Thursday, January 26

"[T]he pages of the New York Times come to life"

One of the most underreported annual events each year is the World Economic Forum meeting held in the resort town of Davos, Switzerland. I don't recall ever seeing more than passing coverage of it while I was living in Canada (though that may be because it doesn't exactly merit coverage on TSN) and neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post mentions it on its front page today, despite yesterday being the opening of the four day confab.

The lack of coverage may be understandable given the fact that not much hard news is generated at the meeting--no great policies are announced (though Angela Merkel's speech yesterday caused a stir by "call[ing] for a massive reduction in bureaucracy in both Europe and Germany, and an increase in the retirement age, among other measures."), no treaties signed, and no sanctions leveled. It is a talking shop, a place for anyone who is anyone in world politics, business, or culture to see and be seen. But the mere fact of its obvious importance to the very important people who attend makes it newsworthy, so it would be nice to have some color commentary of the event from the national news desks--something like what E! and Bravo! do for the Sundance Film Festival (or at least what I suppose they do, not having watched their coverage).

One source of information is Jay Nordlinger, the editor of the National Review, who makes the annual trek and provides limited, informal coverage of the people, the panel discussions, and whatever strikes his fancy. He reports (with my bracketed amendments) that this year's cast includes:

Heads of state: Erdogan (Turkey), Kaczynski (Poland), Karzai (Afghanistan), Musharraf (Pakistan), Obasanjo (Nigeria), and Saakashvili (Georgia), [Olmert (Israel).]

Other figures milling about: Kofi Annan. Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission. Mohamed ElBaradei, the nukes guy . . . [o]ne of Qaddafi's sons, Saif. Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, and perfect representative of the Arab Old Guard. Speaking of the Arab Old Guard: Gamal H. Mubarak, son of you-know-who. Shimon Peres (Davos's favorite Israeli). Foreign Minister Shalom (not Davos's favorite Israeli) [actually the new Israeli foreign minister is Tzipi Livni] . . . Paul Wolfowitz, now head of the World Bank. . . . I'd also like to note that a few Iraqis are here. It gives me extreme pleasure to say so. One is Hajim Alhasani, president of the National Assembly, and another is Ayad Allawi, head of the Iraqi National Accord. Say what you will about them: They are symbols of a democratic Iraq. And that is decidedly non-Old Guard.


[U.S. politicians:] You have Senators Biden, Chambliss, Smith, and Sununu. You can't imagine Joe Biden wanting to participate in a talkfest, can you? Oh, I have left out a senator: John Kerry. He is Davos's president manque.

Among House reps: Frank, Kolbe, Markey, Shays. Oh, and I forgot a senator--another senator: John McCain. He may be--just may be --Davos's favorite Republican . . .

Some stray other politicians: Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, and one of Davos's "Young Global Leaders." Bill Owens, the Republican governor of Colorado. And Mark Warner--the Democrat who just got through being governor of Virginia. I guess, if you're going to run for president--as Warner apparently is--you have to come to Davos.

The Bush administration has not neglected to send some officials (and not "traveling insults," either). I note Elaine Chao, the secretary of labor; Michael Chertoff, head of homeland security; Alberto Gonzales, attorney general; Robert Kimmitt, deputy secretary of the treasury; Michael Leavitt, secretary of health and human services; and Rob Portman, who started attending Davos as a House rep (Ohio) and is still attending, as U.S. trade rep.

[B]ig businessmen[:] Start with Bill Gates. Continue with Michael Dell. Then consider George Soros. (Should he really be under "Business"?) You also have Richard Branson Â? I mean, Sir Richard Branson Â? some Forbes brothers, and a million CEOs. I also must mention the splendid Phil Gramm Â? here not as a politico, but as an official of UBS Investment Bank. I wish he were talkin' politics.

The presidents of Harvard and Yale are here: Richard Levin and Larry Summers. Also the president of Georgetown, John DeGioia.

You want royalty? I offer Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, Prince Philippe of Belgium, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, and Queen Rania of Jordan. (In my "Davos" Impromptus from Jordan last spring, I referred to the queen as a "smokin' hottie," which brought in a lot of mail--all in agreement.)

I note three religious figures, too. One is Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch of Turkey. And the other two are from the United States: Jim Wallis, the Sojourners guy. You'd expect that. But also Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention. . . . Here's a quasi-religious figure: Rick Warren, the purpose-driven-life fellow. And another one: Elie Wiesel, the writer and Nobelist.

Mediacrats include James Murdoch (one of Rupert's sons), the ubiquitous Thomas L. Friedman, Charlie Rose, and Mort Zuckerman.

And how about some culturecrats? I give you Marin Alsop, the conductor. And Christo, the artist. (Don't forget his wife and partner Jeanne-Claude!) And Michael Douglas, the actor. And Peter Gabriel, the rocker (is he? I'm bad at these musical categories). And Gilberto Gil, who is not only a musician but culture minister of Brazil. And Angelina Jolie. And Peter Sellars, the director.

And how about Muhammad Ali? He's a category unto himself.

And how about Jane Goodall? She's a category unto herself, too--one of the great scientist-celebrities of modern times.

In short, "the pages of the New York Times come to life," as Nordlinger puts it. Which makes it odd that the New York Times (to pick on one news outlet) devotes so little coverage to it.

From Nodlinger's haphazard reporting this year, the item that caught my eye concerned Kofi Annan. Nordlinger writes:

I attend a lunch, whose theme is sports: This is an Olympic year, and Dr. Schwab and other WEF-ers are fairly sports-minded. When I get to the designated hotel, there's a big hold-up--lots of people waiting to go through security and get in. Why are we not being checked through? Oh, yes, now it comes clear: Because Kofi Annan and his entourage are arriving. It's a quite large entourage, too. Annan sweeps in like an emperor, preceded and trailed by many.

In all my years at Davos, I've never seen this: a big group held up by the arrival or departure of a VIP (I mean, a VVIP--a very, very important person). And lots of heads of state have been around.

This brings up an old theme of mine: Does the secretary general of the U.N. have all too much power, or all too high a profile? I mean, is he not the bureaucratic servant of an international organization--albeit a very large and important international organization? Were secretaries general this big in the past?

Annan has been dubbed "President of the World." It can seem that way, at Davos.

I remember when the bombs went off in London last July. All those Western leaders were up at Gleneagles, in Scotland. Tony Blair made a statement--these heads of state stood behind him (Bush, Chirac, and so on). And there was Kofi Annan.

Why?

Now Nordlinger has attended many of these Davos summits, and those summits, like this one, have featured many heads of state, including some who should legitimately fear assassination around every chalet corner (including Karzai and Musharraf this year). If he has never seen an entourage as presumptuous as Annan's, or security disrupted more by an individual, then it must have really stood out.

I think his question is well taken: why should the the Secretary General of the United Nations be held in such regard? He doesn't (or shouldn't) make policy for the General Assembly as a CEO or a head of state or first minister does. The "President of the World" analogy is especially inapt: he is more like a Speaker of the House than a President. Or, as Nordlinger has it, a bureaucratic servant of an international organization, albeit a very important organization. (How much more important than, say, NATO, is another question.) He certainly shouldn't outrank the head of state of even the most humble of the countries who, together, comprise the organization that signs his paycheck and underwrites his imperial lifestyle.

Power, initially conferred as a privilege and responsibility, can quickly feel like an entitlement. No better (or worse) illustration is needed than a glance at the United States Senate. But at least Senators operate in a relatively transparent, accountable environment under the constant scrutiny of the press, and subject to criminal laws. High level U.N. officials, by contrast, operate under diplomatic immunity and largely out of sight of the press. One could hardly design an organization more conducive to corruption of the sort exposed in the recent Oil for Food scandal. It is the same environment in which the sordid international sporting bodies operate, and it is not surprising that their leaders have included the most arrogant and corrupt men of influence this side of the Arab League. I'm thinking of Samaranch and Blatter in particular.

I don't know what the solution is, but I don't think that the status quo is inevitable. The IOC, for example, appears to have made significant improvements since Rogge took over. One common feature of these organizations and most corrupt states (and the Senate, for that matter), is the security and longevity of their members' tenures. The Secretary General serves for four year terms, which is fair enough, but, given the particular unaccounability of the position, perhaps the limit should be one term.

Much was made of Annan being the first U.N. official elected to the post. Maybe that too was a mistake. Annan has worked at the U.N. for virtually his whole adult litechnicallyd the UN (techinically the WHO) right out of university and has been there for more than forty years. The consummate company man cannot be trusted to reform the company. At a time when even Annan himself has recognized the need for change (he is introducing a panel entitled "A New Mindset for the U.N." at Davos this year), he is the last man who should be leading it.

Fortunately, his second term ends this year. It would be good for the United States to begin shaping expectations now: there should be no automatic second terms. Knowing the playground rules of international diplomacy, this wouldn't be an easy sell. The Asian-block believes that it is its turn to lead (or, as it should be, to serve) the U.N. And you can be sure that, because Annan received a second term, if its candidate does not also serve two terms, it will be taken as a regional, and probably racist, rebuff. All the more reason to influence expectations now, and not in four years.

For speculation about Annan's successor, please see here and here.