By Maria Bartiromo For more than 35 years, the Swiss businessman, economist, and philanthropist Klaus Schwab has been the driving force behind the World Economic Forum in Davos, where thinkers gather to ponder the problems of the planet. And with the world beset by more ills than Job, there is no shortage of issues for CEOs, prime ministers, and academics to wrestle at this year's "Annual Meeting" from Jan. 24-28. I talked with Schwab about what will be on the table.
What are the most important issues facing the world economy?
The World Economic Forum did some research, together with Citigroup (C) and Marsh & McLennan (MMC), to keep track of major global risks, and we have identified 23 different risks, such as global warming, terrorism, oil price shocks, a hard landing for China, and so on. All of those issues will be on the agenda. Davos has one specific function: It looks at all the issues on the global agenda, trying to see priorities and find solutions. There will be 2,400 people—half business, half other stakeholders in the global society, including 25 heads of state. You have practically every major government represented.
Last year, India was a big focus, as was innovation. What will the hot topics be this year?
Priorities evolve during the meeting itself. But a general issue will be the changing power equation, which means that everywhere in society and business, the power is moving from the center to the periphery. Vertical command-and-control structures are being eroded and replaced by communities and different platforms. We are moving into the Web 2.0 world, and this has tremendous implications on the national level and on business models. Also, three countries could be in the limelight: Russia, because the whole issue of energy security is at the top of the agenda; Vietnam, which is a new preferred place of investment; and Mexico, with the new President coming. And even if we are moving more and more into a multi-country world, the U.S. is the still the key actor. We will have a delegation of 12 senators, and [issues will be] the sustainability of U.S. economic growth and the risk of the falling dollar.
Are you expecting to see much talk about the American Presidential race?
In the context of Davos, the interest is not so much who will be the person leading the U.S. We don't want to have a beauty show of Presidential candidates, even if some candidates like [Senator John] McCain will be there. It's much more about the direction of American policies, because the world cannot wait two years [for a new President]. The next two years will be very decisive. If we don't discuss and solve the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the world will look very different in 10 years.
Your thoughts on Iraq and the Middle East today?
It's not just an American challenge. It's a challenge for the world, because if Iraq goes into chaos and tribalism, the repercussions for the Middle East, for the energy supply, will be tremendous. We believe Davos is a platform for positive interaction between the different factions in Iraq.
How does the rest of the world view the U.S. today?
In my opinion, anti-Americanism has decreased. One reason is that in the U.S. there is a much more vibrant discussion about the future. Americans are asking themselves a lot of questions.
Is Davos a bit more of a celebrity fest than you originally intended?
Of course, Davos is a place for business and political celebrities, and we have invited Hollywood celebrities because they have been very associated with some social causes. We didn't invite them because they were famous. This has brought us more reports in the popular media. This year we made the decision that, with the exception of one or two people, we were not inviting any Hollywood celebrities.
Maria Bartiromo is the anchor of CNBC's Closing Bell.