Politics & Policy

Davos Journal, Part VI

Davos, Switzerland

Well, we’re in the home stretch, ladies and gentlemen–let’s end today. Let’s have the sixth installment be our finale. And for the previous installments, click on the following links: I, II, III, IV, and V. And just to remind you (as though you needed reminding), we’re at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, high up in the snowy, snowy Alps, in Heidi country. (Actually, Heidi lived in a valley below, I believe–been a while.)

We are now in the cozy dining room of the Rinaldi Hotel, meeting the Thai prime minister. He is Abhisit Vejjajiva, and he has not been in office very long–Thai politics has been topsy-turvy of late. He is young, in his mid-40s, and he looks even younger. He talks and acts in a crisp, polished way. He could be the London School of Economics, or possibly the Kennedy School. I lean British, however–in part because of the way he says “territory.” It comes out “territry.”

I look him up later, for I haven’t had time before: He is actually Eton and Oxford. Yes, that’ll do it.

I remember what David Pryce-Jones once said to me: “I emerged from Eton and Oxford a perfectly nasty little leftist.” He soon got over it, however, if it was ever true. And Vejjajiva is clearly not a little leftist, nasty or otherwise. He talks about economic growth and the dangers of protectionism.

And this happens to be a rather touchy day back at home. His political opponents, the “red shirts,” are massing, and Vejjajiva says that, if they reach Government House, things could get very ugly. He is in close touch with his deputy, who is keeping an eye on things. At some point in our discussion, Vejjajiva’s cellphone goes off (pretty loudly). A song plays. The Brit sitting next to the PM says, “U2?” Vejjajiva answers, “Prince.”

And a senior American journalist quips, “This is probably not a good day to be receiving a cellphone call.” But there is apparently no problem.

I say to Vejjajiva, “You are here, rather than at home, even on this touchy day. Does that signal confidence in the stability of your government?” Vejjajiva answers that it is important to reach out to the world, to show the world that the government is stable and keen to engage.

We have talked about some domestic threats–internal challenges to Thai democracy. Are there any foreign threats? Vejjajiva says, “Only the contagious effects of other nations’ financial problems.” Much laughter. Someone quips, “So you’re saying that the major threat to you is the United States.” Vejjajiva wants to make it clear that it was not he who said that.

Later on, one of us asks whether his chief political opponent will one day get the better of him. He answers, rather quietly and slyly, “Never underestimate the power of a person with a lot of money.”

Abhisit Vejjajiva is sharp, very sharp, and an excellent talker. Thailand could have a worse representative on the international stage.

‐Pause for a joke? Why might the prime minister of Thailand fall in love with someone with his same first name? Because Abhisits attract.

‐Václav Klaus has come to town–and he meets us in this same Rinaldi for a half-hour or so. Klaus is the president of the Czech Republic, as you know. And his country happens to hold the presidency of the European Union at the moment. What is Klaus like, politically and philosophically? Well, just consider this: He won the major award of the Goldwater Institute, in Phoenix, Ariz., last year.

A Turkish journalist is present–I believe she’s from Turkey (I have arrived a little late)–and she asks, naturally, about Turkish accession to the EU. In the course of his answer, Klaus cites Milan Kundera. He once wrote something called “The Owners of the Key” (if I have heard correctly). And Klaus says, “No one should own the key”–have a monopoly on the key–“of the EU.” Klaus’s attitude seems to be, “Come one, come all.”

The same journalist has asked about “the future of Europe.” Klaus wants to know, “Do you mean the future of Europe or the future of the EU?” Because those are two markedly different things. The journalist narrows down to the EU. And Klaus says, “My answer is that I hope Europe will survive the EU.” And he believes it will: because the EU is “a man-made organization,” and Europe is something old and substantial (certainly more substantial).

He says that the Czech Republic is especially vulnerable to the new protectionism all around. Why? Because the CR is one of the most open of countries, and most open of economies. “We depend on the success of our exports.”

I ask him something about global warming: “Al Gore calls people who disagree with him ‘deniers.’ I heard him do this just yesterday, in the Congress Center. Some of us think that a parallel to Holocaust deniers is intended, or implied. What do you think?”

Klaus does not quite answer the question. Instead he says, “Al Gore knows that I’m the most important ‘denier’ in the world. But he met with me here for two hours, and we had a normal, friendly discussion. I am a ‘denier,’ even if I dislike that term. I don’t think there is any global warming. I don’t see the statistical data for that.” (Klaus, incidentally, is a professional economist and statistician.) “I don’t believe in the results of the IPCC” (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

When it comes to the climate, “there are competing theories. I’m very sorry that some people, like Al Gore, are not ready to listen to competing theories. I do listen to them.”

Klaus has published a book called Blue Planet in Green Shackles: What Is Endangered: Climate or Freedom? He tells us that the answer is freedom–freedom is endangered–adding, “I imagine National Review would understand what I mean.” I reply, “Actually, there are differing views about global warming at National Review.”

A different journalist says, “What freedom do you mean? What freedom is endangered?” Klaus points to her and says, “Yours, mine, [turning to the WEF representative] the moderator’s. The freedom of publications like National Review.”

Still another journalist, with high-pitched indignation, says, “Are you saying that Al Gore is threatening freedom?” Klaus answers, “More or less. Environmentalism and the global-warming alarmism are challenging our freedom; Al Gore is an important person in this movement.”

About the financial crisis, Klaus says, “I am more afraid of the ‘reforms’ that will result from the crisis than I am of the crisis itself. I’m afraid that the current crisis will be misused for radically constraining the functioning of the markets and market economies all around the world. I’m afraid of the potential consequences of overactivity by politicians,” as those politicians “try to win votes by pretending that they are coming to the rescue.”

Klaus later says that, as a rule, “it’s difficult to make a good regulation”–a regulation that is helpful rather than harmful.

And a couple of more points about the global-warming debate: There is a difference between believing something and knowing something, he says. Make sure that you make this distinction between “to believe” and “to know.” Knowing, of course, is better than believing. And, at the end of our session, someone asks whether he will attend the big climate-change confab in Copenhagen. He says no. He says he is getting more confrontation-averse, all the time, and doesn’t like to be in full protest or opposition mode. So he will probably send the prime minister instead!

‐Let me ask you something, Impromptusites (or Davos Journalites, as it has been for the past week): Is there a world leader you admire more than Václav Klaus?

‐In Salzburg, I am famous, or semi-famous, or semi-infamous, for saying something. (Well, many things, but let’s stick to one.) This was years ago, when I first went there, to work at festivals. We were talking about how pretty the women in Salzburg are. And I said, “Yes, even the policewomen. You know that, when you look at a policewoman–it’s a remarkable city.”

Something like the same goes for Davos.

‐Friends, there is an amazing confrontation between Shimon Peres and three others: the Turkish prime minister Erdogan; the Arab League chief Amr Moussa; and the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon. Peres, as you know, is the old Israeli Labourite and dove who has held virtually every position in his country. (Peres is a member of another party now–Kadima–but it’s natural to think of him as a Labourite, which for decades he was.) This confrontation made world headlines, which you may have seen. It also sparked demonstrations in at least two places: Turkey and the Gaza Strip (as we used to know it).

I was present for this amazing confrontation. But I will not get into it much here, for this reason: I have a piece on the matter in the forthcoming National Review. The issue appears on Friday, in digital form, and will be available in paper soon thereafter.

But let me say something brief here in the journal. The subject of the panel, or Congress Center session, was Gaza. And–to put it in a small nutshell–Erdogan dumped on Israel very badly. Moussa dumped on Israel very, very badly. Even Ban dumped, though in a milder way. Moussa gave something like a full-out rant, very unusual for Davos. His remarks were more suited to the fabled “Arab street” than to a tony international conference.

You remember what Queen Victoria said about Gladstone? “He addresses me as though I were a public gathering.” Moussa addressed us as though we were a mob in the PA–or London or San Francisco–rather than the World Economic Forum. To hear him tell it, Israel went into Gaza–back into Gaza, I should say–for the simple purpose of killing people. Especially women and children. In fact, Moussa said “women and children” over and over. And over and over.

You were led to believe that the IDF skipped over the men, in pursuit of women and children to gun down or burn up.

Frankly, Moussa sounded more like a spokesman for Hamas than the secretary general of the Arab League. And–equally frankly–Erdogan was not much better. (For the essence of what he said, see the longish item on Erdogan I had earlier in this journal.)

And through it all, Peres simply sat. I sat too. I looked at him and said, “Why Peres? Why not someone with a little more . . . fiber?” Peres is Davos’s kind of Israeli, usually: the ultimate dove, the ultimate conference-goer and peace-processer. Would he rise to the occasion, would he do the necessary? There was a lot on his shoulders: the burden of answering these rants; the burden of defending Israel, and speaking for the truth of recent events. Could Peres, 85 years old and steeped in accommodation, do it?

Oh, God, could he. He was magnificent. He rose up magnificently, majestically. For close to a half-hour, he spoke with extreme passion, pouring his heart out, answering every charge, correcting every lie, saying all that needed to be said. As I say in my NR piece, this was probably the most stunning and gratifying public performance I have ever witnessed.

I’ll tell you something I thought of. This is a little strange, so please bear with me. A. C. Bradley, the great Shakespeare scholar, said that Emilia–Desdemona’s aide in Othello–is the most gratifying character in all of literature. Why? Othello is thick with lies, and the protagonist acts on those lies. The audience simply can’t bear it, when finally Emilia blurts out the truth. At the end she says, “You f***ing fool: Iago has been lying, and Desdemona was pure, and you have murdered an innocent woman.”

We love Emilia because it is she who at last delivers the truth. She comes as a huge relief, and we are intensely grateful.

So it was with Shimon Peres, in a way. The air had been thick with misrepresentation, and he cleared it, magnificently (as I have said before). I have never been a Peres man–regular readers know that pretty well. When it comes to Israel, as elsewhere, I am more a security hawk than a dove. And I have knocked Peres for years, particularly as he has attended Davos, giving the elites the kind of Israeli face they especially like.

But no one could have done better than Peres. It was a shining hour. He rose up a champion–a great Israeli patriot and more. Whatever he has done before, and whatever he’ll do later: I will cherish him forever for this.

‐At this year’s Annual Meeting are two famous Indians: One, I have mentioned before–Mallika Sarabhai, the exponent of Indian dance. The other is Amitabh Bachchan, a very, very famous actor–within India. Have you seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire? Toward the beginning, there is a famous actor, and he arrives in the slum, and a boy goes through quite a lot in order to see him, screaming his name with glee.

Well, that is Amitabh Bachchan–that is to say, the character in the movie is Bachchan.

On my way from Zurich to London, I see him in the airport. In fact, he is on my flight. I approach him and say, “Sorry to bother you, but I wonder if I could trouble you for a photo.” He says, “How do you know me?” I say, “Who doesn’t?” Amitabh grins. But what he has asked me is very, very telling. He must not be used to being recognized by non-Indians. He has a strange existence of 100 percent name and face recognition in India–a nation of more than a billion–and virtual anonymity everywhere else.

Amitabh carries himself like a star, but a modest and genial one. (This is only in my brief observation of him, I admit.) Allow me to say, in what is now a cliché: Hooray for Bollywood.

‐Last–very last–I want to tell you about a youngish Italian man I meet on the way to London. He now lives in that city. But his dream was to live in New York, and be an American. When he was growing up–near Venice–his parents put on his bedroom wall a poster of Manhattan, complete with Twin Towers. But, after 9/11 (when he was about 22, I would say), he did not want to go to New York anymore. He thought that that dream was finished. So he settled for London (which is how he views it).

You rarely meet someone more enthusiastic about America–at least in these parts–which is why I thought I’d tell you about him.

Thank you so much for joining me for this Davos Journal, ladies and gentlemen. And I’ll see you for a “regular” Impromptus–back to Obama and all that–soon.

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