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Impromptus
To Be in Davos, Part I


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Up for a little Davos-ing? In the fourth week of January, I, like a good chunk of the rest of the world, was in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum — more accurately, for the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. I have much to report. Some of it will be weighty and some of it will be frivolous. But you’ll be treated (if that’s the word) to the bulk of my notebook. We will do this in installments, and there will be four — today through Thursday. We’ll also do it Impromptus-style, which is to say that you’ll get short bits — and they will not be presented in a perfect, seamless order. If you had a perfect, seamless order, you would not have Impromptus, would you?

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Thanks for seeing it that way.

Oh, one more thing: You’ll have all this reportage (and reflection) in the present tense, diary-like. Here goes.

The first thing to say is that the gang’s all here, in Davos. I mean, everyone. Everyone and his brother. It’s a Who’s Who. It’s a Cannonball Run, as a friend of mine used to say. (Cannonball Run was a movie with a slew of stars, or near-stars.) You have heads of state, foreign ministers, finance ministers, CEOs, intellectuals, artists, and many others who move and shake. No wonder the aggrieved and suspicious resent Davos so much! I don’t blame them. It’s almost enough to make you believe in conspiracy. The Trilateral Commission is a minnow compared with Davos.

There are almost 2,500 participants this year — those who make the world go round (or think they do). I think of that famous Bill Buckley crack: that he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty. Would he rather be governed by the panjandrums of Davos?

So, who’s here? I say again: Who’s not? The heads of state include Mahathir of Malaysia, Abdullah of Jordan, Fox of Mexico, Lula — I mean, Lula! — of Brazil, Uribe of Colombia, and Dualde of Argentina (boy, does he come in for it, for his economy). As for foreign ministers, you have Colin Powell and . . . but the others really don’t matter much at the moment, do they? The CEOs include Bill Gates (I can’t remember the name of his company) and Michael Dell and Carly Fiorina (what a pretty name) and the head of Sony and Howard Stringer, who’s not the head of Sony but “merely” boss of its U.S. division, and the Google guy and everyone else.

About Stringer, by the way: Who knew that he was British? I didn’t, certainly. Turns out to be Sir Howard Stringer.

And because Davos is nice ’n’ ecumenical, we also have John Sweeney, boss of the AFL-CIO, who looks exactly like a union chief should — I mean, straight from Central Casting. If Sweeney were a gardener, a teacher, or an organist, you’d say, “No, no! He was intended by Nature to be a union boss!”

Among the Davosers off the beaten path: Ravi Shankar, the sitar player and general “living” guru, and Julia Ormond, the actress, who seems to be the resident babe — not that there isn’t plenty of competition in Switzerland, believe me.

There is a big religious contingent, too: sheikhs, priests, rabbis. The Annual Meeting wouldn’t be the Annual Meeting without a grand mufti or two (especially now). One of the religious bears my favorite title of all time. I’m talking about His Beatitude Dr. Anastasios, Archbishop of Tirana and All Albania. His Beatitude! Do you love it? How’d you like to be known as His Beatitude Joe Smith or whatever?

In a political vein, I have to tell you that the place isn’t overflowing with Reagan-style conservatives. I run into Steve Forbes and say, “My gosh, a breath of free-market air!” He grins and expresses his solidarity.

The administration has sent a healthy contingent, however: In addition to Powell, you have Ashcroft, Evans, Whitman, Haas, and some others. You have some Republican congressmen, too, like Rob Portman of Ohio. You’ve also got Sen. Biden, Sen. Dodd, Sandy Levin, and a squad of other Dems. I can’t say that the Republicans give as good as they get — except for Powell, actually, who’s in an adamant mood, having been warned (by Haas, according to newspaper reports) that Davos is pretty bitter about U.S. foreign policy.

But more about that later.

A word about Davos itself — I mean, the village. Davos looks like a Walt Disney version of Switzerland. Alternatively, it looks like one of those shake-up things — a snow globe. We are in Heidi Land. In fact, that’s what I read in an advertisement: “Get your mineral water, straight from Heidi Land!” You remember Heidi, don’t you? She’s the one who interrupted that football game (known to posterity as “The Heidi Bowl” ).

We are also in Magic Mountain land. It so happens that I’ve attempted to read Thomas Mann’s novel several times, without getting much past the beginning. But, in the beginning (to coin a phrase), the protagonist travels up a mountain to a sanitarium, to recover his health. Well, I stay in this very sanitarium, which is now a hotel — the Berghotel Schatzalp. (No gibes about my needing an asylum, please.) You need a funicular to reach the place. The Schatzalp is, indeed, Mann’s Zauberberg, his Magic Mountain.

The hotel shows many signs of the old sanitarium: There’s a huge, long veranda, for the patients to sit out and breathe the Alpine air. The doors are extra wide, for the wheelchairs, beds, baths, and so on. This area is a skiing haven, of course — but I don’t ski. As I tell people, “It’s not that I’m afraid of skiing — I mean, crashing down the mountain. It’s the lift I’m terrified of.”

One final word on the beauty of Davos. There’s a hotel called the Bellevue, a hotel called the Belvedere, and a hotel called the Bellavista. The same thought, expressed three different ways. Do you get the idea that there are “beautiful views”?

The Annual Meeting has usually been held in Davos — in fact, “Annual Meeting” and “Davos” are synonymous. But last year, it was held in New York, in solidarity with America after 9/11. That sense of solidarity has — well, “worn off,” would be a polite way of putting it.

The motto of the World Economic Forum is “Committed to Improving the State of the World.” The theme for the 2003 Annual Meeting? Trust. That’s “Trust” with a capital T. By this, they mean trust in . . . ? In government, in companies, in leadership generally. The Forum has taken a survey and discovered that trust is on the wane throughout the world. It crosses my mind that a little distrust — a little skepticism — is not such a bad thing in a populace. And, lo and behold, in the opening plenary session, Rep. Portman expresses exactly this thought, which is nice of him — and heterodox, given the environment.

As usual, there is much fretting about globalization — about its impact on “real people.” In his welcoming remarks, the president of Switzerland says, “Prosperity leads to a lack of consideration,” and he also inveighs against “social and economic Darwinism.” (Those seem to be code words for true liberalism.) He also blasts U.S. “unilateralism” and says that Washington should not be allowed to twitch a muscle without the signed consent of the U.N. Security Council. This is all de rigueur, part of the very air of Davos.

This air is filled, not only with anti-Bush discontent, but also with the sounds of Nokia cell phones going off. Has this particular tune become the most annoying in the world? I’d say so. Sibelius used to be the national composer of Finland. Now, I’m afraid, it’s whoever wrote the deadly Nokia jingle.

All of us Davosers receive, on our arrival, an iPAC, a handheld computer, just for use during the Meeting. It is put out by Hewlett-Packard — Carly Fiorina’s company — and I read in one of the papers that the president of Palm (as in Pilots) has refused to use his, preferring to stick with one of his own company’s products! But hang on: Is this “Darwinism”?

The Forum’s planners have thoughtfully set up Executive Lounges for all “networking needs,” and they’ve also arranged concerts, sleigh rides, and other friendly activities. Audi will show you how to drive safely in the snow and ice. You can even drop in on an exhibition of Zimbabwean stone sculpture. (Zimbabwean stoning is more the order of the day, I’m afraid.) And if Zimbabwean stone sculpture isn’t your bag, you can take an excursion to St. Moritz, not far away.

But who needs St. Moritz when Davos is so enchanting and Switzerlandy?

If the first day of the Meeting has a star, it’s Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister of Malaysia. He is known as a shining moderate in the Muslim world — which is a bit alarming. If this be moderation . . .

In his remarks to the throng, Mahathir posits a strict moral equivalence between the United States and its enemies. America calls them the “Axis of Evil”; they call America “the Great Satan.” Both sides — both sides, Mahathir emphasizes — are “convinced they are right,” which is the source of all this turmoil. September 11 was merely a question of “the weak” lashing out at “the strong.” And it’s incumbent on Americans to discover why the terrorists acted as they did. “They didn’t do it just for fun,” says the PM; “you have to find out their reasons” — and then “negotiate” with them. “You can’t out-terrorize the terrorists.”

There’s a problem, however: and that is America’s “thirst for revenge,” not to mention its “unlimited greed.” According to the American mindset — as Mahathir Mohamad sees it — “It’s blasphemy to say anything against democracy. If you do, [the Americans] will either starve you or bomb you.” (This first is an allusion to sanctions, I believe.)

So, that’s Prime Minister Mahathir, the Great Moderate Hope of the Islamic world. The crowd seems to lap up his words like milk. There are copies of his book about. It’s called Globalisation and the New Realities. The statement printed on the cover reads, “The fact that globalisation has come does not mean we should just sit by and watch as the predators destroy us.”

And those destructive predators would be, I imagine, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. We simpleminded cowboys, however, have other destructive predators to contend with — like those aggrieved “weak” headed by the likes of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Sorry to leave you on a gloomy note but . . . Part II will appear tomorrow. And Davos-ing we will go.



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