Commentary: Davos: The Buzz Is Back
For years, the annual late January meeting of the World Economic Forum has been an exercise in international cooperation at its finest. Year in and year out, around 2,000 exponents of Davos Man -- a CEO of a multinational corporation, a German Cabinet minister, an Indonesian tycoon -- would descend on the out-of-the-way Swiss ski resort of Davos to furiously exchange ideas, and business cards.
But at the Davos meeting a year ago, that spirit of cooperation seemed to have dissipated. The arrival of the Bush Administration with its "with us or against us" policies after September 11 and the looming war in Iraq took the sheen off the event. Davos, after all, stood for elites working together to solve world problems. Many, particularly in Europe, perceived the new Washington crowd as arrogant, testosterone-charged, unilateralists -- diametrically opposed to the very spirit of Davos. At that somber annual meeting, it seemed as if the world was splitting once again. And the fact that the industrialized economies were on the ropes didn't help.
As world luminaries once again head to eastern Switzerland for this year's conclave, there are signs that transatlantic tensions are easing dramatically. The strident calls by French and German leaders to counter American global might have been remarkably muted of late. In Paris, talk of a "multipolar world" -- code for reining in American power -- is now as passé as last year's prêt-a-porter collections. Over in Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Berlin, where a cabinet member likened Bush to Adolf Hitler in late 2002, the talk is now about restitching the frayed Atlantic alliance. Schröder, say aides, wants to have clear American support for a new German push next year to heal the bitter rift over the new European constitution.
Of course, the change of tone is partially a response to fluctuating perceptions of who's going to win the U.S. Presidential elections in November. "Up until a few weeks ago, officials had pipe dreams about Hillary [Clinton] and Wesley [Clark]," says François Heisbourg, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris and an adviser to the French Foreign Ministry. "Now they're bracing for four more grueling years of Bush Redux and trying to avoid more blood on the walls."
There's certainly a kinder, gentler, more internationalist Bush emerging. (And one, moreover, willing to dispatch almost one-third of his entire cabinet to Switzerland to gladhand Davos Man at this year's World Economic Forum). From Bush's Jan. 13 decision to allow companies from Canada, which had opposed the Iraq conflict, to bid on U.S.-financed reconstruction contracts, to Washington's tentative overtures to Iran, the Administration is indicating it wants to cooperate as much as confront. "It's going to be very difficult to go back to the old order in U.S.-European relations," says Ezra N. Suleiman, Princeton University's IBM Professor of International Studies. "But the war on terrorism is a very serious thing, and the Administration knows it cannot do it alone."
True, there are plenty of land mines that could blow up the growing global goodwill. European patience with what's seen as a conscious U.S. policy to weaken the dollar is wearing increasingly thin. Others see the American decision in early January to support a Japanese site over a French one for a multibillion dollar internationally funded fusion reactor as "punishing" Paris. And a new international crisis, whether it's another al Qaeda attack or the Arab-Israeli conflict spiraling out of control, could destabilize the world again. But for this January, at least, the dealmaking and networking in a town high in the Swiss Alps sends the message that relations among nations are better than they've been in years. Davos Man is back.
By John Rossant