Politics & Policy


To Be in Davos, Part IV

Oay, Impromptus-ites, this is the home stretch. This is the fourth and final part of a kind of Davos Journal. Parts I-III can be found here, here, and here. Davos — one more time, for those of you just joining us — is the site of the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. For one week per year, this little Swiss resort becomes the global village.

e of us have the chance to meet with a high official of Communist China. I can’t help thinking of the Nancy Astor question. According to legend, when Lady Astor met Joseph Stalin in the Kremlin, she said, “How do you do? When are you going to stop killing people?” But this Chinese official is affable and sincere, and all the questions are courteous and even encouraging. It seems that no official from Taiwan has been invited to Davos — ever. Too bad. Hey, they’ve got officials from the Iranian regime here! And even from Saddam’s!

Later, to a fellow American journalist, I complain that “Taiwan, a plucky little democracy, is virtually barred from the Meeting, while we have these ChiComs.” He almost falls off his chair laughing — first, at “plucky little democracy” (which Taiwan is), and second — and even more so — at “ChiComs.” “ChiComs!” he exclaims. I might as well have referred to a vacuum cleaner as “the Hoover” and a refrigerator as “the ice box.”

One of the best things about the Taiwanese, of course: They totally give the lie to this “Asian values” nonsense — the idea that Asians are congenitally or culturally incapable of having democracy. “That is for to laugh,” to borrow an old and friendly phrase.

We also have the opportunity to meet with a bevy of Latin Americans, starting with Alvaro Uribe Velez, the new president of Colombia. There may not be another head of state — including George W. Bush — with so great a challenge on his hands. Colombia has long teetered on the brink of disaster, terrorized by guerrillas and drug lords. President Uribe seems filled with a sense of mission. His own father was murdered by terrorist thugs, 20 years ago. To say that he has a feel for the present world situation — particularly the American dilemma — is an understatement. The thought comes to me that we should all pray for the success, courage, and wisdom of Uribe. What a job — you probably wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.

We are also able to meet Mexico’s famous president, Vicente Fox. He reminds me a lot of Reagan — I mean, in his person. He’s tall, imposing, “ruggedly handsome.” You can see him on a horse. He’s got that eye-contact thing going: He makes sure to meet your gaze, just as W., in fact, does. They all do: the successful and natural ones. Fox is quick with a wink or a grin (or a grimace). Men and women alike are drawn to him. He has obviously used his magnetism to advantage throughout his business and political careers.

In his complaints about U.S. policy, however, he is far from Reaganesque. He is surprisingly conventional, which is odd for someone known as independent and imaginative. Some of us murmur that perhaps his leftie foreign minister, Jorge Castañeda, has gotten to him.

The real star of this show, rest assured, is Lula — or rather, Lula! Only one name is necessary for him, as with “Fidel!” (Example very much deliberate.)

Lula, I should elaborate, is Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the new chief of Brazil. He is accorded a hero’s welcome and rouses the Davosian masses with a zingingly socialist speech. The first part of the Meeting, as I explained earlier, may have belonged to Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia — but the latter part certainly belongs to Lula!, who has joined Mahathir and Clinton (Bill, not Hillary — she stayed home this year) as Most Popular.

Speaking of Clinton (or at least his cabinet): Harvard president Lawrence Summers is around, and I think, not for the first time: “This is as good as we’ll ever get in that job. We’d better enjoy it.” And I am, really. For his friendliness — even honor — toward the ROTC alone, he should be thanked.

One of the purposes of the Davos conference is to blow off a lot of steam — and this year, in particular, to blow off a lot of steam at the American administration. The gab sessions constitute a kind of release, a bit of therapy — because, at the end of the day, the anti-U.S. analyses and denunciations matter little. Power comes down to that little twanger in the Oval Office. And talk is essentially all that these others — including the American Democrats, by the way — have. So . . . let ’em.

It’s amazing how it is simply casually assumed that one will be pro-abortion: that one will think efforts to oppose legal abortion are absurd, frightening, and primitive. In conversation with me, a famous British intellectual makes a remark about the anti-abortionists that takes it for granted that I disdain them. Little does he know that I’m one of them. To learn that I am, in fact, among their number would probably surprise him as much as my hiding a tail down my pants.

That sounded dirty, didn’t it? Didn’t mean for it to.

As regular readers of my column know, I’m a strange kind of anti-anti-smoker. I’ve never smoked, and never would, and I dislike the habit: not only for myself, but also for my loved ones, and, by extension, for everybody. But the idea of crusading against smoking is distasteful to me. Of all the things to crusade against . . . and, ultimately, it’s a freedom issue. It’s also a courtesy issue.

Back at home — in New York — Mayor Bloomberg has just succeeded in passing a ban on smoking in all public facilities. I’m telling you: Restaurants aren’t allowed to have smoking sections.

Well, in Europe — including in little Davos — there is the opposite problem: There are no no-smoking sections. When I go for my ice cream, I resent not having a choice. I’m a little irked at being subjected to puffers all around. Which reminds me: Smokers — in New York — ought to have a choice too. Aren’t smoking sections and no-smoking sections nice ’n’ democratic?

But then, even better — from my Sowellian point of view — would be letting the individual restaurant or bar decide what the hell it wants to do its own bad self.

One of the economic panels provides something of a surprise. A high Japanese financial official is here, and he — like his economy — comes in for a bit of a beating. Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, makes one of the wittiest remarks of the week. He says, “I regard the Japanese economy as the wonder of the world. And I mean that in a negative sense.” Got to hand it to him — Krugman, that is.

The Japanese official says that his country is going to start “economic zones,” like China’s, boasting lower taxes, less regulation, more entrepreneurship, and so on. Japan in imitation of Red China! I guess the world has turned a little, sports fans.

Why don’t countries grasp that an entire nation ought to be an “economic zone”? But that is a long, fairly complicated story.

I feel like hugging the finance minister of France. That’s a very bizarre statement — especially coming from the mouth (or pen) of an NR-nik — so let me explain. Only yesterday, Donald Rumsfeld has shaken the Continent by referring to “Old Europe.” He means France and Germany, which have ganged up against the United States on Iraq. Rumsfeld — like me, if I may — is fed up: He keeps hearing how “Europe” is opposed to the United States, and by “Europe” all anyone means is Paris and Berlin (and Brussels, too, truthfully). These critics never mean Italy, Spain, or Portugal, and they certainly never mean the East, including Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, etc.

Anyway: Rumsfeld has got everyone abuzz with his remark. And the French finance minister — Francis Mer — brings it up unprompted. Twitters sweep the crowd. Surely the Frenchman is going to clobber that old, reckless, ignorant cowboy in the Pentagon! But Mer says: “You know? He’s right. We are old. Our populations are aging, and our economies are stagnant. We lack dynamism. What we need, now, is dynamism.”

I believe my mouth hung open. He shut the crowd up, good. Again: I could’ve hugged him.

That’s the finance minister of France, one Francis Mer, mon héros (for the moment).

I’m must tell you that it’s odd — and refreshing — to hear Phil Gramm’s ol’ Georgia voice cut through the air at one of our sessions. He’s reminding the Argentinean president that part of his country’s problem stems from the government’s “inability to control spending.” The president — Dualde — acknowledges that this is so, partially. Phil Gramm in Davos is a bit of an incongruity. This is a Clintony, Third Way-y, U.N.-y place. But what a glorious incongruity!

And before any of you itchy-fingers tell me that Gramm is “from” Texas, let me tell you that he grew up in Georgia and lived there until he was in graduate school, and that his speech is not Texan at all, but Georgian.

Thank you.

Speaking of language: I am continually amazed at the ability of people around the world to speak English. I don’t just mean schoolish, passable English. I mean good, idiomatic English. I hear it all over, from everyone. Not only is English the lingua franca — not only of Davos but of the world — but virtually all of the movers-and-shakers seem to have gone to school in the U.S. (mainly graduate school).

I enter a small session in which it transpires that I am the only non-native Spanish speaker present. “This is ridiculous,” I say. “Why should you all be forced to conduct an entire session in English when I’m the only one who’s not a Spanish speaker? Let me just leave, and you carry on.” “No, no,” everyone insists — including the president of Colombia. “You must stay. We will have our discussion in English.” I feel embarrassed about it, but they do . . . and it is excellent, perfectly natural, again, idiomatic English, with barely a stumble.

On another occasion, I am treated to the amazing spectacle of Mexico’s president, Fox, conducting a conversation with one of Mexico’s leading columnists . . . in English. What a sight, and what an illustration.

When we first gathered at Davos, the Swiss president referred to this as “the most important party in the world.” When it comes time to leave it, we’re all a little sad, truth to tell. I repeat: The motto of the World Economic Forum is, “Committed to Improving the State of the World.” So we all leave this magical place — Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountains — committed to improving the state of the world. Or at least committed to returning next year!

Thanks much — and back with more normal Impromptus later.


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