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Davos: What's the point?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010; 12:00 AM

What's the point of Davos these days? Below are answers from David Rothkopf, Joseph S. Nye Jr., Walter Russell Mead, Ian Bremmer and Nancy Birdsall.

DAVID ROTHKOPF

Visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; author of "Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making"

To truly understand the enduring (if fading) appeal of the World Economic Forum, you have to go back to high school. One thing we learn in high school is that human beings, like wolves and fish and most other lower life forms, travel in packs. We also learn that there is a pecking order to those packs. And in every high school there is a group of cool kids who enhance their status simply by hanging out with one another. In my school, we hung out each morning along a certain wall in the front hall. (Yes, I was a cool kid in high school. Of a sort. The nerdy, artsy sort with an Isro.)

And if you think Davos is about anything other than status-seeking-behavior, then you have read too many of the press releases of the overly-earnest Swiss gnomes who put the meeting together. They describe themselves as being "committed to improving the state of the world." They do have a variety of bloviatapaloozas during the course of the event at which the improvement of the globe is debated. But, of course, most of the people there share a common background -- the emerging world, women and poor people are hugely under-represented. So you have to conclude that what they really mean is that they are committed to improving the state of those aspects of the world that are important to CEOs and politicians and the journalists who share the appetizers with them at the receptions in the Belvedere Hotel -- where the real work gets done in the small Alpine village that for a few days each year is the center of the trans-Atlantic establishment.

But watch the people at Davos and you see what's really up. It's not deal-making. That almost never happens there. It's networking, which is the professional way of saying: connecting with the kids who have it going on. The appeal, however, of the entire endeavor is fading for several reasons, all associated with the inadequacy of Davos as a networking forum. First, it's pretty uncool to hop on the corporate jet just to schmooze on a piste. Second, the cool kids of the 21st Century -- such as the Chinese -- are in short-supply (although the organizers are working like crazy to fix that). Finally, the event has grown so big, even the cool kids can't find each other in the mix. As Steve Case, founder of AOL, once told me while standing at the bar in the middle of the hubbub of the main conference center: "You always feel like you are in the wrong place in Davos, like there is some better meeting going on somewhere in one of the hotels that you really ought to be at. Like the real Davos is happening in secret somewhere."

Now doesn't that pretty much capture the way you felt in high school? Or is it just me? (I realize in retrospect that the haircut wasn't such a great idea.)

JOSEPH S. NYE JR.

University distinguished service professor and former dean at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government; author of "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics"

We live in a global information age, but we suffer from a "paradox of plenty." With information overwhelmingly plentiful, the scarcest resource becomes attention. Those who can seize our attention and guide us through the maze develop a form of soft power. Davos has convening power.

Davos is not alone in setting the agenda. The Sept. meeting of the U.N. and the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund play similar roles for governments. The Munich Security conference, with its mix of government and non-governmental experts, is the key forum for security specialists. But the Davos formula of mixing top corporate executives, government officials, and representatives of civil society has proven to be like honey to the media bears. Stories flow from Davos.

What good does it do? After attending nearly a score of annual meetings over the years, I have noticed that the conventional wisdom -- whether gloom and doom or rise and shine -- that summarizes each meeting often proves misleading. But to the extent that this little village in the Alps gets top leaders to raise their eyes above their inboxes and spend even a little time on global and humanitarian issues, it probably helps.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD

Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations; author of "Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World"

By Winston Churchill's standard, that "jaw-jaw is better than war-war," the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos is an excellent thing, indeed. There is plenty of jaw-jaw, and to the extent that regular communication between the world's business and political leaders can reduce the chances for war-war, Davos does a lot of good.

Yet there is a specter haunting the watch shops of Davos, and it isn't the anti-globalization protestors who from time to time battle the Swiss police in the streets. The specter is that of Thomas Mann, whose remarkable novel "The Magic Mountain" is set in this Swiss resort, and whose descriptions of the town's natural setting remain unsurpassed.

Mann's Davos novel centered on a tuberculosis sanatorium where patients come from all over the world to rest, relax and talk, endlessly. It's never clear whether the mysterious Swiss figure who runs the sanatorium is a genius or a quack; the meals are good and the talk goes on.

At the end of the novel, Mann's hero returns to the plains below to take part in World War I. All the education, all the talk turned out to be irrelevant to the tragic progression of events beyond the sanctuary in the mountains.

Let's hope Mann isn't a prophet, and that the jaw-jaw in Davos helps keep the war-war at bay.

IAN BREMMER

President of Eurasia Group and author of "The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?"

This is the post-crisis Davos. But there are two ways to look at that.

On the one hand, it's getting back to business. Staffing up, global expansion, making deals in a world that's more complex than ever. And if the speed (ever faster!) and challenges (regulatory backlash, climate change coordination) are more pressing, we've heard that story before.

But there's also a startlingly different story. Over the last year, it's been all digging out of crisis, all the time, with governments overwhelmingly focused on domestic economic agendas. So much so that you could be forgiven for believing that the G20 was a functional organization, or that U.S.-China relations were in good shape. Yet in reality, the world has experienced more profound changes in the last year and a bit than at any time since World War II. (Including the end of the Cold War -- Soviet collapse meant that the West picked up a few more countries but didn't do anything much different...hence the quick sell-by date of the "new world order.")

The global economic crisis profoundly sped up trends that had been developing for decades, but with profoundly distracted participants not noticing particularly much. There's now a dramatically sharper relief in tensions between developed states and developing ones; free-market economic systems and state capitalist ones; and, ultimately, a U.S.-led unipolar world and a more leaderless non-polar one.

What Davos does, more than anything else, is bring the world together to take its pulse. The world's not been in for a checkup for a while. At this year's Davos, it's going to be very surprised at what it sees.

NANCY BIRDSALL

Founding president of the Center for Global Development

For policy nerds and better-world advocates (my category), Davos is an opportunity to feel the pulse of the corporate elite and badger them (politely, of course) about their unrealized potential to do well by doing some global good. For the paying corporate participants and the high-level government officials, it's mostly meeting, greeting and networking with each other. For Americans, it's a healthy reminder that being the biggest no longer implies being in control, let alone in charge -- not in a global market system in which a failed AIG , a successful Archer Daniels Midland and Chinese currency policy all impinge on the well-being of U.S. taxpayers, not to speak of Bangladeshi apparel workers and African farmers. Mostly it's a troubling reminder of the gap between collective resolve to do better at the global level (yes, it's a gabfest) and the demands of collective action -- even for hyper-active Davos Women and Men. Or, if you spell out DAVOS:

Debate: thinkers and policy types opine about too-big-to-fail and other issues of the day

Advocacy: globally-minded CEOs make do-good commitments (Haiti and beyond), in comfortable setting with friendly audience and effective press machine

Visible Virtue: the rich and powerful address soft issues -- food security, global poverty, global governance -- that hard-nosed market players rarely ponder

Ogling: alongside Bono, Bill Gates and, this year, Lang Lang and Margaret Atwood -- though apparently not Lloyd Blankfein or Gordon Brown

Status: everyone is a celebrity for a few days in Davos World

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