Bloomberg spoke with me this week about the gathering, joined by two of the most prominent Americans who will speak at the event: Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, and Henry Paulson, the former treasury secretary. These three embody what in pre-Trump days was known as the Establishment. They fought its battles and have the scars to show. They are the residue of U.S. power that persists as Trump’s presidency begins to swirl down the drain.
What advice does this group offer for President-elect Joe Biden? Pretty much what you’d expect: Govern from the center; expand dialogue with traditional allies and new rivals; mobilize great corporations and international organizations to solve big problems. Don’t be afraid of power; use it for the common good.
“Vengeance may be sweet, but it doesn’t accomplish anything,” Bloomberg told me. Asked about the political center, which Bloomberg tried to capture during his spectacularly expensive presidential bid, he made an intriguing comment: “The ‘center’ is like quantum mechanics — you’re never quite sure where it is, and when you try to measure it, it goes away.” Politics isn’t binary. “The world is not yes or no.”
Kissinger did as much as anyone alive to create the modern global order and, love him or hate him (I’m in the former category), he remains an intense intellectual presence. I asked him whether there are lessons we can draw from his brilliant 1957 book, “A World Restored,” a study of the diplomacy of the 1815 Congress of Vienna, which brought balance between the established and rising powers of the day. Does that era have any applicability to the imbalance between the United States, China and today’s other rising powers?
Kissinger, 97, took a long pause (the thought bubble over his head might have said: “Really?”) and then produced a compelling response. Reestablishing a successful global order today would require the same tools as in 1815: An architecture that assures mutual security for all the major powers; a common purpose on big issues, even as other rivalries continue; and an intellectual framework that anchors rapidly changing technology to clear philosophical principles.
Paulson’s focus was China, a country in which he probably has better high-level contacts today than any other American. He illustrates how the elite consensus toward China has shifted from optimistic encouragement of its rise to a far more wary stance. He cautioned that the U.S.-China relationship would remain “fraught for the foreseeable future” and said the Trump administration has been “largely right” in taking a tougher line on trade, technology theft and other issues. He was supportive, too, of Trump’s effort to prevent China from dominating 5G telecommunications and other sectors.
“Clearly, we’ll need to sequester some technologies to protect them,” he said. But he urged constructing “a high fence around a smaller yard, rather than trying to build a moat around everything.”
Paulson also offered an emphatic warning about keeping U.S.-China competition within bounds and avoiding what he called an “economic iron curtain” that would be self-destructive. “What I really worry about is that in the effort to isolate China, the U.S. will end up hurting itself,” he said. “Our core strength is innovation and openness.”
These three are creatures of the center, like Biden himself. Bloomberg is a one-time Republican, if a quixotic Manhattan version of the breed, who spent $500 million to support Democrats and defeat Trump. Kissinger has advised every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy. Paulson worked closely with Democrats to prevent a meltdown of the global financial system after the Wall Street collapse of 2008.
The grandees who attend next week’s “New Economy” gathering may be listening to an old record, but I don’t think it’s broken. Biden’s task is to reinvent the center so that it doesn’t seem so soggy and, well . . . old. But, folks, this is Joe’s terrain, and there’s a world out there waiting for him to resume the conversation.