Now that the World Economic Forum 2009 meeting in Davos, Switzerland has concluded, let me present some highlights.
The number one highlight, of course, is the Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, storming off the stage after not being allowed to finish addressing Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres on the issue of Gaza:
Keep in mind that the “spirit of Davos” is supposed to be international cooperation and civil discussion between the business and political elites and the journalists who so eagerly report on them- and that Turkey and Israel are allies rather than enemies. Dr. George Friedman of the Stratfor Institute saw this as the clearest demonstration yet of Turkey’s increasingly prominent role as the leader of the Muslim world – and certainly Erdogan is being lionized for standing up to the Western media and the Israeli prime minister.
But the immediate buzz in the hall wasn’t about the global significance of this fit, but about breakdown of the spirit of Davos. For journalists, Davos is a kind of ideal as William Lewis of London’s the Telegraph described it:
The beauty of Davos is that one can meet large numbers of the world’s most important/interesting/powerful/egotistical people in the space of four days. Interviews that would otherwise take months to arrange, and hours to travel to, take place in a small Swiss ski resort. It’s a journalist’s dream…
More significantly, Lewis noted that this year, for the first time in many years, Americans did not dominate. Barack Obama only sent his advisor Valerie Jarrett. The most prominent American present was Bill Clinton. More on him later. Instead, Davos was dominated by the Chinese premier and Russian prime minister, each of whom confronted America and blamed it for the crises in their countries in a different manner. Joe Conanson of Salon described the mood:
Accustomed to flattering themselves and each other as benevolent masters of the globalizing world, they now confront an unprecedented crisis – actually a conglomeration of crises – that has diminished their financial worth and moral credibility.
What roused the global elitists from their glum torpor was the opportunity to lay blame for the economic catastrophe that has befallen the world. There was one obvious target: the United States of America, whose stupid and criminal bankers have inflicted so much harm on the whole of humanity. It is an undeniable fact that the Russian and Chinese leaders explored with great relish at every opportunity.
The Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, in a characteristic manner, did not directly name America as the cause of the financial crisis, but elliptically described it as “attributable to inappropriate macroeconomic policies of some economies and their unsustainable model of development characterized by prolonged low savings and high consumption; excessive expansion of financial institutions in blind pursuit of profit,” etcetera. It was clear to everyone who he was talking about. Wen’s speech was warmly received – but his private remarks to a meeting of Western business leaders demonstrated his real political skill – as he charmed the gathered free market capitalists by referencing such touchstones as the work of Adam Smith (which he had recently re-read.)
Then, there were Vladimir Putin’s remarks on the “perfect storm” that is the current financial crisis. The theory of the perfect storm – “the simultaneous occurrence of weather events which, taken individually, would be far less powerful than the storm resulting of their chance combination” – seems to be a rather apt metaphor for the confluence of events shaking the global system. Putin placed the blame directly on America though, in part no doubt due to his honest assessment, and in part to deflect responsibility. While he was giving this speech, violent protests calling on him to step down were being put down back in Russia as many blamed his financial mismanagement as he bet Russia’s economy on strong commodities prices.
Finally, there was former president Bill Clinton. Clinton addressed the assembled world political and economic leaders:
This is not a time for denial or delay. Do something. Give people confidence by showing confidence. Don’t give up. Don’t bet against yourself. Don’t bet against your country. This is still a good time to be alive.
Described as “the lone American to whom anyone at Davos might actually listen as he attempted to uphold the name of his country,” Clinton not only tried to rally the world leaders from their sour mood, but also responded more specifically to Putin in response to a question:
Later, Clinton met with Putin privately for an hour and a half, seemingly with the consent of the State Department and White House.
The overall lesson of this year’s Davos seems to be a reinforcement of the consensus view of the foreign policy establishment: We are now living in a nonpolar world in which, though America retains great power and is the most powerful single force, it will not hold the same leverage that it once did. We can no longer act as the world’s only superpower – but instead can take our place as the first among equals.