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  1. Politics
7 February 2000

Pass the canapes, Bill

Chrystia Freeland watches zillionaires and presidents hanging out at Davos and finds that, with so m

By Chrystia Freeland

Monica, Hillary and the November presidential elections notwithstanding, Bill Clinton is still the president of the world’s only remaining superpower and, as such, still expects to be treated with a certain amount of pomp and ceremony. Wherever he goes, his arrival is trumpeted by a bevy of aides and his path is swept safe by thorough, and ever so slightly demeaning, security checks. Wherever, that is, except for Davos.

When the US leader arrived at this quaint Swiss mountain resort at the end of January to address the World Economic Forum, an annual gathering of the globe’s most influential businessmen and politicians, the Secret Service instructed the assembled company bosses, heads-of-state and hangers-on to leave the hall. Most of them didn’t budge. The officials asked again, this time rather more harshly. The audience jeered back. Even Steve Case, the American Internet gazillionaire who had been patriotically moving towards the door, sensed the mood of the crowd and walked right back to his seat.

Suddenly, the atmosphere turned almost festive – “I haven’t done a sitdown demo since college,” one US investment banker remarked cheerfully. Then something quite remarkable happened: the Secret Service backed down. The security sweep would be forgone; the Forum-goers could keep their places.

Miffed at this instance of lese majeste, a US official sitting next to me took solace from the certainty that the Davos crowd would unbend sufficiently to rise in honour of the president when he took to the stage. “I don’t know why, but it always, always happens, wherever we go,” she whispered. Wherever, that is, except for Davos: when a smiling Clinton made his appearance a few minutes later, he was greeted with mild applause from the largely seated crowd. “Fucking Davos!” the US staffer muttered.

It was a quintessential Davos moment, one that captured both the best and the worst of this 30th annual gathering of the rich and the influential. At its worst, the World Economic Forum is probably the smuggest gathering on earth, the only place so self-regarding that it casually defies the US Secret Service and offers only routine politeness to the American president. But at its best, the raw brute force of Davos – the hundreds of billions of dollars, millions of soldiers and thousands of nuclear missiles controlled by the people it convenes – effects a curious magic. Clinton may not quite be an ordinary guy at this conference, but he’s more ordinary here than anywhere else.

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The secret of the Davos spell is its sheer mass. With so many multi-billionaire entrepreneurs and political bosses gathered under one roof, each one of them is rendered just a little bit less special. It’s a place where Sumner Redstone, the notoriously crotchety head of Viacom, the $40 billion company whose brands include NTV and Paramount Pictures, hesitantly asks if he can share the table of a mere reporter at a crowded coffee shop, where Russia’s rowdy robber barons, perpetually shielded by a phalanx of leather-jacketed bodyguards back home, have to queue to sign up for sessions just like everyone else.

Even the slight discomforts of Davos, a sleepy Alpine village, which strains to accommodate the monster schmooze-fest that it has spawned, conspire to create a bizarrely democratic atmosphere. The presidents get held up in the crowded streets along with the professors; multi-millionaire Wall Street moguls are just as prone to undignified falls on the snow as plucky third-world entrepreneurs.

This levelling spirit of solidarity embraces only the lucky few invited to attend the World Economic Forum. To many of those left on the outside, Davos looks like the self-satisfied epitome of the unelected, omnipotent elite that, like it or not, is imposing its creed of global capitalism on the world.

The activists who feel exploited by this world march of business did their best to disrupt the conference, taking to the streets of Davos in a rowdy, 1,000-strong demonstration, which left the local McDonald’s trashed and two policemen beaten.

Yet, in contrast with the battle of Seattle at the World Trade Organisation meeting in December, the demonstrations at Davos failed to disrupt the conference’s agenda significantly. This was not for lack of trying by us hacks, who were briefly excited by the possibility of a story rather more titillating than the continuation of the Internet boom.

As I waited for one of the elusive shuttles, I watched a Swiss journalist pounce on a Nigerian woman, regal in a red head-cloth, standing by my side. “Don’t you feel excluded by the conference?” the Swiss reporter asked. “No, not at all,” the Nigerian replied. “There are quite a few seminars about Africa.” The reporter gamely tried another tack: “But what about all the other ones? Aren’t the American businessmen imperialists imposing their Internet on the world?” “But we want the Internet,” came the forceful reply and the Swiss journalist was forced to withdraw in defeat.

The self-styled champions of hoi polloi against the forces of globalisation received a similar rebuff at one of the most popular panels. After listening to the heads of some leading non-governmental organisations warn that globalisation threatened to leave out the third world, Ernesto Zedillo, president of Mexico, thundered back that some in the west seemed “determined to save developing countries from development”.

The problem for the rag-tag coalition – ranging from Turkish Maoists to greens – which took to the streets of Davos was that the World Economic Forum had already been industriously co-opting its constituency and even its causes. The big idea at Davos this year, voiced by everyone from Clinton downwards, was that the economic boom that has brought unprecedented prosperity to the US, and is now starting to touch Europe, will be sustainable only if it is shared with the poorest countries of the world, and the poorest citizens of every country. NGOs were more present this year than ever before and many of their favourite issues – from the environment to third-world health – featured prominently in the programme. It’s hard to organise a revolution when you’re not only trading thoughts with Bill Gates on Aids vaccines for Africa and Asia, but you’re also passing him the canapes.

Indeed, one of the most remarkable and unremarked aspects about the World Economic Forum is that it is not only a gathering of the west’s business and political superstars. Rather bizarrely, many of the globe’s poorer and more troubled nations have adopted Davos as a neutral venue where they can hash out their countries’ problems, often amongst themselves. The most spectacular example was in 1996 when Russia’s business titans sealed the pact that secured Boris Yeltsin’s re- election – and the defeat of the communists – here in Davos, rather than in Moscow. This year, the Africans were here in force, and systematically lobbied the assembled moneybags to invest in their continent.

True, the Africans, and, this year, even the Russians, were marginal to the big business set-pieces that are at the core of Davos. The west in general and the Americans in particular still rule the world economy and they dominated this conference, as well. America’s current business sweethearts – the computer tycoons – were most prominent of all. That rankled with some Davos-watchers and participants, especially the Europeans, who decried US corporate imperialism.

But even the Internet moguls seemed less interested in triumphalism than in letting their hair down and hanging out with the closest thing they have to a peer group. The assembled business chiefs, whose companies together control a mind-boggling 80 per cent of the world economy, even submitted to the baton of the Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander, who told them to love their employees and shout “How fascinating!” whenever they made a mistake. He even cajoled them into singing a “tender, warm ‘Happy Birthday'” to one of their colleagues.

This could be the real secret of Davos’s enduring, sometimes annoying, success: every once in a while, the world’s bosses seem to want to go to a place where they can just hang out. Everyone else goes to Davos to watch them do it.

The writer is deputy editor of the “Globe and Mail”, Canada