Davos Diary, Day 3: Panels galore
PIERRE VERDY/AFP/Getty Images The first real day of the formal Forum got off to a lively start Wednesday morning with a panel on the geopolitics of a divided world. At least it did for me: There were several other panels to choose from. Selecting which of six or seven alternative (and parallel) panels to attend ...
PIERRE VERDY/AFP/Getty Images
The first real day of the formal Forum got off to a lively start Wednesday morning with a panel on the geopolitics of a divided world. At least it did for me: There were several other panels to choose from. Selecting which of six or seven alternative (and parallel) panels to attend is the most difficult thing you can do in Davos (other than learning to suffer silently through security). It’s possible for two people to spend the same week here and experience two entirely different Forums.
But a divided world is one of my concerns, so I made a beeline for that session (assuming that bees negotiate paths involving makeshift temporary passageways, wood-plank paths, tent-flaps, and multiple floors). The shuttle from my home base in Klosters was late, but that meant shorter security lines, since the majority of participants follow Swiss norms of punctuality and throng the airport-style scanners early in time for the first panels.
By the time I snuck in, the discussion had warmed up nicely. There was much intelligent talk about the changing world that will confront the next American president, and thoughtful concern about the need to restore U.S. soft power — defined by a panelist as America’s reputation for legitimacy and competence internationally, both categories in which it has suffered under the Bush administration. A senior Chinese participant (I’m trying to honor Davos’s non-attribution policies here) argued convincingly that China has no interest in promoting any division in the world: “It’s our first chance since the Opium Wars of the 1840s to develop and modernize our country, and all we want is peace, not confrontation anywhere in the world.” Reacting to comments about China’s lack of democracy, he pointed out to the Americans (and the Frenchman) present that neither country had given the vote to women until the 1920s, and the United States had denied it to many blacks until the 1960s. “Give us time, too,” he said, adding for good measure, “And don’t expect us to be like you.”
An Indian strategic analyst pointed out that power and influence are not the same thing: the United States is the world’s sole superpower but its influence is on the wane, and the need for coalition-building is increasing. He dismissed the moderator’s talk of “Chindia” — a convergence between India and China—by tartly observing that the two countries do not share norms and values. In today’s world, he pointed out, economic interdependence has nothing to do with political closeness—an intriguing insight given that China will overtake the United States as India’s largest trading partner in the next two years. The moderator observed in closing that the panel had featured the rare spectacle of a Chinese offering lessons in democracy and an American offering lessons in humility!
As I chatted with other audience members about the discussion, I earned myself another authentic Davos experience—arriving too late to be allowed into the next panel I’d planned to attend, which was to address the question “Who’s in Charge?” It filled up so rapidly that there was a queue of hopefuls lingering outside the door waiting for people to come out so they could go in. So, I wandered into the hallways and did the other Davos thing — finding an impressive array of people to talk to. In the first 15 minutes I exchanged words with a former president, a former prime minister, and a former foreign minister. And there were so many friends and acquaintances to catch up on, especially as the break flowed into the buffet lunch, featuring finger food from multiple world cuisines. In a little over an hour I had renewed contact with a Pakistani journalist I hadn’t seen in five years and an Indian columnist I hadn’t met in three, spoken with two American University presidents, the head of a think tank, and two editors of international-affairs magazines, and had a long chat with Joseph S. Nye, “Mr. Soft Power” himself. None of these encounters was likely to change my life, but there was something heady and exhilarating about being able to have them all in one spot in such a short span of time.
It was also a good way to catch up on the Davos buzz, which inevitably was dominated by anxieties about the financial markets, unsubstantiated anecdotes about which publicly smiling CEO in attendance was actually tearing his hair out about his company’s market losses for the day, and fears of a global recession. These were rather robustly dispelled in an on-the-record panel after lunch, evocatively titled “If America sneezes, does the the world still catch a cold?” Economist C. Fred Bergsten argued that the global economy has essentially “decoupled” from the American one, and that India and China are likely to grow even if the United States goes into recession. In other words, the world economy as a whole will still see growth, whatever else happens. One memorable line came from the sole Chinese panelist, Chen Siwei, explaining America’s deficits and China’s surpluses: “The Chinese save today’s money for tomorrow and Americans spend tomorrow’s money today.” It brought the house down. But I left unconvinced that the panel was right to ignore the very real danger of an American political backlash, in an election year and amid an economic downturn, against free trade and outsourcing. If the rants of Lou Dobbs ever found their echo in a presidential election campaign, the resulting virus could easily give the rest of the world pneumonia.
The formal opening of the conference didn’t take place until 6 p.m., somewhat bizarrely since Davos’s panels and corridor conversations had already been going on for a full day. This year’s theme, Klaus Schwab announced in his distinctive Teutonic warble, is “the power of collaborative innovation.” He then introduced a video showing assorted “men in the street” asking and answering “the Davos question,” i.e. “What one thing do you think that countries, companies, or individuals must do to make the world a better place in 2008?”
It’s the sort of question that preserves Davos’s self-image as being much more than a gabfest for well-heeled elites, but it also drives the cynics to eye-rolling distraction. Schwab then called on companies to engage on everything from climate change and water shortages to international terrorism. The president of Switzerland, Pascal Couchepin, delivered a cerebral and thoughtful welcome speech in French. As president, he holds a one-year post that rotates among the members of a collective seven-person executive council. The Swiss government, he commented wryly, is the only Soviet to have ever functioned successfully.
Two more “opening keynotes” followed—by President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan in his magnificent robes, calling on the world to confront terror, and by Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri of the International Panel on Climate Change, sporting a green pocket kerchief and calling on the world to confront global warming—before an “opening address” by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. (Pop quiz: How many dignitaries does it take to open a conference? This year at Davos, the answer was 11—the five I’ve just named, followed by the six conference “co-chairs,” ranging from Tony Blair to Henry Kissinger, who then entered into a discussion with Condi that ran well past the cocktail hour and deprived many a scheduled reception of the bulk of its attendees.)
Rice began by promising “no long moralizing lecture,” and then proceeded to deliver a superb speech, infused with evocations of principle and idealism, committing the United States to “democracy, development, and social justice,” rejecting any notion of “permanent hatreds,” robustly defending America’s “confidence in our principles and impatience with the pace of change,” and warning that “history can be a prison for diplomats.” It was stirring stuff and I was applauding vigorously when a friend whispered in my ear: “Great speech, Condi, but where have you been the last seven years?”
My very long day wasn’t over yet. I had been favored with an exclusive invitation to a private dinner involving some 35 of the most interesting people in Davos, convened by the estimable Dutch Professor Victor Halberstadt, of whom it is said that if he doesn’t know you, you’re probably not worth knowing. The dinner was, alas, off the record, but the ideas it sparked will influence my final dispatches on what’s occupying the minds of Davosians this week.
And so, two shuttle bus rides later, to Klosters, to my blogging duties, and to bed—well past 1 a.m. I don’t think I’m going to wake up in time for the 7 a.m. breakfast session I’ve committed to on the morrow…
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