Politics & Policy

Davos Journal, Part III

So, this is the third installment — and the first two are here and here. What were we talking about, before the weekend intruded? Oh, yeah: Condoleezza Rice’s superb address before a plenary session of the World Economic Forum, here in this gloriously picturesque place.

After Condi is done with her speech, a panel appears on the stage, including Tony Blair and Henry Kissinger. Blair kisses Condi twice; Kissinger performs less Continentally — dubbing her once. When Blair has the mike, he says, “I should like to congratulate you, Condi, on what I thought was a fantastic speech. I thought it was a great speech. I really did.” And Kissinger’s remarks are quite interesting. I can give them to you in toto, thanks to a transcript available from the State Department.

Kissinger says, “First of all, let me congratulate Condi on her — on a powerful and noble speech.” This is a very apt word to use about that speech: “noble.” “And let me make a philosophical observation, because I’m usually classed among the so-called realists against the so-called idealists, and make the point that this distinction is really not a meaningful distinction.” Oh, this oughta be good.

“The task of any leader is to take a society from where it is to where it hasn’t been. That takes idealism. If you confine yourself to the familiar, there is stagnation. [But] where is the limit to which you can take the society in any period of time? Prophets have absolute values that they want implemented immediately. Statesmen have to adjust it to the toleration of the system. And this, I think, will be the big debate in America next year and in the new administration, and this will determine the degree to which we form a domestic consensus and are able to create an international consensus.”

More K: “In particular, I would like to endorse what has been said about Iran. The issue of Iran is not a quarrel between America and Iran. It is the challenge that proliferation almost inevitably will produce a nuclear catastrophe. And in that sense, we are acting in surrogate for universal values. And the challenge, as I understood you to pose it, to Iran [is]: Will it act as a cause or as a state?”

What a wonderful formulation: Will Iran act as a cause or a state?

“And if it acts as a state, if I understood you correctly, you were saying America will accept yes as an answer.”

In due course, Rice says, “Let me just say a word to my friend and, really, my mentor, and somebody with whom I consult a lot, Henry Kissinger. Henry was the embodiment of someone who believed not just the art of the possible in diplomacy but in expanding what the art of the possible could be. And that’s really, I think, what you’re saying, Henry. If you just as a diplomat think, ‘All right, we have to deal within this little narrow square and we’re going to just talk until we find a conclusion,’ you’re really not going to solve problems. You may manage them, but you’re not going to solve them.

“If I take the example of your opening to China, this was, in fact, a revolution that we today are still benefiting from. And the good thing is that American governments, American administrations time after time after time, continued to expand on that opening and to realize that a productive relationship with China was in America’s interest and the interest of the world. . . .

“Finally, on Iran — yes. I’m sometimes . . . I simply wonder, not why won’t we talk to Tehran, but why won’t Tehran talk to us. I’ve said that with the suspension of enrichment and reprocessing, which would be important so that Iran doesn’t continue to perfect this technology that can lead to nuclear-weapons material and ultimately to a nuclear weapon, I’ve said if that suspension takes place I will meet my counterpart anytime, anyplace, anywhere to talk about anything. I don’t know how to make a stronger invitation than that.”

Incidentally, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mottaki is here in Davos. I will be in a group that meets with him later (creepily).

Anyway, before leaving the stage, Rice makes a final statement — pronouncing a kind of benediction. She says that she tries to remember one thing “every day”: “Today’s headlines are rarely the same as history’s judgments.”

In the course of her speech and her later remarks, I notice a couple of things about Rice: Though she has been away for a long, long time, she still talks a bit like a southerner. For example, she’ll say “timporary,” rather than “temporary.” And if she were on a national ticket: You know, I think she’d do right well.

‐In that speech of hers, Rice talked a little about Libya: Once, it was a sworn enemy of the United States, and now we have relations. Yes, but, as a senior administration official reminded me in a recent conversation: We also have their nuclear materials, in Oak Ridge, Tenn. We got something; we gave something. What, again, are we getting from North Korea . . .?

‐I don’t say that the walk around Lake Davos is the most beautiful in the world. I have taken as beautiful. I do say, if you’re compiling a Top 100, you should consider it. On a morning walk, a young mother was pausing with her child, about two. They were sitting on a sled. The child, in the snow, was blowing bubbles — they had brought one of those little bottles. I was thinking: If there’s a Swiss Norman Rockwell, he’d like to paint this scene.

And a walk at gloaming is rather nice too. You hear a mountain stream trickle. And then you may hear a train whistle, before a red streak appears midst the pines and snow, with lights at the front. They say that mankind spoils all nature. Well, I think mankind has enhanced it, in this instance: with a train.

If you walk the other way from the center of Davos, you soon enter farm territory, with cows and their smells. You can’t have that tasty Swiss cheese without cows. And how about the chocolate? It’s nice to know that this country can still be idyllic, even into the 21st century. In my observation, there is a timelessness about Switzerland, but not stagnation.

‐There is a dinner whose theme is “The Wisdom of Storytelling: Using Fiction to Attain Truth.” There are six speakers, and I am moderator. And who are the half-dozen worthies? Elie Wiesel; Paulo Coelho (the bestselling Brazilian author — or should that be the Brazilian bestselling author?); Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, writer and director of The Lives of Others; Chris Abani, who was once a political prisoner in Nigeria, and now teaches in the U-Cal. system; Brian McLaren, a former pastor who now devotes himself to writing; and David Bodanis, a big-time brain who is a bit of a scientist, a bit of a philosopher — a bit of everything. He is one of the last of the red-hot all-purpose intellectuals.

Before the dinner begins, Coelho tells some of us a wonderful story about entering the U.K. He has put on his papers, “Writer.” And the immigration official — or whoever he is — says, “Well, you won’t be staying long, because you can’t make much money in this country as a writer.” I say that Coelho should have responded, “Hey, I’m not that kind of writer! I am one of the bestselling authors in the world! I could buy and sell your . . .” But Coelho has a better answer. He says, “I’m here to have dinner with your Queen.” The official blanches — lets Coelho through in a hurry.

Wouldn’t you like that as your reason for entering Britain someday? “I am having dinner with your Queen”!

All the speakers are excellent, in their different ways. Each is thoughtful, sensitive, engaging. Personally, I believe that storytelling is a two-edged sword: It can serve the truth, yes; but it can undermine the truth as well. (What did Oliver Stone do with the Kennedy assassination?) You can get at it through storytelling, histories, whatever: but, however you reach it, truth is best.

And I’d like to say something about Elie Wiesel: In the past, I have been critical of him, particularly concerning his views about third-world poverty. He suggests that we should all feel a sense of shame about it. I say, let those who cause it, or perpetuate it, feel the shame — liberal democracy, with an open economy, is the cure for widespread poverty. But leave that aside: On this occasion, Wiesel is memorably wise and deeply moving. He is, indeed, the sage of his reputation.

‐Here’s a sight: Cherie Blair, wife of the former prime minister, walking delicately through snow and ice, in high heels. Many photos don’t do her justice, by the way: She is a pretty woman.

‐The Forbeses host their usual after-hours party: Steve, Bob, and some others. I greet Steve with, “How’s it going?” He says, “Well, the market’s up 600 points — that’s good.” And good it is: We have not had much to cheer about, market-wise. Steve always strikes me as a happy warrior, a good kind of warrior to be. I can’t remember disagreeing with a word out of his mouth. Under what administration will he be treasury secretary, or what president will appoint him Fed chairman? One could do worse — a lot worse.

Brother Bob is equally likable. Earlier in the day, I’ve talked with him about someone we both admired, a lot: Caspar Weinberger. After he left government, he became publisher of Forbes. As Bob recalls, there had been some journalism in his background: He was editor of the Harvard Crimson (!). And he hosted a TV talk show in California — a public-affairs show. Cap had never been a magazine publisher, but there was no task or subject he couldn’t master. And he loved all the issues: foreign and domestic; arms control and health care. Bob says that he remained keen — even magisterial — right up to the end.

And speaking of endings — you think we should knock off now? I’ll see you tomorrow, with Musharraf, Karzai, and other players in the Alps.

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