understand what those objectives actually are, as opposed to what we say they are. For example, one could easily argue that contrary to conventional wisdom, most U.S. Cold War era aid was successful because the objective behind giving it was not actually development, it was buying loyalty, staving off Soviet entreaties and winning the Cold War, which we did. Finally, George Soros gave several splendid examples of focused, practical work that his foundations have done in this regard, such as an effort to help create institutional resistance to the corruptive forces associated with having a lot of oil and other natural resources.
Of course, I missed much of what is going on in Davos because a guy can only be in so many places at once. I did catch memorable snippets like bumping into billionaire Richard Branson on the way to one of the interminable coat-check lines. I was also nearly run over by the overly aggressive driver shepherding PricewaterhouseCoopers CEO Sam DiPiazza (a very nice guy who I know a little and admire) not two seconds after having been manhandled (I exagerate for effect here) by Merkels scrum. The most memorable moment of the day came at a reception, during which David Young, founder and chief executive of Oxford Analytica and an old friend came up to me and told me, I have good news and bad news. The good news is your book seems to be a big success, congratulations. And the bad news is that it looks like you have been gaining weight. As if those two things were somehow equal. I could win a Pulitzer Prize, like Daniel Yergin who I saw at the Georgetown University party at the Belvedere, or three, like Tom Friedman who I saw over at the Congress Center, and all the pleasure of it would instantly evaporate with one fat comment like that. Did he mean any harm? I dont care. He now supplants the guy who kicked me in the head all night on the flight over as the goat of this trip. But its early yet. There are plenty of cocktail parties to go and it's unlikely that I am going to get much thinner between now and Sunday.
The big free-for-all
A big event today was a 600 person collective brainstorming endeavor called The Big Debate in which the purpose was to set the business agenda. There are other words to describe a 600-person debate, and productive isnt one of them. Nik Gowing of the BBC did his best to keep the discussion on a track to somewhere. Economists and business leaders kicked off the discussion, but toward the end NGOs dominated (with crowd support) and sought to shift the business agenda to sustainable development, global warming and all things greenish. (My sense is that while this was going on, most of the serious business people here were elsewhere in pursuit of another kind of green.)
The Bad News
The serious policy types here are discussing Irans nuclear program and the Palestinian elections. It is ironic that as these stories weigh heavily on the minds of the journalists, politicians and think tankers with whom I discussed them, a bunch of garrulous senior officials from the new Iraqi government were glad handing their way through the crowd. Americas involvement in Iraq makes it nearly impossible for Washington to deal with the larger issues on either side of that country (and the larger still issues like energy dependency or the war on terror.) Its kind of strange that at a time when the top two U.S. foreign policy prioritiescombating terror and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destructionthe opportunity costs of a war allegedly undertaken in support of both goals (but not really) are that the United States is now politically and militarily hamstrung when it comes to taking on the country that is the already a top state sponsor of terror and committed to developing nuclear weapons. Said one foreign policy household name to me this afternoon: we had better start planning for a nuclear Iran and after that a nuclear Middle East because the scenarios for stopping them seem so unlikely.
Into the Mix
Zurich is cold. And thats just the architecture. Outside, frost was on the windows of the jetway as we got off the plane and headed to the long row of sparkling Audis that awaited to carry delegates up the side of the mountain. I settled in, registered, and went straight to the Congress Center where most of the official meetings take place. It was already swarming, with sessions already under way and networking going on in every corner. At this world forum, 80 percent of the conversations are in English. And, at least from my current vantage point, it seems the press-to-delegate ratio is about one to one. In fact, a first impression one might get is that most of what happens in Davos is for consumption elsewhere. One megalomaniac reporter could be heard barking into his bluetooth cellphone headset about his schedule. He lifted his voice every time he mentioned bigshot he was going to interview, just to be sure everyone around him could hear.
Now, on into the crowds to try to do a little business myself.
Kicks to the Head
The flight to Zurich was a very Washington flight: light on real business people, but with government types and NGO chieftains crammed into business class. My flights passengers included U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA), former Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, Brookings President Strobe Talbott, and Nancy Birdsall, who heads up the Center for Global Development. Everyone was pouring over their Davos schedules, planning, pondering and, I suspect based on experience, looking for their own names first. It is a bit like the way Washingtonians read books, backwards, not out of deference to the Hebrew tradition, but to check first in the index to see if they are listed. The true Davosian reads the program in the same way. How much validation do global leaders need? Answer: as much as is available.
The buzz on the plane took a variety of turns. I overheard bits and pieces. Someone mentioned a drift away from the socially conscious themes of last years meeting and the internet driven themes of preceding years. It was back to business and growth. One spouse lamented that there were fewer offbeat sessions this year, and Davos was therefore not as spouse-friendly. Odd, because flipping through the program I found sessions on the relationship between music and leadership, between religion and business, on sports marketing, and on illusive concepts like creativity itself. Several folks commented on the big Indian turnout, and then drifted into sleep. The Congressman read his notes and newspaper through the night.
I was periodically awakened as the guy in the seat behind me regularly kicked me in the head. Not once. Many times. Is this a metaphor? I cant be sure. But I now have a footprint on my skull that will remind me of the question and the flight for the foreseeable future. Of course, at about the sixth or seventh kick in the head, it also struck me that the real big shots were not on flights like mine. They were on their own planes, eating their favorite sushi specialties, sleeping beneath comforters, and probably not getting kicked in the head by a size ten wearing a rather fragrant blue Gold Toe brand sock.
My Eyes are Up Here
Id like to say that the first time I attended Davos, I was like an anthropologist at the meeting of an unknown and fascinating tribe. But I was more like a kid at the candy store or an autograph hound on the Walk of Fame. Around me were household names...for readers of the Economist (and, I should say, Foreign Policy). There was also the occasional rock star. OK, so it was actually only one: Bono, over and over again. There were TV celebrities, but virtually all were from the news room. Bystanders would swoon as CNN anchors walked by, and knees would buckle if Bill Gates or Michael Dell entered the room. Back then, anyone whose business involved a microchip was a special kind of star. I realized that everyone there was just like me. Everyone was stargazingthe especially self-fulfilling kind where you feel you are elevated by the presence of the crowd around you. After all, this was the crme de la crme and you were an invited guest among them. If they were cool, you were too.
It was the ultimate revenge of the nerds, a prom at which there were no football captains or cheerleaders (more on that later). Former band geeks, like Bill Clinton, ruled. Delegates were all collectors, collecting big names, anecdotes to share with friends, validation. And the way they did it was to constantly crane around looking for someone new, checking everyone out. You passed through large crowds at the Davos congress center and trolled for celebrities or, next best, for potential clients, by gazing at the names and affiliations that were emblazoned on the conference-issued badges hanging around everyone's neck. (I have a suspicion that some of the newly anointed wore their badges to bed.) In fact, the first place you looked at anyone was at their chest to see who they were. A day or two into my first Davos, I finally knew what Dolly Parton feels like. Last year, with Angelina Jolie and Sharon Stone in attendance, they must have felt vaguely more comfortable than they do in the real world (to the extent they actually ever enter the real world) because everyone was going through what they go through all the time.
At the same time, another classic Davos habit is to act like you dont care. I'm never coming back and I don't go to the sessions, I'm really just here for a few meetings on the side and similar protestations are commonly heard. And virtually everyone who says such things to me comes back year after year. After all, what could be better than being among the elite than not really needing it, than posing as if somehow the elite needed you more than you needed them? Are the sessions boring? Some are, and some arent. But that's hardly the point. Davos is like Brigadoon, the mystical Scottish village that reappeared every 100 years. Except this one reappears every year, high in the Alps, frozen, grey, and a town with a culture all its own in which the inhabitants rejoin its special social order every year because it tells them as much about themselves as it does about the state of the world.
The world affairs part shouldnt be downplayed, of course. Just as there are nearby villages you can visit if you wish to see how the worlds best chocolate is made, Davos is where you go if you want to see where the worlds conventional wisdom is manufactured. In that respect, delegates are, for the most part, an elaborate system for manufacturing and then distributing that conventional wisdom and, given their positions, they are also a system for validating it. That it is often wrong, well, thats beside the point. Who expects conventional wisdom to be right very often? But conventional wisdom at Davos is special. Every year, for example, one or two break-out countries are vastly overhyped and overrepresented among the delegates. Inevitably, this serves as a jinx. If a country is hyped at Davos, its time to jump off the band wagon: Turkey, Ukraine, and Russia have been the stars of Davos in recent years. This is bad news for India, which looks to be the break-out country this year. Thankfully for the world economy, efforts to produce a similarly large turnout from China appear to have been unsuccessful, with only a modest showing from that mega-state...ensuring that the economic engine of the worlds fastest growing region continues to hum along for the foreseeable future.
For the next few days I willlike a swallow to Capistranoreturn to Davos. The difference is that I will be reporting back to the readers of ForeignPolicy.com a few of my impressions to give them a look behind the scenes at the worlds most exclusive party (for policy wonks, that is). Itll be just you and me and 2,400 of our closest friends, plus a few protestors and 6,000 heavily armed Swiss police officers to keep them at bay. My approach will be pretty casual and impressionistic and I will do my best to spell the names right and to capture something more than the conventional wisdom, though I won't leave that out. Davos just isnt Davos without it.