By Ian Bremmer
The downside of Davos hobnobbery is that some of these folks can be decidedly unpleasant. I bumped into one of them at the Google party. I won't post his name, as it's gratuitous (though tempting), but suffice it to say he's a well known tech guy in his thirties. When he was introduced to me, he had a little circular piece of confetti on his lapel that looked like a rosette (of the sort they hand out to lords and knights and such). So I said it was a rough year at Davos, when even the rosettes were made of paper. But despite the fact that he was standing directly opposite, about a foot away, in the middle of four folks having a perfectly nice conversation, he had tuned out from the handshake and was looking for someone he considered visibly important.
The good thing was he reminded me of a good story about rosettes. That also involved a self-important fellow. I was at some reception in a building in Manhattan several years ago. Sutton place, to be more precise, which definitely has its stuffy side. I knew the owner of the apartment, but nobody else as it turned out, and I looked to be the youngest at the gathering by about twenty years. I gave a once around and tried to nose into a conversation or two, but to no avail. Until I saw a fellow in a suit, tie, and rosette nursing a glass of wine all by his lonesome.
I said hi, and I asked him what the rosette was for. And he said, oh, it's nothing. But the thing was, I was actually interested (and it was the only conversation i was going to have going...), so I asked again and said that he was wearing it, so surely he wanted people to know what it was, and that I was honestly interested. No, he said, that's not why he wears it. He wears it so that other people who are wearing theirs will be able to recognize him, and vice versa.
So I said that I had just circled the apartment, and there was nobody else wearing one. So he could take his off, and then he walked away.
But I digress. And I should really contrast that with Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, who plopped on a couch next to me after lunch, relaxed as can be, to see what was up. He's tremendously competent, I'd say the best of the European foreign policy contingent (Richard Holbrooke's soft-spoken alter-ego), a complete superstar back in his home country, and yet he's completely unassuming. He had just come from Israel, so we got to share notes on Netanyahu, muse a bit on U.S.-China relations, and then consider how to relate to Russia (certainly three of the most dynamic foreign policy issues actively in play right now).
I should give another personal example, because I think the more modest approach is actually more common at Davos -- it just gets drowned out by the louder exceptions to the rule. Takumi Shibata, the Nomura banker who took over Lehman -- none of the Wall Street swagger, no appearances on high-level panels, and completely jovial over breakfast this morning.
Two good guys, one bad guy -- score one for Davos. As the political scientists like to say, the plural of anecdote is data...
By Ian Bremmer
OK, maybe it's a bit gloomier at Davos than I suggested in my first installment. But that could be because I attended the "36 hours in September" dinner and listened to the blow by blow on how it all went wrong for the global markets. All the economists (Stephen Roach, Nouriel Roubini, Robert Shiller), unshackled from the yoke of Wall Street ebullience, truly embraced their inner dismal scientist. There was plenty of blame to go around -- bankers, hedge funds, ratings agencies, regulatory agencies -- thankfully leavened at the end by Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who essentially said that we're not actually that bad as people.
Also making news were the Chinese and Russian premiers, the afternoon keynotes. That made for a very different feel for the post-mortem on the day's sessions. Of the two, Wen Jiabao acquitted himself more effectively; looking like a statesman, promising no recession for China (even if it's an irrelevant formulation, the audience appreciated it), and keeping the finger-pointing to a comparative minimum. Putin got the quote of the day, though, offering that we should beware state intervention in the world's economies. Former president Clinton, not quite able to resist being goaded, said "I hope that works out for him."
The other side of that coin is the comparative absence of the Obama administration -- not even Larry Summers, who is a fixture here, but apparently has an economy to fix. The economic officials keeping to Washington have generally been seen here as responsible, but with the importance of the meeting and the number of senior state officials here, you have to wonder why they decided to pull National Security Advisor Jim Jones at the last minute.
I'd have had more to say by this point, but I've been busy prepping to chair a session on the "new great game" with the heads of state of Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. It's interesting in the context of World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab's opening missive that the present crisis requires a holistic, global response. Because if there's any place you're not going to see unified global leadership, it's the Eurasia heartland. The panel runs an hour, Turkey and Armenia don't have diplomatic relations, Armenia and Azerbaijan are in the middle of tense negotiations over the contested territory of Nagorno Karabakh, and we've got three languages being translated simultaneously. It's...challenging. Presuming it goes well, I'll write about it after.
Interestingly, while I was typing, an old friend and journalist from Turkey stopped by (easiest to blog at the little kiosks they set up all over the place) and said that the Turkish and Armenian foreign ministers met three times on Wednesday and that the news looks promising. It's not a complete surprise, as the Turks used to use Davos all the time to advance the relationship with Greece. Maybe here's the Armenia breakthrough (especially since the Turks want to be seen as proactive before April 24th, the genocide commemoration, so that Obama doesn't take them on). I'm asking her to backchannel and see what she can get.
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By Ian Bremmer
It turns out that moderating a Davos plenary session is pretty intense. There were Lord knows how many journalists and camera crews, a boat load of recognizable foreign ministers in the front row, and acouple of heads of state seated just to my left on the stage. You get the feeling the world is watching.
The panel itself is online.
So there's no reason to repeat the public record. But a little behind the scenes is probably interesting. I got about half an hour with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev in the speakers' room before the panel started. (There was some last-minute back and forth on the other two participants, with the Iranian and Armenian foreign ministers subbing in.) I'd never met Aliyev personally, but I know Erdogan pretty well and most of his team, aswell. That made the tiny room in the middle of all the chaos convivial, even relaxing, particularly given just how close Erdogan and Aliyev were, sitting shoulder to shoulder at ease, almost like brothers.
Butto business. With four world leaders on the panel and all of an hour for the discussion, the most important thing was keeping the responses manageable. So I ran them through the themes (though not the actual questions, which seemed unsporting) and urged them to keep it short.
"How short?" they asked. Two minutes for a response, three if definitively necessary.
Erdogan said, "I need ten minutes for these,and you want two."
Yes, you run a country, you can answer a question intwo minutes. Which he did a perfectly good job of, as did his colleagues (only the Iranian foreign minister rambled a bit, but eventhen, he largely avoided falling into meandering pontification). Indeed, at one point on the panel, Erdogan said he was cutting short his answer because I asked them to keep it moving.
That proved ironic. Later in the day, Erdogan was on a panel with Israeli President Shimon Peres. After Peres took some criticism from fellow panelists (including Secretary General of the Arab League Amr Moussa), he went on for nearly half an hour. The moderator didn't stop him, the panel ran over, and when Erdogan wanted to get a word in in response, he was cut off. Erdogan stormed off the stage, saying he'd never attend Davos again.
I clearly should've briefed that moderator.
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By Ian Bremmer
Everyone's talking about how decidedly gloomy Davos is this year. Actually, the gloom is pretty much everywhere else. Here at the actual meeting it is a little more serious than the usual and not exactly festive, but plenty energized.
The World Economic Forum's tagline, "Committed to improving the state of the world," assertively rebuffs gloom. And this year's topic is typically upbeat, "Shaping the Post-Crisis World." Never mind that most everyone I'm talking to thinks we won't be looking at an upturn until 2010 or later. (Thus far, best intervention on that point: Japanese economist Heizo Takenaka, who wants to see more focus on monetary policy than fiscal stimulus from the developed world.) But from the first day, at least, the focus is less on getting from A to B than understanding how best to shape A so B looks reasonable.
In part that's because the financial firms and corporations in the most distress aren't actually here. But the real point is the historic number of heads of state -- 41 (which is itself an understatement, since Putin's here; call it 41 3/4), most of whom are far more likely to be around when the global economy finally turns to rebound than their colleagues in the private sector.
The government leaders also come with much larger delegations (a small but telling indicator of why state capitalism trends towards greater inefficiency...). So while the meeting participants look comparable to last year's numbers, the physical infrastructure is bursting at the seams.
One of the things I find most endearing about Davos is that the crush of all these visitors in a small mountainside village means folks are sleeping in conditions that they probably haven't experienced in a while. Which seems decidedly healthy, especially in today's economic environment. Not that you necessarily recognize it as such at the time. I was cranky this morning, on four hours sleep, and no gym to work out, the daily regimen out the window, which I grumbled to the CNN anchor before an interview. At which point the crew chimed in that they were actually bunked up in a gym.
Everyone wants what they can't have.
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The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.