Davos Diary, Day 2: An unlikely star

JOEL SAGET/AFP 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 ...

604560_merkel_08.jpg
604560_merkel_08.jpg

JOEL SAGET/AFP

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.

JOEL SAGET/AFP

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)

For many of the Davos delegates with whom I spoke today, Angela Merkel has become the best of breed among G8 leaders. Some of this is due to the faltering of Bush and Blair. Some certainly is due to the recent transition in Japan and the coming transition in France. Some also may be due to the low expectations that greeted her in the wake of the lackluster performance of her predecessor and the slim margin of her victory. But the most powerful female political figure in Europe since Queen Victoria has turned the methodical scientific training from her upbringing in Communist East Germany into a formula for gaining admirers worldwide.

Part of Merkel’s appeal is that she doesn’t mince words. Moderator and WEF Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab asked if it wouldn’t be a good idea to make the G8 a G-13, a forum to include the likes of India, China, Brazil, and South Africa. She unhesitatingly said no, despite the sense that Schwab was looking for another answer. And then, without missing a beat, she explained that while there is necessity and value in connecting the developed and developing worlds, the two are also different. The purpose of the G8, by implication, remains to give leaders of similar countries a chance to meet and share views.

Schwab, always seeking ways for Davos to shake off the appearance of being a talkfest, moved graciously ahead to ask how the Forum could help her advance her agenda. Schwab did violate one of the Forum’s cardinal rules—he wore a tie. But otherwise, he did a graceful job ushering in this year’s ceremonies. Having seen a longer procession of world leaders than perhaps any other man on the planet, he is utterly at home here in this temporary global village he dreamed up decades ago.

As for the real village of Davos, it’s bitterly cold and not at all the glamor capital it might seem to be. Yes, there are lots of big black cars and parties. But the hotels of Davos are bland and ill-suited to the annual Davoisie throngs. This year’s digs set a new low for me. The pads in the room still bear the name of the dermatological clinic from which the hotel was once converted (and to which it may return once the big shot Brigadoon fades into the mist once again). You can just imagine the disfiguring disorders that once drew patrons to this establishment, and as you do, you very quickly decide that perhaps it might be the better part of valor to eat somewhere else.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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