Politics & Policy

Davos Journal, Part V

Welcome to Part V — and for previous parts, please go here, here, here, and here. One afternoon, I learn a new term — that is, the term’s new to me: BRICs. I hear it out of the mouth of Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs. Apparently, I’m the last person to know what the BRIC economies are: The acronym stands for Brazil, Russia, India, and China. It’s better to be a BRIC than a “developing” country. Of course, it’s best of all to be in the first tier.

Henry Kissinger says that, when he was in government, it was a two-power world. Today, there is far more complexity. And there is no precedent for what is happening: All the parts of the world are changing significantly, and at the same time. Moreover, all the changes are linked. This is an extraordinary — a staggering — moment.

It may surprise some conservatives to hear, but Shimon Peres, the old Israeli lefty, has interesting things to say — always. This afternoon, alongside Blankfein, HK, and others, he makes a commonplace point, but makes it well: War unites a nation; peace — and what to pay for it — divides a nation. When you’re negotiating peace with your enemy, you have to negotiate it with your own people simultaneously.

Peres maintains that conflicts today are not between nations or ethnicities but generations. This is far-fetched, but he’s worth hearing out. Peres says that older people — people like him — have too much baggage, too many memories. This can keep them from achieving anything. Younger people are less encumbered; they have much less baggage. And “thinking is better than remembering.”

That’s what Peres says: “Thinking is better than remembering.” It is a phrase I hope to take with me.

I’ll tell you something else about Peres: He has looked essentially the same for the last — what? Thirty years? I don’t know how he does it. He is the Dick Clark of world politics. In the past, I’ve said he looks like a Miami businessman — and so he does. He is immaculately groomed, tan — he has an air of well-being. He loves to talk, confer, swan — be at the center of things. I think he’s lovin’ life.

Bernard Kouchner is up onstage with Peres et al. He’s the new French foreign minister — “Minister of Foreign and European Affairs,” to be precise — and he was famous as the head of Doctors without Borders. Kouchner is something rare among the European élite: a man who despises oppression whether the oppressor is right-wing or left-wing. He knows that torture and murder are torture and murder, even when the dictator is claiming to represent progress.

Kouchner talks about the EU: living in a community of 27 nations, while trying to maintain the identity of your own nation. He remembers why the EU was “invented”: It was “invented against war, against nationalism, against Communism.” And he uses a phrase that brings a smile to my face: “your so-called sovereignty.” How hard it is to forfeit any of “your so-called sovereignty”!

Jeremy Rabkin, call your office.

George Yong-Boon Yeo is the foreign minister of Singapore. And he has very interesting things to say. He talks of an immense shift to Asia — a shift in economic activity. China and India are rising. And the U.S.-China relationship will be paramount, says Yeo. If it is handled properly, great; if it is mishandled, “all bets are off” — the consequences will be dire. Yeo says that these two nations can do each other great harm.

The sooner China and India can be brought into the G-8, the better, says Yeo. Many others here in Davos agree with him. He further says that the Bretton Woods institutions, built long ago, have outlived their usefulness. Funny, but George Shultz told me the same thing, at the Hoover Institution, a few weeks ago.

Henry Kissinger is asked whether economic interdependence prevents war. Waal, he replies, there was great economic interdependence before World War I. And . . .

He later says something that also reminds me of Shultz — these two former secretaries of state are singing from the same hymnal: If the world does not build international organizations for the management of nuclear weapons, we are headed for catastrophe. That’s Kissinger’s word, on this afternoon: “catastrophe.” (And I guess the Nobel Peace Prize-winning IAEA won’t do.)

A little more Yeo: He marvels at the new commonalities in the world — commonalities that spring from the “long years of American ascendancy.” For example, everyone has the English language (and you know the sense in which I mean “everyone”). Yeo has been coming to Davos for 15 years, and it’s getting more and more cosmopolitan, he says. The Chinese presence is increasing. And Yeo notes “common thinking, common norms, common jargon.”

Hold on to your hats, folks: This foreign minister speaks of “a certain generosity” on the part of the United States. America has encouraged a “rough equality.” That is, the U.S. has been pleased to see other nations prosper — and to help them do so. When a photo is taken in Asia, says Yeo, everyone knows where to stand — everyone knows his place. In America, not so. No one has a set place. There is no pecking order.

A dollop more Peres, playing on a theme: “People would rather remember than think” — and thinking is more important than remembering. Peres also says: The next wars will not be conventional; they will instead be wars of terror, and wars of WMD. Cheerio, then.

‐Incidentally, when I later tell David Pryce-Jones what Peres has said — about thinking being more important than remembering — P-J says, “The Israeli people don’t have the luxury of forgetting.” Powerfully true. Also, some remembering — an awareness of the past — is requisite to sound thinking.

Still, Peres has a point, about the past and paralysis. (That’s a lot of P’s, isn’t it?)

‐You may have noticed a dog not barking here in Davos — Bill Clinton. He is usually a star attraction. But he is back home, campaigning for the missus — and getting himself into some messes. One journo, at least, regrets the ex-president’s current act. That’s John Gapper, writing in the Financial Times (here). He begins,

“Up here in Davos, in the mountain air, the usual philanthropic suspects have gathered for the World Economic Forum. Bono, George Soros and Bill and Melinda Gates are all here. One old hand is out of town, however: Bill Clinton, the former US president and quintessential Davos man.” Is Clinton quintessential? I wonder what Klaus Schwab, founding father of this shindig, would say about that. As I noted earlier in this journal, Schwab has described Condi Rice as ideal for Davos — combining academic scholarship, public-affairs experience, and cultural gifts.

Anyway, Gapper continues,

“Davos is a place ideally made for Mr Clinton in his post-presidential incarnation. He embodies the aspects of the US that are still admired by the rest of the world after nearly eight years of George W. Bush. He is eloquent, thoughtful, sensitive to inequality and suffering outside US borders and determined to do something about it.”

I should have warned you to have your air-sickness bag handy. George W. Bush is not only sensitive to the suffering of others, he has proven amazingly willing to act. If you doubt it, ask the Taliban and the Baathists. Better yet, ask their victims.

More Gapper (not to be confused with “Gipper”): “Just lately, however, Mr Clinton has been back on the campaign trail in the US in support of his wife Hillary. He has adopted tactics that, if he does not curb himself soon, may tarnish his global brand irreparably. That would be a shame, not only for him but also for the causes that he has placed his weight behind.”

Yes, what a pity — and swallow some more:

“Consider whom Mr Clinton has been denigrating. Mr Obama is not Karl Rove, Mr Bush’s political guru, or another member of what Mrs Clinton once called the ‘vast rightwing conspiracy’. He is an African-American pioneer who is admired not only at home but also in the rest of the world for his calls to heal US divisions.”

Or, to put it another way, “Feel free to trash any conservative. We’ll only love you more for it. But hands off a progressive, especially one of color.”

Don’t you see?

‐François Fillon, the French prime minister, has come to speak his piece. He’s the French leader who is not dating the Italian model. Klaus Schwab introduces him in French. But, as he does so, he switches to English, to utter some phrases: “France is back”; “France is on the move.” And that nation is indeed waking up, economically.

Fillon declares that France has rejoined the world as an economic partner. It is no longer the sick man of Europe; it has overcome a crisis of confidence. And France has learned several lessons. For example, “the corporate world is not the enemy of the wage-earner.” Also, “globalization is not an option but a fact.” Fillon speaks not only of reform, but of a “new state of mind” — attitudes that complement reform.

Even as strikers crippled the movements of the French people, says Fillon, the people stood behind reform. The nation has made a choice “in favor of opening up.”

Addressing the Davos throng, Fillon is proclaiming dynamism, classical liberalism — Reaganism. He says that no one should pay more than 50 percent in income tax. He says that the French must understand that the success of some also helps bring about the success of others.

I know this is Econ 101, and Life 101 — but it’s radical stuff in France.

Also, “a job should pay better than the dole.” This is not a mere slogan, but, increasingly, a reality, says Fillon.

And he’s loath for France to become a museum — a place of postcards, quaint villages, memories of Louis XIV. France leads the world as a tourist attraction, and the French wouldn’t have it any other way. But “we refuse to become a museum — because we’re a real country.” The French aren’t afraid of globalization, the PM says; they just want to be better prepared for it, so as to thrive in the new world, rather than merely endure it.

When Fillon is through, Klaus Schwab makes an exuberant observation: The French revolutionary slogan was “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” The country’s new slogan should be, “Innovation, dynamism, openness.”

Not bad. And I’ll see you tomorrow, for Big No. 6.


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