By Stephen Stromberg
Sunday, January 24, 2010; 9:38 PM
Every year in Davos, Switzerland, political, business and academic leaders gather in the resort's giant conference center to participate in 100-person "discussions" on everything from emerging economies to robots. In between sessions at The World Economic Forum, they make deals over heaps of hors d'oeuvres and angle to be seen with, well, each other. Attending journalists, too, get to write features gawking at audacious displays of wealth -- tales such as one about a billionaire who demanded to be driven back to Zurich every night so he could sleep on his private jet have become Davos lore -- and some equally audacious displays of prognostication.
And though the basic laws of economics don't change, through it all, the participants boldly amplify the preoccupations of the moment -- the zeitgeist of the globalization set, distilled and served with canapés.
At the 1988 forum, the world's elite gathered just after a steep crash in the Dow, fretting about the massive financial imbalances America was running with the rest of the world. "International coordination," wrote columnist Jim Hoagland, was the conference's buzz-word. "Only a managed decline in [American] consumption and in the consumer spending binge that has fueled the trade and budget deficits could make significant dents in these imbalances." Not a lesson, one might note, the masters of the universe remembered for long.
Instead, the1990s brought heady talk of globalization; the proceedings became increasingly elaborate, sumptuous and star-studded as the conferees sunned themselves in the glory of accelerating global interconnection. In 1997, Indonesia hosted a lavish party, which featured "a chocolate statue of a goat and a man that took a month to carve," The Post's Anne Swardson reported. "More than a ton of food, a third of it tropical fruit, had been flown halfway around the world for the event. Seven chefs, also flown in for the occasion, had worked for 48 straight hours to prepare it."
Despite Indonesia's spread, America's dramas of the moment, such as the Lewinski scandal, seemed to dominate Davos in the age of U.S. hegemony. "One of the risks of foreign travel for an American nowadays is having to endure lectures from Europeans and others about how, Monsieur, we Yanks are all hung up over sex," Richard Cohen wrote in 1998. "At a single luncheon discussion here at the World Economic Forum, I and other Americans were berated by a Frenchman, an Israeli and, would you believe, a Brit."
"Now there's a virtual Pax Americana, enforced with military might or induced with dollars," Cohen wrote from the 2000 Davos confab. "No one talks anymore of American debt or points to Japan as the way to go. The so-called Asian Way has come and gone. The 'way' -- the only way anyone wants to go -- is the American Way."
Soon, however, both the "Pax" and the "Americana" faded.
Amid populist backlash to globalization, in 2001 the conference center was "surrounded by armed guards and barded wire," noted The Post's William Drozdiak. In 2003, as President Bush attempted to sell invading Iraq to a skeptical Europe, Cohen wrote that the unofficial theme of that year's conference was "bashing America." That was a political analogue to the "decoupling" of the American and European economies commentators spoke of at the time, reflected by David Ignatius in 2004, who wrote that "Euro-pessimism" pervaded the conference even as the American economy demonstrated "remarkable durability."
Though the U.S. economy continued to chug along, in 2004 Ignatius wrote, "the rise of the Chinese economy seemed the other inescapable fact of life -- so much so that you couldn't help but wonder if Davos won't someday reconvene in Shanghai."
"Davos has come to symbolize the dominant force of our time -- the wealth-creating, job-destroying whirlwind of the global economy," Igantius wrote in 2006. "Each year I come here I marvel at the reach and leveling power of this economic hurricane. There are more Chinese, Indians and Arabs every year, and less of an American presence. U.S. investment banks, technologists and venture capitalists may have spawned the globalization movement, but it has now floated free. The dealmakers come from all over the world."
In 2009, the triumphalism was gone. "How could we have been so stupid?" was the refrain Ignatius reported from Davos. But his observation about the leveling power of the global economy still rang true; leaders of oil-rich Russia and growing China, he reported, indulged in a bit of swagger.
By last year's conference, Ignatius chronicled, there was at least as much hand-wringing about the financial imbalances of the American "debtosaurus" as there had been in 1988. Back then, wrote Hobart Rowan, Americans fretted about the Japanese purchasing swathes of American businesses. Following the latest panic, talk of "superfusion" between the American and Chinese economies has prompted calls for some sort of -- for lack of better terminology -- international coordination to relieve America's financial stress -- a managed decline in American consumption and in the consumer spending binge that has fueled the trade and budget deficits along with, in a 21st century spin, a concurrent increase in Chinese consumer spending. Plus ca change.
So with worry about the "whirlwind of the global economy" still rampant and the globalization set humbled, what's the official theme of this year's World Economic Forum? "Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild." Until, that is, the hallway chatter turns to something else entirely.