Politics & Policy

In Davos, Part Ii

Welcome to the second installment of these notes from Davos–from the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. The first installment appeared yesterday, and you’ll find those notes here.

#ad#Every year, the Annual Meeting has a theme or two, and this year the main theme is “The Creative Imperative.” I believe that Klaus Schwab is relating these words to the elements of a free economy, and a free society. (Dr. Schwab is the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum.) I’m talking about deregulation, sensible taxation, growth, trade, innovation, flexibility–this is an anti-rigidity theme. It has to do with giving people space to create, to make things happen.

Dr. Schwab hasn’t said all this explicitly–that I have heard–but you can sense it. And the poster girl for this anti-rigidity, anti-ossification theme, so far, has been Angela Merkel, the new chancellor of Germany. She gave an absolutely sensational speech yesterday afternoon–but more on that later.

The meeting has sub-themes, too–and two of them are the emergence of China and the emergence of India. The place is crawling with Indians, and there is a healthy Chinese presence (only a PRC presence–would that Taiwanese were here, in part to be living, walking examples). After 9/11, Davos became pronouncedly Arab. You go through the directory, and a great many names begin with “al-.” Dr. Schwab pretty much goes where the action is, or has the action come to him. Hence these themes.

‐There are hundreds of panel sessions, and other sessions, and I’ll give you a little taste of them. A quirky one is on “video gaming”–does it “drive social evolution”? Hmm. And then there’s “Can Aging Economies Grow?” Hmm again. We have “Quelling Nationalistic Flames” (good luck), and “Towards a Nanny State” (boo, hiss). “Does an Economy Need Morals?” That’s a question another panel asks.

And “Should We Despair of Disparities?” I believe this panel’ll answer yes. Barney Frank is on it, incidentally. For all I know, he’ll be the most conservative person in the room. It’s happened before.

One panel is provocatively titled “Could a Nuclear Bomb Go Off in Your City?” On it sit both Mohamed ElBaradei and Peter Sellars (the opera director). That should be a different sort of discussion.

A psychologist gives us “All You Ever Wanted to Know About Relationships but Were Afraid to Ask.” I have a feeling there’s not much fear of asking–not in my country, certainly.

A panel titled “Islam’s Challenge to Eradicate Extremism” includes H.R.H. Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia. Well, I guess someone has to stick up for non-eradication. (I may be misjudging the prince . . . but I doubt it.)

An attractive panel on “Global Risks 2006: What Keeps You Up at Night?” features Michael Chertoff (Homeland Security) and Robert Mueller (FBI), along with ElBaradei. The American presence is more robust than last year. (I should have said, the administration presence is–and that translates into a more conservative coloration.)

“A New Mindset for the U.N.” is introduced by Kofi Annan. If you think that’s, let us say, paradoxical . . . you’re not alone.

I could go on and on in this vein, friends, and I’ve only given samples through Thursday–the Annual Meeting is four full days, ending Saturday. But you get the idea.

In many ways, the Davos menu is like a college curriculum–there may be two classes you want to take that meet at the same time, and that’s a bummer. There may be three classes. I’ll give you a Davosian example–has to do with today, Thursday. At 4:15, you have an hour with Jane Goodall, providing “A Doer’s Guide to Conservation.” Also at 4:15 you have that Islamic-extremism panel I mentioned. (Joe Biden will join Turki, and others.) And at 4:15 you have that “What Keeps You Up at Night?” deal. I wish I could go to all three of them.

I’ll go to the one that seems most journalistically useful. I’m not yet sure which one that is.

Ah, wanted to mention the theme of one dinner, a theme that I thought interesting: “Why I Bring My Office to the Beach.” It’s about workaholism. It’s chaired by the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. I thought that was appropriate: wired.

‐I attend a lunch, whose theme is sports: This is an Olympic year, and Dr. Schwab and other WEF-ers are fairly sports-minded. When I get to the designated hotel, there’s a big hold-up–lots of people waiting to go through security and get in. Why are we not being checked through? Oh, yes, now it comes clear: Because Kofi Annan and his entourage are arriving. It’s a quite large entourage, too. Annan sweeps in like an emperor, preceded and trailed by many.

In all my years at Davos, I’ve never seen this: a big group held up by the arrival or departure of a VIP (I mean, a VVIP–a very, very important person). And lots of heads of state have been around.

This brings up an old theme of mine: Does the secretary general of the U.N. have all too much power, or all too high a profile? I mean, is he not the bureaucratic servant of an international organization–albeit a very large and important international organization? Were secretaries general this big in the past?

Annan has been dubbed “President of the World.” It can seem that way, at Davos.

I remember when the bombs went off in London last July. All those Western leaders were up at Gleneagles, in Scotland. Tony Blair made a statement–these heads of state stood behind him (Bush, Chirac, and so on). And there was Kofi Annan.

Why?

Anyway . . .

We all have to stand outside–including David Stern, emperor, or secretary general, of the NBA–so that’s okay.

But I will confess something: Being delayed by Kofi Annan makes me slightly annoyed. Would I be as annoyed if the secretary general of the U.N. were a favorite of mine? I like to think so–but I don’t know.

I miss the bulk of Annan’s speech to the lunch group–because I, along with dozens of others, have been held up by the SecGen’s arrival. But I hear some of the speech, as Annan reads in a soft, kind of lulling voice. He says something about how the General Assembly provides a model of a new way of peacemaking. Yeah, whatever.

Next to speak–by this time I’m sitting down, you’ll be relieved to know–is Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee. (A dream job of mine, by the way.) He issues the usual platitudes about sports–but they’re all true. He sounds every single note, including how athletic competition empowers women. He observes that, at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the ratio will be about even–male athletes to female athletes. It still strikes me as creepy that the Olympic Games will be held in a dictatorship’s capital–just like in 1980 and in 1936.

As Rogge is speaking, someone passes around the Olympic torch–I mean, really passes it around. It’s a very cool object, and I hold it for a bit. (It’s not lit, in case you were wondering.) The torch is surprisingly heavy–must be kind of a mother to run around with over an extended period of time. It’s blue, and stylistically attractive. Rogge mentions that it has been designed by an Italian, name of Farina, I believe.

And that, friends, is as close as I’ll ever come to really, truly carrying the Olympic torch. Unless they make a new event out of Impromptus-izing or something.

Also speaking at this affair is Joseph Blatter, president of the International Federation of Football, whose (French) acronym is FIFA. He talks about the popularity and importance of soccer–of “football”–all over the world. They play it everywhere! he says. “They play football in Iraq,” they play it in this country, they play it in that country. He names a good number of the hot spots. I wish he had said, “They play it in Afghanistan”–because, of course, after the imperial invasion, Afghans could. But not before. Not under the Taliban.

Still another speaker is Adolf Ogi, former head of the Swiss Skiing Federation, now an adviser to Annan on matters sportive. Did I tell you the story of my moderating a sports panel? I’m sure I did. The year was 2003. On the panel were Phil Knight (of Nike) and David Stern and some Olympians and that lovely, brilliant woman who would run the Athens Games (can’t remember her name right this second). Prince Albert of Monaco–the bobsledder–was supposed to be there, but didn’t show.

I had merely glanced at Ogi’s bio, and said to him, “So, you’re a skier, I understand.” “Yes, I am,” he said–and someone else pointed out that he had actually been president of Switzerland.

That reminded me of one of my favorite stories, all-time: Mayor Marion Barry meets Greg Norman–the Great White Shark–at some party in D.C. Barry says to Norman, “So, what do you do?” Norman answers, “I play golf.” Barry says, “That’s great–I play tennis.”

I have always loved, loved that story. So innocent, pure, fun–democratic. It’s not required to know who Greg Norman is, or who anyone else is.

You may recall, dear readers, that Sharon Stone was the guest star at one of these lunches last year. Is she here this year? I don’t think so. But Angelina Jolie is, again. Several of my friends have asked me whether I’ve seen her. The answer is . . . no, sorry.

But when I think of her name, I think of that great Louis Prima song. (I’m not sure that Louis wrote it–but he certainly popularized it.) “I eat antipasto twice, just because she is so nice, Angelina. Angelina–the waitress at the pizzeria.” (Incidentally, Prima pronounced the first syllable of “pizzeria” “pitz”–”pitzeria.” Kind of interesting.)

Also, I had a much-loved family member, Angelina. So I tend to think of those two things when I hear “Angelina”–and Ms. Jolie last, if at all.

‐I am out of time, guys, so I will save the amazing Angela (not Angelina) Merkel till tomorrow. But before I leave, I need to issue a few corrections from yesterday. I’m a bit behind the times, and I should have known that Silvan Shalom is no longer Israel’s foreign minister–it is Tzipi Livni. The Israeli government is necessarily in flux.

Also, as it happens, Michael Leavitt–the U.S. health and human services secretary–is not coming here. But Carlos Gutierrez, the commerce secretary, is.

In listing some names yesterday, I referred to Rick Warren–author of The Purpose-Driven Life–as a “quasi-religious figure.” A great many readers wrote to inform me that he is, in fact, a religious leader: the pastor of a major church and so on. Forgive me–I had confused him with someone else. I thought he was more self-helpy than religious. I should have checked before scribbling, but I’m sort of going on the fly, here in Davos. (No excuse, huh, Nordlinger? What kind of journalism is that?) (Scribbly web journalism, that’s what kind.)

Last, some readers objected to my calling Bartholomew–just one name, please: Bartholomew–”Ecumenical Patriarch of Turkey.” They had other titles for him (and those titles slightly disagreed). All I was doing, folks, was copying the title as given in the Davos directory.

And I’m out of here, for now. Oh, let me tell you one more thing–just a soft item: You haven’t lived until you’ve seen tiny Swiss kids pulled around by their parents on a little sleigh. Enough to melt the frozen Alps around here.

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