Foreign Affairs Plus: Letter From Davos
Dear Plus Subscriber,
So much has been written and said about the World Economic Forum at Davos that seeing it in person for the first time this year—I was there as a "media leader" representing Foreign Affairs—provoked a sense of déjà vu. It did not help that the reality was a bit surreal. Part massive trade convention, part high-level wonkfest, part Upper East Side cocktail party, and part high school—the combination is hard to get your head around. The constant networking seems a bit off-putting at first, but it is so omnipresent and routine that any inhibitions one might have fade away quickly. (If there were a "Davos X-Man," instead of retractable metal claws he would have business cards coming out of his fingers—and a Blackberry embedded in his palm.)
The formal conference agenda this year tackled questions such as the fate of the Eurozone, where and when economic growth would emerge, and how to achieve global policy coordination. But much of the action occurs not during the formal panels, nor even in the off-site partying, but in the constant stream of business meetings taking place on the sidelines. Most people at Davos are not household names but rather high-level corporate and financial executives from around the world, and they come in order to have lots of conversations with lots of partners in a very short time. The journalists and policy experts in attendance know they are not the real story.
That very fact, however, gave me the distance to ponder what I was seeing. First, the notion of a "post-American world" is no longer some theory, but the obvious reality. The dealmaking took place not among a small clique of highly developed countries, but rather the world at large. China and India were crucial players, but so were lots of others, all competing to be the next big emerging market. Only a few U.S. officials came, but that hardly seemed to matter, since the U.S. private sector contingent was there in full force.
Second, the corporate leaders had a distinct and interesting agenda. A typical small session at Davos, for example, might involve a developing country leader and a couple of dozen CEOs. The leader would be trying to persuade the businessmen to invest in his country, and they would be trying to make contacts and get him to listen to their concerns. The regime in question would often be somewhat unsavory, and the businessmen would have to deal with that. But rather than being a caricature of either heartless capitalist exploitation (as the left would have it) or the simple glories of the market (as the right would), the picture turns out to be more complicated—because some of the concerns of the CEOs overlap with what fair-minded observers might consider the best interests of the people of the country in question.
Sure, the corporate leaders want to make deals—but they also want economic reform, better infrastructure, less needlessly burdensome regulation, and an educated workforce. They want those things in order to generate more economic activity, higher growth, and ultimately greater profits. But that does not detract from the fact that many of those goals would be sought by international technocrat or even progressive NGOs, and that sustained economic growth would eventually lift vast numbers of people out of poverty and improve their chances of a significantly better life.
I was delighted to see so many Foreign Affairs authors flying high at the conference. Clay Shirky, for example, was all over the place, and his January/February article "The Political Power of Social Media" was on many people's lips as they talked about the breaking news from the Middle East. And Nouriel Roubini and Ian Bremmer talked often about their "G-Zero" concept, outlined in a piece in our forthcoming March/April issue; the resulting buzz made us decide to release "A G-Zero World" early.
One thing that did surprise me was how little attention was paid to the crisis in Egypt, which gathered steam during the conference. We have been featuring a great run of material about it on ForeignAffairs.com, though, so make sure you take a look.
Editor, Foreign Affairs
P.S. If you haven't already, check out the first Plus Collection, The Rich and The Rest. It includes the first chapter of Winner-Take-All Politics by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Robert Lieberman's review of the book, plus a couple of selections from the archives.
The Rich and the Rest Collection: