Paying members and corporate sponsors underwrite Klaus’s impressive list of guest members, including leading artists, authors, scientists, scholars, and public figures. Huddled in the media corner with the CNN and BBC crews for much of today (we are “video-blogging” several of the main sessions), I watched a stream of world leaders drop by to smile for the cameras. It was like watching all the most talked about people in the world—the new Palestinian Authority’s president Mahmoud “Abu Mazen” Abbas, President Viktor Yuschenko of Ukraine, and Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi—get interviewed in your own living room.
“Members” wear white badges that allow them to roam free, have tea in designated areas in the Congress Center, and sign up for special lunches and dinners held at the few dozen hotels that sprinkle the village. Your conference bag also comes stocked with an HP iPaq Pocket PC that provides wireless e-mail access to all attendees and the ability to remotely sign up for the private events. Lower in the caste structure are the “working journalists,” who do not pay but must wear bright orange badges so world leaders know to watch what they say when they are around. If you are on the WEF staff, you wear a blue badge, and you are, more often than not, young, handsome or beautiful, and completely charming. I have to admit that, once you find yourself on the inside, as I have been blessed to be for the last nine years, it is a happy and orderly place, no matter your status.
The World Economic Forum’s mission is to “improve the state of the world,” which is lofty enough to satisfy the 2,000 global egos that fit into the main Congress Center every winter. Mr. Schwab also comes up with an annual theme, doing his best to capture if not influence the global zeitgeist. This year the theme was “Taking Responsibility for Tough Choices.” I never really figured out what choices we had made for which we now had to take responsibility, but Mr. Schwab did make a general call to “take immediate action on the tough issues of poverty, climate change, education, and equitable globalization.”
Of course, as seasoned attendees know, there is the stated theme, and then there is the real theme that emerges from the forum. The unwritten theme at the World Economic Forum annual meeting two years ago was “We do not like America.” The theme last year was “We still do not like America.”
In 2003, the meeting was held just over a month before the alliance went to war with Saddam. President Bush dispatched internationally popular secretary of state Colin Powell to Davos that year. “Time is running out. We will not shrink from war if that is the only way to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction,” Secretary Powell told a very skeptical crowd. In 2004, the Bushies dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney to Davos to assure folks that the U.S. wasn’t going to march the troops into Iran. “We’re hopeful [about] the effort by our European friends—the Germans, the French, and the Brits have been most directly involved—working with the Iranians, to try to get the Iranians to agree to a more intrusive inspection regime,” Cheney explained.
For an American, attending the forum in those years was a wearying and disheartening experience. In my view, the schism was about much more than the unpopularity of the Iraq War. The United States is the world’s sole superpower. The Iraq War was one example of how the U.S. can and will act unilaterally. That reality is understandably unsettling for many non-Americans.
This year, I was pleased to arrive in time to catch Prime Minister Tony Blair’s address. He is a splendid public speaker and was in top form as he defended President Bush’s call to advance Middle East peace. “America accepts that terrorism cannot be defeated by military might alone,” he promised.
Well, it has been a long day, and it turns out that President Chirac has bailed due to weather and is beaming in via satellite, so I am going to watch on the closed-circuit channel WEF provides on my hotel TV. Mr. Chirac is not a favorite of mine.
Your affectionate uncle, TP