Politics & Policy

Davos Journal, Part II

Welcome to this second installment of Davos scribbles — my journal from the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, here in this eye-melting Alpine village. For Part I, please go here. And where were we?

Well, let me tell you about a lunch for the media. The theme of this lunch is water, which, as I’ve mentioned, is a focus of the Annual Meeting, 2008 — water meaning the lack of this invaluable substance, in usable form, across the world. A suave, debonair WEF official assures us we are not to worry: The main focus of the Annual Meeting is still climate change; water has not usurped it; and, indeed, water problems and climate change are intimately related.

Well, it is certainly a relief to know that climate change has not been overthrown!

One of our speakers says that water is not “the sexiest of issues.” And she is right. But she is also right that it is critically important, for millions of people in the poorest parts of the world. A lack of usable water breeds disease and misery — a thick catalogue of woe. For example, it affects whether kids are able to go to school. And diarrhea, from contaminated water, is a constant scourge.

A tablemate of mine says, “Please, we’re at lunch.” He is right. But you can’t have water talk without diarrhea.

In due course, we hear from a vibrant woman who is principal of a school in Kenya. She talks about how a lack of good water harmed her school and its children; but, by taking some relatively simple measures, they were able to overcome it.

And, nasty and great as the problem of water is, it does seem eminently tackle-able — as world problems go.

‐Throughout the Congress Center — prime venue of the Annual Meeting — are fridges, placed there by the Coca-Cola Company. The fridges contain an assortment of drinks, available to the Davos-going masses. And on each of the fridges is a sticker, assuring us that the fridge is environmentally friendly. Just in case you were wondering, or worrying.

‐Earlier in the week, I mentioned the presence of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck — writer and director of The Lives of Others, that movie masterpiece. It is a masterpiece both artistically and morally, actually. Anyway, I have a long talk with him, on a range of subjects: from U.S. politics to modern opera productions. He is endlessly bright and curious — independent-minded, too. Not a runner with the herd (as his movie will undoubtedly tell you).

Speaking of that movie, I am able to ask him a few questions about it — just to clear things up a little bit. And how often does such an opportunity arise? In fact, doesn’t Woody Allen have a scene about this, in one of his own movies? A scene in which an ordinary moviegoer is able to question a director?

In any case, I will have more about Henckel von Donnersmarck — including in National Review — later. And, by the way, he is a huge hit, here in Davos. The lunch at which he is the featured speaker is sold out — booked out. Not even standing room is available. A lot of people, it is good to report, were touched and amazed by that movie.

‐Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, welcomes his guests, in the Plenary Hall of the Congress Center. He is, as usual, dignified, diplomatic, warm: perfect in his role. He advises the audience not to fall into “doom and gloom,” where economies are concerned. Irrational exuberance may have been wrong; but “irrational pessimism” is wrong, too. Besides, the Davos-goers are supposed to be entrepreneurs, many of them — and entrepreneurs are seizers-of-opportunities, problem-solvers, and workers-out. Get to it.

A vast, worldwide YouTube audience has been asked what it would like to see come out of Davos. And a video has been made showing various responses, from a wildly various group of people. Very, very charming. YouTube is a wonder of the modern age, isn’t it? “You oughta be in pictures,” went the old song. Now everybody is.

Soon, Pascal Couchepin, president of the Swiss Confederation, is giving a speech (in the Congress Center — not on YouTube). Speaking in French, he is thoughtful, unconventional, and intellectual. He does everything but smoke. Couchepin cites and praises Nietzsche — contending that this good philosopher has been kidnapped by bad people: Don’t blame Nietzsche for his more unsavory admirers. Okay, then.

Next to the rostrum is Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan — president of the liberated Afghanistan, since 2001. He has one of the toughest jobs in the world. And, from all I have been able to learn, he is up to it. As usual, he is sartorially smart, in his cape and hat. But does he refer to Klaus Schwab as “Dr. Charles Schwab”? Unless my ears deceive me, he does.

He talks about terror, a subject that can’t be effaced even by climate change, that be-all, end-all. September 11, he says, was an “unprecedented event,” bringing home a “gruesome new reality.” It was no surprise that the World Trade Center was a target of the terrorists. He tells us about a cousin of his, who spoke to a young member of the Taliban. The member in question was 15 or 16 years old. And he told Karzai’s cousin that he wished he had a passel of bombs, to hurl at New York. The year was 1999.

Karzai is at pains to say that terror is not a respecter of Islam: For example, terrorists blew up a mosque, near Peshawar, killing over 50 people. They were engaged in saying their Eid prayers. So how can one say that terror is Islamic? Karzai goes on to detail some of the unspeakable crimes of the terrorists: For example, they behead “elderly ladies,” whom they have absurdly charged with spying for the United States.

And I have a thought: Many, many times we have compared the Islamofascists to the Communists. And, when Communists committed their crimes — hell, when they still do, in places like China and Cuba — they say that the victims have spied for an enemy. It seems to be an incurable tic.

Karzai could not be more emphatic in the need to beat terrorism. He is at least as ringing and absolute as George Bush. He says that we are fighting a “political mutant,” a “Frankenstein” created through “the folly of shortsighted policy,” a “venomous snake” that some of us tried to befriend and nurture at the expense of others. He hopes that we have learned from our mistake.

What’s he talking about? He is referring to our — to the world’s — use of the jihadists against the Soviet Union. Also to practices in Pakistan. To take the first issue, one could easily defend American, and other, support of the mujahideen in the 1980s. But we will reenter that debate some other time.

Karzai stresses that the terrorists must be hit in their sanctuaries — in those “badlands” along the Afghan-Pakistani border — and hit hard, mercilessly, until they are “eliminated.” Then, he sits elegantly down.

At this point, we have a speech by Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Geneva. You know the drill. And then we get to the keynoter, Condi Rice.


‐As the SecState takes the stage, she is poised and perfect-seeming, as usual. If the word “poised” didn’t exist, we couldn’t write about Condi Rice. In his introduction, Klaus Schwab remarks that she is just the right woman for Davos: combining academia, public policy, politics, and culture. Rice, he notes, plays the piano. And he goes on to tell us that his “preferred piece of music” is Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466. (He doesn’t put it quite like that — he says, “No. 20.” Good enough.) He then makes an analogy: The United States is the pianist — the soloist — and the rest of the world is the orchestra. How can the piano and orchestra play together in harmony, to secure peace and prosperity in the world?

When she steps up to the mike, Rice says, “Klaus, I’m tempted to ask if you’re the conductor.” Very nice.

The overflowing audience — many are forced to stand, lining the walls — listens with quiet and respect. When Rice’s name was first mentioned, someone nearby me hissed. But, thereafter, no such demonstrations. And Rice gives an excellent speech. I agree with nearly every word of it, but that is not my point (quite). It is, plain and simple, an excellent speech: bracing, stirring, a tonic, something needed. Something that really hits the spot.

I will do some extensive quoting of the speech, and a little commenting. Rice says that, in thinking about her speech for this audience, “I decided to do something risky: I want to talk about the importance of ideals and I want to talk about the need for optimism [about] their power.

“Now, I know that whenever Americans start talking about idealism and optimism, international audiences groan.” I hear some appreciative chuckles. “Perhaps there is a little concern that you’re going to hear a long, moralizing lecture. Well, I promise not to do that.” And she doesn’t, unfortunately. (Just kidding.) (Mainly.)

“And another common concern when Americans talk of idealism and optimism is, ‘Well, there they go again,’ the innocents abroad. Indeed, there is a long international tradition of viewing America as kind of young and naïve. Well, in our defense, I would just say we’re not that young. And if you are tempted to think that we are naïve, then you should hope that Bismarck was right when he said, ‘God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.’”

Further along in her speech, Rice says something that absolutely arrests me: “This is the core of America’s approach to the world: We do not accept a firm distinction between our national interests and our universal ideals, and we seek to marry our power and our principles together to achieve great and enduring progress. This American approach to the world did not begin with President Bush. Indeed, it is as old as America itself. I have referred to this tradition as American Realism.”

Well, forgetting “American Realism”: I was arrested by the passage because this was essentially the theme of the first paper I ever wrote in graduate school — about George Washington and other Founders, who indeed did not accept a “firm distinction between our national interests and our universal ideals.” The truth is, they did not really accept a distinction between America’s interests and mankind’s. Talk about chutzpah.

Rice says, “Amidst the extraordinary opportunities of the global economy, which we will talk about here, the amount of deprivation in our world still remains unacceptable. Half of our fellow human beings live on less than $2 a day. That’s simply not acceptable in a civilized world. But as we approach the challenges of development, let us remember that we know what works: We know that when states embrace free markets and free trade, govern justly, and invest in their people, they can create prosperity and then translate it into social justice for all their citizens.”

Amen. Now, the phrase “social justice” makes my blood run cold — Thomas Sowell can give you chapter and verse on it — but what Rice says is still right-on. The cure for poverty is less of a mystery than many people suppose. It’s just that certain people aren’t willing to let societies have their freedom — the kind of freedom that kills poverty.

“Yes,” says Rice, “some states are growing economically through a kind of ‘authoritarian capitalism.’ But it is at least an open question whether it is sustainable for a government to respect people’s talents but not their rights. In the long run, democracy, development, and social justice must go hand in hand.” That’s what she has always said — she said that in my first interview with her, in 1999 — and that’s what many other people say as well. I hope they’re right. The PRC, and, to a lesser extent, states like Singapore, make you wonder.

Foreign aid, Rice says, “has to be accompanied by the global expansion of free and fair trade. It isn’t easy — I will tell you, it is not easy — for the American president to advocate free and fair trade at a time of growing economic populism. Yet President Bush remains committed to completing a successful Doha Round . . .” A good point, hardly ever made in Bush’s defense. Free-market conservatives, in particular, are too busy sniffing about the steel tariffs he had on, years ago, for about two seconds.

And addressing Davos’s Top Concern, Rice says, “If we are to continue expanding global economic growth, we also need to find a new approach to energy and the environment. If we proceed on our current course, we have an unacceptable choice: either sacrifice global economic growth for the health of our planet — or sacrifice the health of our planet for fossil fuel–led growth. We cannot do that. We have to reject this course — and work instead to cut the Gordian Knot of fossil fuels, carbon emissions, and economic activity.”

Pretty nicely said. And good luck.

Rice continues, “I want to assure you that we Americans realize how central a solution to climate change is to the future health and success of the international system. And we will be tireless in helping to lead the search for that solution . . .” I doubt the Davos audience is appeased, but perhaps a few are.

And has it not been a while since you heard democracy — and democratizing — defended? Iraq has made many people democracy-shy. We’re supposed to be embarrassed by democratic notions. But here’s Rice:

“As we work for a more just economic order, we must also work to promote a freer and more democratic world — a world that will one day include a democratic Cuba [!], a democratic Burma, and a fully democratic Middle East. Now, this emphasis on democracy in the Middle East is controversial, I admit, and some would say, ‘Well, we’ve actually made the situation worse.’ I would ask: Worse compared to what?”

And here, she really hits bull’s-eyes: “Worse than when the Syrian army occupied Lebanon for nearly 30 years? Worse than when the Palestinian people could not hold their leaders accountable, and watched as a chance for peace was squandered and evaporated into the second intifada? Worse than the tyranny of Saddam Hussein at the heart of the Middle East, who terrified his neighbors and whose legacy is the bodies of 300,000 innocent people that he left in unmarked mass graves?

“Or worse perhaps than the false stability which masked a freedom gap, spawned hopelessness, and fed hatreds so deep that 19 men found cause to fly airplanes into American cities on a fine September morning?

“No, ladies and gentlemen, the past order in the Middle East is nothing to extol . . .”

Nice, Condi. Very, very well done.

And how about this, specific point? “The problem is not that a group like Hamas won one free election; it is that the leaders of Hamas still refuse to make the fundamental choice that is required for any democracy to function: You can be a political party, or you can be a terrorist group — you cannot be both.” She continues: “We should be under no illusions that the challenges in the Middle East will get any better if we approach them in a less principled fashion. In fact, the only truly effective solutions to many of these challenges will emerge not in spite of democracy, but because of it.”

More from Rice on this touchy but key subject:

“Democracy is the most realistic way for diverse peoples to resolve their differences, and share power, and heal social divisions without violence or repression. Democracy is the most likely way to ensure that women have an equal place in society and an equal right to make the basic choices that define their lives. And democracy is the most realistic path to lasting peace among nations.

“In the short run, there will surely be struggles and setbacks. There will be stumble and even falls. But delaying the start of the democratic enterprise will only mask tensions and breed frustrations that will not be suppressed forever.”

This seems to me resoundingly true.

And now to “the matter of diplomacy: Do optimism and idealism play a role in this endeavor, which is by its very nature the art of the possible? Is it as Lord Palmerston said — that ‘nations have no permanent enemies and no permanent allies, only permanent interests’? Well, I can assure you that America has no permanent enemies, because we harbor no permanent hatreds. The United States is sometimes thought of as a nation that perhaps does not dwell enough on its own history. To that, I say: Good for us. Because too much focus on history can become a prison for nations.”

A wonderful point, and too seldom made.

“Diplomacy, if properly practiced, is not just talking for the sake of talking. It requires incentives and disincentives to make the choice clear to those with whom you are dealing that you will change your behavior if they are willing to change theirs. Diplomacy can make possible a world in which old enemies can become, if not friends, then no longer adversaries.

“Consider the case of Libya. Just a few years ago, the United States and Libya were locked in a state of hostility. But as Libya has chosen to reject terrorism, to renounce its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and to rejoin the international community, the United States has reached out, and today, though we still have our differences, we have nothing to fear from one another.”

A word about Russia? “. . . perhaps nowhere is it clearer that we have no permanent enemies than in our relationship with Russia. Ladies and gentlemen, the recent talk about a new Cold War is hyperbolic nonsense. Our relations today are fundamentally different than they were when all we shared was the desire to avoid mutual annihilation.” And I’m not sure that all of them desired to avoid mutual annihilation . . .

A word about Iran? “Let me assure you that the United States also has no desire to have a permanent enemy in Iran, even after 29 years of difficult history. Iranians are a proud people with a great culture, and we respect the contributions that they have made to world civilization. We have no conflict with Iran’s people, but we have real differences with Iran’s government — from its support for terrorism, to its destabilizing policies in Iraq, to its pursuit of technologies that could lead to a nuclear weapon.”

To continue: “All conflicts must end, and nations need not have permanent enemies. But Lord Palmerston was wrong on the other part of his quote — that nations have no permanent allies. The United States has permanent allies: They are the allies with whom we share values — allies like Japan, and South Korea, and Australia, the allies we have in our own hemisphere, and of course, the allies we have across this continent: within NATO and the European Union.”

I believe that you and I know this is bunk — the idea that we, or other nations, have permanent friends. This is the flip side to having no permanent enemies. One day, a nation is with you — nice ’n’ democratic. The next day, it goes monstrous. C’est la vie. But Rice’s speech is so good, let’s not get too picky. And let me kind of let the tape roll:

It is true, ladies and gentlemen, that optimism and confidence in our ideals are perhaps a part of the American character, and I admit that this can make us a somewhat impatient nation. Though we realize that our ideals and our interests may be in tension in the short term, and that they are surely tested by the complexities of the real world, we know that they tend to be in harmony when we take the long view.

Like any nation, we have made mistakes throughout our history, and we are going to make them again. But our confidence in our principles, and our impatience with the pace of change, is also a source of our greatest successes — and this will ensure that the United States remains a strong, confident, and capable global leader in the 21st century.

Yes, our ideals and our optimism make Americans impatient, but our history, our experience, should make us patient at the same time. We, of all people, realize how long and difficult the path of democracy really is. After all, when our Founding Fathers said “We the People,” they did not mean me. It took the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, to overcome the compromise in our constitution that made the founding of the United States of America possible, but that made my ancestors three-fifths of a man

So we Americans have no reason for false pride and every reason for humility. And we believe that human imperfection makes democracy more important, and all who are striving for it more deserving of patience and support. History provides so many affirming examples of this. After all, who would have thought that Japan would be a pillar of democratic stability in Asia? Once, that seemed impossible. Now, it seems inevitable. Who would have thought that Germany and France would never go to war again and would instead join in union? [I’d be careful about saying “never.”] Once, that too seemed impossible. Now, it too seems inevitable. And who would have thought that NATO and the European Union would erase old divisions of East and West, that they would unite democratic nations across Europe, and that the alliance would hold its 2006 summit in Latvia? Once, that seemed impossible. Now, it too seems inevitable.

And even today, from time to time, we catch the occasional glimpse of what a better world could look like. I have seen it while sitting in a provincial council in Kirkuk, and watching as Iraqis search in peace for ways to resolve their differences. I have seen it when I watched the Saudi foreign minister applaud the Israeli prime minister’s speech about a new opportunity for peace.

And I have seen what a better future could look like when, improbably, I have watched the American president stand with elected leaders under the flags of a democratic Iraq, a democratic Afghanistan, and the democratic future state of Palestine. [That’s a big phrase: “the democratic future state of Palestine.”]

That ultimately is the role of confidence in the eventual triumph of our ideals: to face the world every day as it is, but to know that it does not have to be that way — and to keep in sight the better, not perfect, but better world that it can be.

So, there it is. (For the State Department’s transcript of Rice’s speech, go here.)

Some time later, I’m sitting in a café, overhearing a conversation between an East Asian lady and an American man. I’m not eavesdropping; it just can’t be helped. The lady is saying how much she admired Rice’s speech. She also says that it was a brave one, given the dislike of America throughout the world. It was obvious, she says, that Rice had pride in being an American. And the man answers with his own reaction to the speech: “It made me proud to be an American.”

I have not heard that phrase in a long, long while — I mean, without irony. And the man uttered it without any irony at all. The secretary of state’s address had simply made him proud to be an American. Will wonders never cease?

And I’ll see you on Monday — with more Rice, and a lot of other Bigfoots (Bigfeet?) as well.


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