Politics & Policy


To Be in Davos, Part II

Yesterday, I gave you Part I of a kind of Davos Journal. (Davos — just to refresh — is the Swiss village in which the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum is held.) You can reach Part I here, and it may be advisable to read it, before going on. But now: I’ll go on!

I was saying? Well, how about this? Throughout the week of Davos, there are endless seminars, “working dinners,” coffees, nightcaps, and other sessions. Their variety is infinite, too. We have standard topics, like “Helping Japan Avoid Another Lost Decade” and “Globalization at a Crossroads.” But we also have some offbeat ones, like “Love: A Matter of Trust” and “Why Do We Age and Why Do We Hate It?” (The sitarist and “living” guru Ravi Shankar holds forth in both of these.) You can also drop in on “Shakespeare and Leadership,” hosted by Richard Olivier, son of you-know-who.

For journalists, Davos — with all its heads of state, foreign ministers, CEOs, and so on — is access heaven. It’s “shootin’ fish in a barrel,” as a colleague of mine says. The Annual Meeting gives you one-stop shopping. Just turn around, and there’s someone to interview, or at least chat up. Davos is sort of like the pages of the New York Times come to life. Who’s that guy? you ask. Then you look at his badge: Oh, yeah — Gorbachev’s spokesman.

Want to hear a little more about Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia — or from him? In his talk before a large crowd, he places heavy emphasis on the disparity between rich nations and poor. I don’t blame him. The maddening thing is, such people rarely bother to explore the reasons for this disparity. They give the impression that they regard it as merely a matter of luck — as though prosperity fell from the sky on some countries while misery fell from the sky on others. Instead of complaining about American and Western prosperity, why not take the necessary steps to equal it? Why not install the rule of law, a free market, and so on? To be a “law-and-liberty country,” as Orwell put it, you have to have law and liberty.

But that, many rulers aren’t willing to countenance.

For further on this subject, see Victor Davis Hanson, Adam Smith, and other worthies.

As I explained yesterday, Mahathir believes that the current war — between America and terror — is a matter of mutual misunderstanding or stubbornness. He believes that the “weak” are merely lashing out at the “strong,” in the only way they know how. I perceive that some of this thinking has leaked into the Forum’s machinery itself. Here’s how a session on foreign aid is introduced: “Terrorism in a globalized world cannot be counteracted by military power and government control only. Foreign aid is a key tool in preventing disparities and reducing inequality” — and there you have it. Inequality as a spur to terrorism.

Funny, but most of the world is unequal to the West, and most of the world does not engage in mass murder. I could go on, but you have Bernard Lewis to read, so there’s no need of me.

Rob Portman, the Republican from Ohio, says that the United States has done a poor job communicating to the rest of the world. Ah, the old fallback position: that one’s unpopularity or failure is merely a question of communication. Would that it were so. Maybe — just maybe — much of the world public isn’t buying. And maybe the onus, to side with civilization, should be on societies other than free and democratic ones.

As you well know, it’s hard to get some Americans to understand, too. Talk about communication! I encounter a couple from the American South. Husband says, “Well, are we going to war against Iraq?” I say, “Well, I think we’re going to war against Saddam Hussein, that’s for sure.” Wife says, “Well, that will just make those people angrier, and we’ll pay a terrible price.” I say, “Maybe — but remember the scenes you saw in Afghanistan: the jubilation in the streets; women putting their faces to the sun for the first time in years; the literal embrace of American soldiers.” Wife: “Yeah, but Afghanistan was an entirely different situation. There, the people were oppressed by the government. In Iraq, they’re oppressed by our sanctions.”

I see. And how can such a conversation continue? But we part cordially.

As people constantly say — and as they certainly say in Davos — there’s a difference between anti-Americanism and anti-Bushism. But I detect not only anti-Bushism but also rank, unthinking, alive anti-Americanism. How can I tell? What are my criteria? By what method do I judge? Here, I have to plead the Potter Stewart line: I know it when I see it. I can smell it. And so, really, can any alert and experienced person.

For several days, I hear a lot about capital punishment in America — especially in Texas, the Dark State — and brutal treatment at Guantanamo Bay and the obnoxious American swagger. Muslims complain that Americans completely misunderstand and defame their religion. One woman mentions Pat Robertson to me maybe five times. (He seems to be a very famous American, in certain quarters.) I say — trying to be all diplomatic and conciliatory — “Well, I’m sure there’s misunderstanding on all sides.” The lady looks at me incredulous: “No. There’s no Muslim who misunderstands or slanders Christianity or Judaism. We bother to find out about others and appreciate them.”

To this, how can one respond? One way of doing so: “MEMRI.org, baby.” But I say nothing; just sort of cringe.

If Davos has a favorite American, I imagine it’s Jimmy Carter, the new Nobel laureate. He is regarded as a virtual saint. In fact, the Sage of Plains is proffered as proof positive that one isn’t anti-American: “I’m all for Jimmy Carter, see?” One famous European scholar speaks movingly about a private meeting with Carter. The ex-president has told him that, in his time in the White House, he never lied, even when it would have been convenient to do so. But this scholar hastens to say that Carter was making a contrast with Nixon — not with Clinton. Oh, no! Let there be no misunderstanding!

For Clinton seems to be Davos’s next-favorite American. He is here, of course, a superstar, the Living Embodiment of the Third Way, treated almost reverently, referred to as “the President.” Davos is his sort of environment — it’s Renaissance Weekend times about a hundred. Clinton has his daughter in tow, and also Hernando de Soto, the genius Peruvian economist, and Ira Magaziner, co-architect with the former First Lady of ClintonCare.

I believe I detect something about Clinton: that he is pulling a Carter. They have a lot in common, the Sage of Plains and the Man from Hope. I discern that Clinton is transcending mere Americanness to become a kind of Global Man. We sometimes praise an American as “above party.” Well, Clinton is rapidly becoming above country. Absent from his unrelenting flows of words is any mention of U.S. interests. He is all Global Interdependency. But then, this is Davos, and when in Davos . . .

Friends, I ask you to fret not: America will never be the most despised country in the world as long as Israel exists. It seems that most Davosers casually assume that Sharon is a monster and that the Palestinians are the most abused people on earth. They are certainly among the most abused — not least by their own leadership. I have the impression that Arafat would be well received in Davos. Shimon Peres is here, of course — I say “of course,” because this is his kind of crowd, and his kind of party. He swans around, radiating well-being and appreciation, accepting plaudits. It seems clear that he’s more popular in Davos than in his own country — which is only days away from reelecting Sharon by historic margins.

Back to America for a sec. Whenever I’m at an international conclave like Davos — not that there’s anything quite like Davos — I’m struck by the near uniqueness of American self-criticism. I am conscious of the absence of self-criticism from elsewhere, hearing the dog that doesn’t bark. I just about never hear a Saudi curse — or even question — his country or its role in the world. The same goes for Indonesians, Nigerians, and others. The Americans are critical of America; the non-Americans are critical of America. I think of one of Reagan’s favorite jokes: An American and a Russian are having an argument, back in Cold War days. The American says, “I live in a free country — I can march past the White House and yell, ‘Down with Reagan!’” The Russian says, “Big deal. I can march past the Kremlin and yell, ‘Down with Reagan!’”

Americans are the only ones not allowed to be patriotic or nationalistic — not to mention chauvinistic. Everyone else seems excused. But that’s okay. Shouldn’t a country — like an individual — have its own standards?

I can’t help noticing a tendency in my fellow journalists. I’m talking about those from the U.S. We have many opportunities to question foreign leaders, about anything (e.g., problems in their own countries and in their own foreign policies). But the questions from Americans tend to be invitations to bash the Bush administration. They have almost a goading quality. The gist of these questions is, “Hello, I’m Betty Brown from the Chicago Herald-Gazette. Isn’t it a shame that George W. Bush is such an idiot?” And the foreign minister — or whoever — says, “Why, yes, now that you mention it, it is a shame that George W. Bush is an idiot.”

And I’m a little startled by the deference paid by foreign journalists to leaders of their own countries. In a large forum — featuring Argentina’s president Dualde — a journalist from that country says, “I’d like to address my president.” My president. You can imagine Sam Donaldson saying that, can’t you? Well, maybe sarcastically!

And I, of course, heartily endorse the Donaldson way, don’t get me wrong. Just observin’.

One thing bothers me — really bothers me — about my days here. I don’t hear a peep of sympathy for the Iraqi people. I hear a lot of talk about how Americans are about to go in, blaring and blasting, and kill a lot of Iraqis. I don’t hear any acknowledgement of the brutal regime under which Iraqis have been suffering and dying, and the prospect of a better life post-Saddam. A little disturbing.

And the idea that the American war is one of self-defense? Hopeless to advance!

But don’t lose hope, folks. Back with Part III tomorrow.