All in the Family

  • Share
  • Read Later
If last year's annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos was like a family dinner ruined by a flaming row, then this year's meeting was the reunion when everyone sits back down at the table pretending they love each other more than ever — even though the problems haven't really been solved. A year ago, the atmosphere in Davos was truly poisonous, as Europeans and others attacked the determination of the U.S. and some of its allies to bring about regime change by armed force in Iraq. But last week, the mood was as sweet and satisfying as a Schweizerdeutsch dessert — mit Schlag. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney General John Ashcroft arrived in Davos weighed down with olive branches, while European Central Bank president Jean-Claude Trichet praised American optimism, and Iranian academic Mahmood Sariolghalam said that Iraq was poised to become a symbol of success in the Middle East.

So what happened to the bitter divisions of 2003? "Everybody's moved beyond that," said a senior U.S. official. Now, he said, the international community was united in looking "forward to the future" — and in terms of the formal proceedings at the conference, at least, he was right. The term "shared values" was bandied around so much it seemed that Davos had become one giant undergraduate ethics seminar. Cheney caught the mood perfectly. A man whom, a year ago, many in Davos thought had horns and a tail, came across as nicely self-deprecatory. In a notably conciliatory speech to the Europeans in his audience, Cheney said that the old Continent was an example to all of the benefits that peace, economic success and political stability can bring. America, he said, "wants the strongest possible Europe" and has no desire to force the Continent "to choose between your European and transatlantic vocations." Cheney then thanked European governments for their many contributions to the war on terrorism. The senior U.S. official even promised that the U.N. would have a "pretty significant role" in Iraq's transition to sovereignty.

Beneath the surface politeness, of course, some of the tensions and bad feeling of 2003 were still evident. You could hear it in the snappy tone of a senior Saudi official, insisting that the Iraq war had made the task of reformers (like him, naturally) harder. You heard it, above all, in the constant use of the term "imposition," with its implicit message that the U.S. was attempting to dictate to others its own sense of how they should organize their politics, societies and economies. And you could feel it in the mutters that rippled through the Congress Hall when Cheney unapologetically said that Saddam Hussein's "long efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction are now finally at an end." Plenty in the audience were convinced that those efforts had ended a long time before the war in Iraq began.

Yet to characterize Davos this year as all surface harmony and hidden discontent would be too cynical. To some extent, this was because the meeting started to return to the topics that once defined it: the global economy and the future of technology. The annual Japan dinner attracted a bigger crowd than it has for years; the high-tech heroes had more of a spring in their step. (One leading indicator for tech-stock bulls: vintage '95 Taittinger champagne at the Silicon Valley reception.) But there were other signs of optimism, notably the scores of young business leaders from the Arab world who spoke eloquently of their desire for real political and economic reform.

The value of dialogue, stressed by Iranian President Mohammed Khatami in his plenary speech, was on everyone's lips. But an open dialogue needs two parties. From European and Arab political leaders, there was still the sense that it's the Americans who need to do the listening. But European and Arab leaders need to listen, too. The U.S. has not adopted a role as guarantor of international security because it has a dream of empire, but because it was convinced by the Sept. 11 attacks that the only way to handle new threats is to meet them head-on. There's room for disagreement about such a conclusion, but it deserves some respect. Still, as Europeans, Arabs and Americans at Davos started to "build on our divides" — as Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio put it — one felt that there was a chance that the bitterness of 2003 might soon be no more than an unhappy memory. And that's written without the benefit of Taittinger '95.