On the Chinese calendar we are entering the Year of the Boar—which does not bode well for long conferences in general. But this year's Davos seemed flatter than usual, at least to most of the observers with whom I spoke. Perhaps it was the deliberate and publicized decision not to have as many movie stars. Perhaps it was the strong attendance from business leaders (900 CEOs, according to one senior forum executive with whom I spoke). Perhaps it was the fact that, at over three decades and with a finely-tuned formula designed to provide something for everyone, it is now very hard for the event to surprise. Or perhaps old hands just grow blasé at the familiar sight of Bill Gates, Tony Blair, and John McCain, or at former Iranian presidents debating with perennial American candidates like John Kerry (there's a debate certain to have no clear winner). Yes, of course, they're all here, think the inured. And no, I don't expect the politicians to tell the truth. And yes, I do expect CEOs to justify their amazingly high salaries and to blame performance problems on external factors.
Still, despite its rustic village setting, Davos is clearly not my great-grandmother's shtetl. Maybe Brangelina were not there, but Claudia Schiffer made a showing, as did the ubiquitous Bono. Most of the politicians present did not surprise, but 25 trade ministers grappling with how to save the Doha Round is no small affair. And the contrast between Brazil's Luiz Inácio da Silva ("Lula"), as he outlines a $250 billion spending plan, and Mexico's new president Felipe Calderón, who embodies the modern Latin American pro-business technocrat, offered a useful glimpse into the choices being weighed by the emerging nations of Latin America. Quirky exercises, like sessions in which a blind person led delegates around in a darkened room, were a fun diversion even if they opened the conference to the inevitable blind-leading-the-blind jokes. (more after the jump)
Last night, the party scene in Davos was at a fever pitch. Smallish rooms crowded with delgates doing the Davos Dip, that slight bend in the knee and downward tilt of the head designed to enable them to read your name badge and determine whether you are worth their time. After that, they move into the "over-the-shoulder bob," which involves periodically scanning the room over your shoulder to see who has walked in that might be more important.
From brief visits to the NASDAQ, Merrill Lynch and Canadian parties, I can report that the canapés were uninspiring, but the crowds and the talks were considerably great. You have to give the Davoisie credit. After listening to speeches all day (except for the real heavy hitters, who come only to deliver their addresses, and then spend the rest of the time in their suites at the Steigenberger Belvedere Hotel, meeting with other power-brokers one on one) they were willing to accept the notion that a party involved even more speeches, albeit with wine.
At the Merrill Lynch soirée, Merrill senior executives hobnobbed with the likes of Dell Computer founder Michael Dell, former U.S. presidential candidate Mark Warner, and a number of enterprising journalists who had discovered that the food was much better than at chez NASDAQ. (Whatever may be said about their nose for news, there is no denying the fourth estate's nose for free food.)
There were dozens of other parties in Davos last night, as there will be tonight, plus the Forum's various official theme dinners (including the inevitable Jazz Dinner, which is just too charming for words. Jazz hasn't been cool for fifty years. Even this crowd couldn't possibly be so old that jazz is what they crave after a day of grappling with the planet's biggest problems. Heavy metal and bowls full of OxyContin seem more appropriate.)
Having spent another refreshing night in the flesh-eating bacteria wing of the Davos Dermatological and Allergy Clinic, I have arrived at the Congress Hall refreshed if a little bit worried about the first signs of a strange rash. (Not really. And I am sure the place has not been a clinic for months. There are signs all over announcing that it is not only a hotel, but a Grand Hotel. I harbor a bit of a sense that were I to peel the signs away it would say "biohazard" underneath, but why tempt fate?)
Even more frightening, one of the themes that came up several times yesterday was nuclear terrorism. A very senior Wall Street banker with whom I spoke said the session he attended on the subject made him want to run screaming into the night. One panelist on that session was the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Shaukat Aziz, who had early in the day been on the terrorism panel I chaired. In both sessions, he displayed both articulate aplomb and a deft ability to sidestep any question that he felt was uncomfortable.
"Everything is fine with Pakistan's nuclear facilities, everything is safe," he assured unconvinced observers. One such man, a former foreign minister who now heads a well-respected NGO, noted to me (in the men's room of the Congress Hall, where polite urinal chit-chat inevitably turns to WMD proliferation) that he emphatically disagreed, asserting that "Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world." It's a refrain I have heard several times in the past few days, as the precariousness of the broader Middle East situation reminds observers that Pakistan's nuclear stockpile is only a coup away from falling into the hands of radical elements who might well be allied with al Qaeda. (more after the jump)
A kind of popular uprising took place yesterday during the first set of sessions here in Davos around the Forum's theme of global power shifts. Working groups were to meet to discuss different drivers in the global power structure (geopolitics, technology, etc.) and then they were to gather in a plenary to share results and formulate final conclusions. The plenary was to be augmented by wireless polling technology to add a democratic flair to this forum of the world's elites. But as the tables in the plenary stood up to review the findings, several "insurgents" said that they rejected the conclusions being offered to them. Clearly, they said, the world's greatest power-shifting force is global warming.
This left some of the people that I spoke to somewhat baffled, because while all acknowledged the importance of the issue, none felt it would reshape global power any time soon. No matter. Perhaps the insurgents own considerable waterfront property, but whatever the reason for their revolt, they succeeded in placing global warming high atop the list of drivers of change. (more after the jump)
The star of the first day of Davos was a homely middle-aged woman from a declining region of the world. Not very stylishly dressed in a burgundy blazer, looking vaguely professorial, thoughtfully and without pretext staring off into the half-distance as she framed her thoughts, she nevertheless held 1,000 people in the Congress Center's main hall rapt as she spoke about globalization, her own experiences, the relationship between the developed and the developing world, and her sense of Europe's role.
Addressed by session chairman Klaus Schwab as "Frau Bundeskanzler", Angela Merkel is an unlikely focus for such a glamorous event—or rather she would be if not for the fact that she leads Europe's most important country, and that she is doing such a good job of it.
I overheard two American CEOs discussing her, hints of envy filtering into their assessment. "She was good," said one, "Substantive. Impressive but not flashy." "Yes," replied the other, "I especially liked the slow way she spoke, enunciating her German. It was easier for me to understand." "Ah," said the first, "You are a real globalist. But for us who were listening to the translation ... she was good. Though she did say, 'we're Europe, our role is changing, don't look at us for solutions." "Still," said the other, "at least I didn't cringe when she spoke. Full sentences. Complete ideas." (more after the jump)
So, globalization is harder than we thought, after all. I write this entry from Seat 6B on United flight 936 to Zurich. Unfortunately, at the moment the plane is stranded on the tarmac at Frankfurt. Apparently, a higher power decided to join this year's Davos festivities, manifested today by snow storms that shut down Zurich airport just as the glitterati of business and government were to have arrived en masse. While some arrived yesterday, major groups of big shots from around the world were left, if my flight is any indication, pleading with flight attendants for crackers to sustain multi-hour delays at European airports. For us, on this flight from Washington, the glitch did not hold us back from schmoozing. We're having a mini-Davos in the aisles, featuring the likes of the The New York Times's Tom Friedman, FOREIGN POLICY's own Moisés Naím, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, Andean Development Corporation head Enrique García, U.S. Representative Barney Frank (sitting next to a slumbering former Nigerian Finance Minister), former FDA boss Mark McClellan, former U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, and a wide variety of other pundits and business leaders. Much of the schmoozing focused on the group's logistical plight, but thanks to Blackberry updates, there was considerable discussion of the Bush State of the Union and disbelief (apparently widely held among the several passengers discussing it) that he could hold so tightly to his views on Iraq in the face of such opposition and evidence that his approach is failing.
In short, the Davos crowd is always the Davos crowd whether in Davos or not. My next report will be from the Alps ... with some luck and intervention from those higher powers who are undoubtedly toying with us all to remind us that it is hubris to think that Davos is somehow the most powerful gathering on earth. There are, after all, Carlyle Group board meetings, CAA Agent meetings in Hollywood, and those intimate dinners between Bill and Hillary.
It's time for me to head for the airport. I arrive in Davos tomorrow morning, and will report once or twice a day through the following weekend. Hopefully, what you find here will be the hidden side of the meeting, the part that doesn't make it into the press, with a look at whatever implications may emerge in the areas most important to the readers of FOREIGN POLICY. Remember as you read that while Davos is a gathering of world leaders, it does not necessarily reflect the real world. There is a staggering divide between the perspectives of the Davoisie and the rest of us. Admirably, it is the Forum itself, working with Gallup International*, that has underscored this point with two studies. The first, released on Monday, January 22, is called "The Voice of the Leaders" and is an annual poll of Davos participants. The second study, released a week earlier, is called "The Voice of the People" and reflects the input of 53,000 people in 60 countries. As the Forum's managing director admits:
It is clear from this survey that the leaders who will be gathering in Davos view the world and its problems in a different way than the wider global population.”
Now, I understand why some of you may not think it would take a new study to arrive at that conclusion. But the contrasting views are interesting. For example, while about two-thirds of the leaders are optimistic about the economic prospects of the next generation, it is only a minority of the "people" who feel the same way (about 40 percent). Perhaps not surprisingly, only 8 percent of the leaders feel it is a priority to "restore trust and honesty in government, in business and in international institutions." That's down from 14 percent last year, as though matters were improving. Over a third of the people, meanwhile, view business leaders as dishonest, and a similar number said they had too much power and responsibility and that they were unethical. Forty-three percent of the people say that politicians are dishonest, and over half criticize them for being too responsive to people "more powerful than themselves." The study's authors also note, in a sort of wry juxtaposition, that while about six out of ten respondents among leaders seek "greater transparency and governance," people are not so interested, with only about a third citing it. On the other hand, the popular survey saw 30 percent of respondents seeking "more punishment of fraudulent behavior by officials" while, perhaps unsurprisingly, only 7 percent of the leaders agreed. So, perhaps the place to end this opening day is to note that while some of what it is interesting about Davos is the conclusions that are reached there, equally interesting is the degree to which those conclusions connect or diverge from the views of the rest of the world—all the rest of us who are unaccustomed to the rarified altitudes of global summitry.
*Editor's note: The initial version of this post incorrectly identified the Gallup Organization as a partner of the World Economic Forum. It was actually a different entity, a loosely-affiliated network of disparate market research houses called Gallup International, that conducted the poll in question. Passport regrets the error.
Over the course of the five-day Meeting, 2,400 participants from 90 countries will convene in Davos, including 24 heads of state or government, 85 cabinet ministers, along with religious leaders, media leaders and heads of non-governmental organizations. Around 50% of the participants are business leaders drawn principally from the Forum's members [....] The programme will follow four main themes that are high on the global agenda in 2007. These range from "Economics: New Drivers" and "Geopolitics: The Need for Fresh Mandates" to "Business: Leading in a Connected World", and "Technology and Society: Identity, Community and Networks".
Of course, the real meat of each Annual Meeting typically lies outside the official program, which sounds roughly the same every year given the obligation to cover hundreds of issues in a way that is offensive to none of over 80 organizations cited as sponsors or supporters of the event. Rather, the substance comes less from the big speeches than it does from the buzz in the corridors of the main Congress Hall and the scores of receptions that take place each night in the character-less hotels of Davos.
Inevitably, a considerable component of this year's side meetings will focus on the following issues: the situation in Iraq, the fate of a unipolar world when the one superpower seems to be bent on self-destruction, the absence of Bill Clinton and Angelina Jolie (two of last year's stars), the absence of a big contingent from China and what that may portend about the future of Davos, the presence of a large delegation from India, what to wear to the Malaysian-themed black-tie gala, what top speakers like Angela Merkel, Tony Blair, Mahmoud Abbas, Bill Gates, Lakshmi Mittal, and others might say or not say, and—above all—on the deals large and small that will be cut in silence. Davos is mostly about what is not on the official program, not covered in the papers. It's not a breeding ground for conspiracies per se, but rather a place where self-interests come to mate in their native habitat of low lighting and high cholesterol. As FP's anthroblogologist for this expedition, I'll try to get up close and recount some of their mating behaviors without scaring off any of the subjects.
That high-pitched whine you hear is the sound of corporate jets revving their engines in preparation for their annual trip to Zurich, where they will deposit their passengers into fleets of waiting Mercedes, BMWs and Audis to take them up into the Alps and to the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Or perhaps it is coming from the chorus of critics who, each year, offer their full-throated denunciations of the global conspiracies they envision are hatched over cocktails and canapés in lavish hotel lounges. Or, even more likely, it is coming from the regular participants in the Annual Meeting, who know that Davos is neither the hotbed of intrigue that critics fear, nor is it quite the lavish spectacle that everyone imagines. They keep coming back because Davos still attracts an array of world leaders and business titans unlike that of any other meeting on the planet. They will do business there, and renew old contacts and friendships. But they will also shiver on the frozen streets of Davos, slip on its unshoveled sidewalks, eat its mediocre food, and endure endless speeches containing very little that is new at all.
We get a hint about what the speeches do contain on a page on the Davos members-only website. It asserts that last year, participants in the annual meeting produced 7,000 tons of CO2 equivalents. The page, part of a Forum climate initiative seeking to make the entire event carbon neutral, goes on to suggest that most of these emissions are from air travel and energy use, but I will reserve judgment, reporting to you what I observe and hear over the next few days for FP’s second annual Davos Diary.
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