Davos: The meeting place of the world's great and good
February 03, 2000 | More from Don Murray
From the elegant, wood-panelled walls stern faces from other centuries stared down on the proceedings. This was the City, the financial centre of London, and the room was full of men and women in dark, expensive suits - the discreet uniform of international business and finance. In their midst was a man in another dark, expensive suit. He was a Canadian government minister and this was a serious occasion. And then, briefly, the minister appeared to go through a personality transformation, becoming an excited schoolboy in answer to a question.
"It was extraordinary, it was like being liberated!" His voice rose and his arms waved. "I was talking to key people with no civil servants watching and listening and writing reports. You have no idea, I met and talked to so many key people in four days! In the normal way it would have taken six months of travelling to talk to them all."
The man was Pierre Pettigrew, the Canadian minister for International Trade, and his schoolboy enthusiasm was for Davos, the self-proclaimed meeting place of the world's great and good in the realms of business, economics and politics, from where he had just come after four days. It was Pettigrew's first trip to the Swiss town, which for 51 weeks a year is a somewhat sleepy resort of 12,000. In the 52nd week it receives more than 1,000 bankers, billionaires and politicians and tolerates the accompanying media horde. This year, the 30th of the self-styled World Economic Forum, it even received its first U.S. president. Where else, Pettigrew exclaimed, could you go to the local pizza parlour and find yourself sitting at a table while King Abdullah of Jordan and his family occupied the table on the left and billionaire financier George Soros sat at the table on the right?
But Davos also had other visitors this year, a ragtag collection of almost 2,000 Greens, farmers' activists, anarchists, and Turkish Maoists, to name some. They arrived on the weekend to protest and were greeted by riot police in the snow. They smashed the window of a McDonald's in the town and sprayed slogans on the wall. They didn't get near the forum or the heavyweights inside. As protests go, it wasn't a triumph but, with the media milling about and recording the confrontation, it was enough. It recalled Seattle.
Seattle - that is, the battle in the streets between protesters and police that brought the city and the opening of the World Trade Organization conference there to a spectacular halt - obsessed participants at Davos. Their response was not so much a frisson of fear that the mob was at the gates but rather confused exasperation: how could those people out there not see that what we are doing has been and will be very good for them? With his acute political antennae, U.S. President Bill Clinton caught that mood perfectly when he spoke to the forum. To the protesters he said, in effect, I feel if not your pain at least your frustration but then went on to say: "the experience of the past 50 years of economic integration has been very positive. Those who would like to reverse the effects of globalization are, in my opinion, dead wrong."
Another politician, Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, called the protests part of a phenomenon of 'globalphobia'. In other words, the protesters in the streets were simply Luddites who wanted to turn their backs on the modern world. The rhetoric of the two presidents probably achieved the goal of comforting the powerful audience in the forum in its belief in the rightness of its course. But it did so only by distorting the position of those in the streets. If there was a common thread among the protesters in Seattle and in Davos, it was that too much was being decided by too few and that key questions linked to trade, such as the environment and development in the Third World, were simply being ignored. And so, while the protests obsessed those inside the forum, the gulf between the deciders and the protesters may, in fact, have widened.
Pettigrew's view of Seattle and its consequences was different. He told the important people of Davos and the meeting of the Canada-UK Chamber of Commerce that the real failure of Seattle had taken place not in the streets but inside the conference. He suggested the WTO conference was sloppily prepared and, because of that and the fiasco in the streets, the process of freeing trade has been set back by months, perhaps years. He also underlined that while the North-South divide remains the biggest problem the WTO faces, there is also what he calls an important East-West divide. That is the divide between the huge regional trading blocs of North America and Europe. Both call for freer trade while erecting protectionist barriers to coddle some of their economic children. This, said Pettigrew, was particularly true of Europe's common agricultural policy, a multi-billion-dollar subsidy system to the farmers of the European Union. The two great regional trading blocs, he said, will have to make more concessions than they are yet prepared to if the next trade round is to make progress, let alone succeed.
Davos has returned to its normal, sleepier routine now. The powerful of the world have left, still worrying about Seattle, the Europeans among them also worrying about American dominance, even of Davos itself. But perhaps a little perspective is useful. Just a year ago another subject dominated Davos: the euro, the new European currency. It had just been launched and many wondered if it would be a rival, even a threat to the U.S. dollar. In the intervening year it lost 16 per cent against the dollar and at Davos this year it was merely a conversational afterthought.