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Posted at 12:00 AM ET, 01/25/2010

What's the attraction of Davos?

By David Ignatius

Over the years, “Davos” has become a brand name -- but for what, exactly? I’m back this year for my ninth meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), and I'm still trying to figure out precisely what it symbolizes -- and why, in a busy world where nobody does anything more than once or twice, so many world leaders, corporate chief executives and media poo-bahs come back year after year.

Here are some starting points for the curious or confused Davos-watcher:

-- Davos has come to symbolize the elusive process we describe as “globalization” of the world economy. It’s a celebration of the technologies and corporations that make global commerce possible. It’s a “class reunion” for the business and political elites that drive the global system. And it’s an initiation rite for new arrivals, countries such as China and India, that have become economic powerhouses since the Davos meetings began 39 years ago.

-- The personalities I associate with the WEF are the people who embody this vision of the global economic order. Among world leaders, the obvious Davos people are Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, along with King Abdullah and Queen Rania of Jordan. Among business tycoons, the superstar is Bill Gates, who’s even more a Davos guy now that he’s a global philanthropist than he was as chief executive of Microsoft. Other names on the business all-star list would be John Chambers, the chief executive of Cisco Systems, which built the networks that define Davos World, and Muhtar Kent, the Turkish-born chief executive of Coca-Cola, the ultimate global consumer-product company. Among entertainers, we’re talking Bono and Angelina Jolie. Among journalists, the two giants are Tom Friedman of the New York Times, who holds an annual “conversation” with Gates, and Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek.

-- Davos is also a series of causes (beyond the rarely mentioned but universal cause of making money). The forum has 18 “initiatives,” ranging from climate change to water to wellness. Attendees this year have been assured that Davos will be reducing its carbon footprint, a somewhat dubious proposition, frankly, for a conference that virtually every attendee flies to, often in private corporate jets. To make sure that everyone is properly networked, the forum also has 16 “communities,” which bring together such groups as “Social Entrepreneurs,” “Thought Leaders,” “Technology Pioneers” and the “International Media Council” (this last group is not to be confused with “Thought Leaders,” please.) As for the anti-globalization movement, the Forum has even found a way to network and co-opt that, too, by creating something called the Davos “Open Forum,” where globalization critics can denounce the high and mighty assembled a few kilometers away. And lest things get too exuberant, this bucolic village is filled in late January with heavily armed and very tough-looking Swiss anti-riot police.

-- The uber-personality of Davos, of course, is the man who founded the event back in 1971, Klaus Schwab. He’s usually called “Professor Schwab” hereabouts, in deference to the fact that he was once a professor of business at the University of Geneva. It’s telling that he started the Davos meetings as a way to introduce European companies to U.S. business practices, at a time when American global dominance was in its infancy. Back in 1971, Europe was still struggling to find its feet after World War II, and the Asian giants of today were still desperately poor socialist nations that ranted about U.S. imperialism. The first formal name for the Davos meetings, in fact, was the “European Management Forum.” That was changed to the World Economic Forum in 1987, when Schwab could see the first glimmerings of globalization.

Schwab is a public relations genius, there is no other term for it. He has managed to take this sleepy Swiss ski village and turn it into the very epicenter of connectedness. He is brilliant at understanding (and exploiting) the moment. After Sept. 11, 2001, he smartly shifted the next January’s meeting to New York. When the newly rich Arab states were looking to make connections, he made Davos a hub; when India and China began to rocket toward wealth, he hosted what amounted to debutante parties, with special sessions and speeches and celebrations of the newcomers. Knowing where the new money was coming from, he franchised the World Economic Forum, creating mini-meetings in Jordan, Egypt, China and elsewhere. Since 2007, he has been running something he calls the “Annual Meeting of the New Champions,” which meets each year in China.

The high-minded (and sometimes numbingly self-serious) ambition of the Davos forum is illustrated by the names that Schwab gives to each year’s sessions. In 2006, it was “The Creative Imperative”; in 2007, “The Shifting Power Equation”; in 2008, “The Power of Collaborative Innovation”; and last year, when the world was still on the edge of economic ruin, it was “Shaping the Post-Crisis World.”

It’s a relentlessly sunny outlook, which I suspect is one reason that people come back. They want to be cheered up, reinforced and re-certified as members of the global power grid. Even when the economic weather is stormy, Davos will report that we can look forward to “intervals of brightness,” as British forecasters like to say on cloudy days.

It’s easy make fun of Davos: It’s a big, ripe target, as Schwab well knows. But frankly, I wish that other global institutions had adapted to change as well as the World Economic Forum. Schwab understood the power of networks before the CEOs who were building them; he saw more clearly than any finance or foreign ministries the power of free trade and globalization to lift developing economies.

For a journalist, Davos is an irresistible opportunity for gluttony -- like one of those breakfast buffets in business hotels where you can have cereal and scrambled eggs and waffles. The most interesting events, for me, have always been the ones I least anticipated, like a discussion of new research on the biomechanics of the brain, or a dinner with economists and financial tycoons examining why the Crash of 2008 happened. I'll be filing regular reports from Davos over the rest of this week to give you my own idiosyncratic take on what’s happening here.

But in many ways, Davos is everywhere now. The idea that it represented -- of networked global business and politics -- is now a pervasive fact of life. You don’t have to go to Switzerland this week to find it; just connect up your iPhone or your laptop, and you can wander into the world that Davos symbolizes and, in its own relentless way, helped create.

So why do people return to this physical location, where it's usually freezing cold and you stay in rooms that often aren't as nice as your local Day's Inn? With something as ephemeral as globalization, I think there's a desire to actually touch it, feel it, stand next to its fellow members in line for a cup of coffee or the men's and ladies' rooms.

Floating in a "networked" world, you want to believe that there are real people with their hands on the controls -- that this is a digital empire with its own flesh-and-blood Caesers and Neroes. This globalized world is not simply a "floating island," as Swift described his imaginary world in Gulliver's Travels -- it's a real place, anchored in the snow and ice each January.

By David Ignatius  | January 25, 2010; 12:00 AM ET
 
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Comments

I think that attending Davos is part of signifying that you are in with the in crowd. The elite equivalent of the quaint 19th century custom of walking down Fifth Avenue in your finest duds for the Easter Parade. There may be some higher significance here, like Jim Wallis, talking about rediscovering the moral values that underlie the market, which Adam Smith and Joseph Schumpeter believed in, it may do some good.

At times like these one needs to let the audacity of hope predominate over the cynicism of experience, because some times good things happen or at least bad things change for the better. The end of slavery and de jure segregation in America, the end of Apartheid in South Africa, and the election of an African-American as American president, despite the conventional wisdom of the time. If I have highlighted the black experience at here and abroad, it is because it has become a proxy for the human experience, a sort of canary in the coal mine.

Posted by: Jeff-for-progress | January 25, 2010 2:20 AM | Report abuse

Sounds like a giant ego trip for uber-narcissists. You can hobnot with "the two giants ... Tom Friedman of the New York Times, who holds an annual “conversation” with Gates, and Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek." LOL

Posted by: mnjam | January 25, 2010 2:40 AM | Report abuse

All globalism accomplishes for Americans is job losses. Good photo of the worlds most greedy man to go with the article. Quite fitting that juxtaposition with the subject matter.

I'll like globalism when global trade isn't a sewer of exploitive behavior on the part of the rich & too powerful.

Globalists in the US always without fail want to act against the best interests of their fellow citizens. I've found them to be a rather disloyal breed of greedy fat cats for the most part, and they end up being people I don't like for their disinterest in the fate of their neighbors.

Posted by: Nymous | January 25, 2010 2:51 AM | Report abuse

Prof. Schwab's previous job was as a university professor focused on marketing. Yes, he is a good salesman as I recall him in my classes many decades ago.

However, bringing along the same people and chewing the fat over and over again with new headlines tends to get old. How many times has there been talk about "Middle East Peace" between Palestinians and Israelis? And will the Turkish Prime Minister walk out on Mr. Ignatius again?

The reason Davos attracts people is because it is a place to sell the sizzle (Swiss Alps, the Swiss image of quality and a private visit to private bankers) instead of the steak. Otherwise, everyone knows the problems that stare people in the face: the climate, the crash of capitalism and its rescue by social capital and socialist methods, the endless stories about Middle East Peace and the other endless wars and the chasing of bin Laden, etc.

Here is the acid test of Davos and a reality check: Will there be a fundraising event to help Haiti?

Posted by: ordak100 | January 25, 2010 4:34 AM | Report abuse

In case you haven't heard, there is some nice skiing and some terrific restaurants. As with any boondoggle, you can do some "networking", but it's mostly just an excuse to get out of Washington...

What, you prefer Capitol Hill in January?

Maybe you should get out more.

Posted by: postfan1 | January 25, 2010 7:19 AM | Report abuse

The Fluffy Answer: Because it's a great wintertime boondoggle and a tax write-off for the world's rich, who, unlike us peons, need endless nifty things to do! And it helps all the world's wealthy Flotsam & Jetsam keep the "e" in "elite" and countless Gulfstream crews employed.

The Hard Reality: Name one thing that has come out of Davos that has bettered mankind's lot and I'll make a micro-dot out of my inelegant prose and swallow it!

Posted by: krw929 | January 25, 2010 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Makes me think of a backdrop for a James Bond movie. Davos. Or maybe the name of the villian.

"Davos"!

"Good morning Mr Bond, it seems you've found my little secret"

Is it any surprise the Bond movies have been around for roughly the same period of time?

lag

Posted by: jhtlag1 | January 25, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

Great article. Would imagine your busy, however, give some thought to writing, one of your excellent novels, with Davos as a plot. Possibly Harry Pappas is there, disguised as Bill Gates brother.

Posted by: dangreen3 | January 25, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

Eurotrashy elites need someplace they think is cool (besides Fareed Zakaria's television program) to hang out and spew their self-important drivel.

Posted by: Itzajob | January 25, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse

"you stay in rooms that often aren't as nice as your local Day's Inn?" - hmm, I find this very hard to believe. I realize Mr. Ignatius has a difficult job in that he must ingratiate himself with the power elite and write to the masses - but please spare us stories of hardship in this Swiss hamlet.

Posted by: dougdupin@yahoo.com | January 25, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

Sec Paulson was there in 2005- anyone recall that?

He stated the only export America really really had was:

FINANCIAL SERVICES!

GO figure!

Posted by: sasha2008 | January 25, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

The two times I was there in 1988,89 it was like a bunch of guys getting together and hanging out in the gym. There were the heads of major oil companies, banks and the OPEC types. The general impression one got is that it was a place to meet and greet and "blue sky". Many of the contacts I made there are still friends. But the facilities. The elevators at the exclusive botique hotels were so small that if more than 4 got on it refused to budge and the potential for avalance and the skinny road to get there.

Posted by: FBIobserver42 | January 25, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

And even you, sir, assume that evewryone in the world knows how Davos is pronounced and which country it's in.

PLEASE, will someone provice a phonetic pronounciation? Why, in zillions of news reports, do all you so-called journalists assume that everyone's been to Davos, or is the next-door neighbor of someone who has.

Posted by: writerbob | January 25, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Saw Bill Gates and Warren Buffet on C-span last week discussing economics, worth watching for any that missed it.

Posted by: jameschirico | January 25, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Davos does have its charms, including the incredible overland ski trail that links the westward slopes above Davos, to the ski resort at Klosters. That, an all-day ski.

I still have the leather case that Senator William Brock, then U.S. Trade Representative, brought back from his first WEF meeting. At the end of a briefing by staff, he turned to the group and asked if anyone wanted to have his "souvenir" from the WEF. Because I admired Brock so thoroughly, and because I had skied Davos, I quickly raised my hand...and it fell into my hands. That was 1982.

WEF has changed dramatically since that meeting. There is more ostensible lip-service paid to "corporate social responsibility," but a lot less of the noblesse oblige among men-of-power than when Brock attended.

The staff work that precedes the meeting, and provides it with a suitable public declaration, has also changed. And I don't mean the staff of WEF, but that of the participants. In 1982, there were far more internationalists acting in support roles. Today, most of the off-site "thinkers" have been trained to become finance directors and ministers, and they expect that their bosses can bend bodies and minds to make the cold and heartless equations creditable politically.

Too bad. With a few more Bill Brocks in attendance, Davos could provide us all with "souvenirs" in the form a healthier, fairer global economy.

Posted by: bamarsh | January 25, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Clearly the reason for holding the forum in Davos is for the world-class skiing. Nothing more.

Posted by: Emcdoj | January 25, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Writerbob: Davos is pronounced "Dah vos" and is in Switzerland.

Posted by: Emcdoj | January 25, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Dear David: Any chance you could let us in on how one gets invited to Davos? How much it costs to attend? Are the speakers paid to speak? How are they chosen? How many people show up at the conference?

I think some of these background facts would help give us some context for what otherwise appears to be a club for the elite. If anyone can attend for a reasonable price (and if all the forums are open), then I would feel less inclined to be so afraid of what they might be doing.

If it's closed off to all except the annointed elite, however, then hold onto your wallets. After all, when it comes to the powerbrokers, you're either at the table with them or you're on the menu.

Posted by: ktp70 | January 25, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Whether it's at Davos or in Dhubai, it's still primarily inaccessible to most people, and just another excuse for the elite to pretend they're normal.

The majority of the world rejects the WTO and we never elected you.

Ever.

Posted by: WillSeattle | January 25, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Not the world leaders but the ex-leaders seem to be flocking to Davos. Present is of course first and foremost ex-President Bill Clinton (the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral), also his buddy ex-premier Tony Blair as well as ex-Microsoft president Bill Gates. Absent, on the other hand, seem to be the real, actual world leaders like Mr. Obama or Mrs. Merkel.

Posted by: dunnhaupt | January 25, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

It sounds like there are few if any female attendees, which is probably a good thing, and it gives Mr. Clinton some time to dry out, so to speak.

Posted by: johnson0572 | January 25, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

I was a visiting lecturer at CEI, Geneva where I met Klaus Schwaab. It was my honor and pleasure to be on the faculty atDAvos the first ten years. I also served on faculties at EMF country programs held throughout Europe.I know that Dr.Dr.Schwaab's original goal was to provide a forum where European executives could meet and discuss issues of mutual interest, almost always best done in our afternoon workshop sessions (informal, no name tags, off the record) on issues of mutual interest--or disagreement. EMF was a major force in bringing together European leaders from business and governent and I believe played a critical role in moving the concept of European Union forward.It is true that the main sessions focus on the expressions of noted individuals on topics of interest--the Forum has always polled participants and supporters on which topics should be featured on the main platform,,,,and in the workshops. In my experience it was the smaller, more intimate and friendly sessions out of the eyes of the news and gossip entrepeneurs that we really got down to meaningful exchanges. At the time I was a leading authority on Company Law and governance within the Common Market. The role of worker councils, labor unions and external stakeholders was a topic in its infancy and high levels of difference of opinion. Differences modulated with better understanding...that was always, and I continue to believe remains, my friend Klaus's goal.
John James, Professor of Corporate Governance, Pace University, NYC

Posted by: profjjames | January 25, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

It is old tribal custom, when boys or girls enter the adulthood, they have to go certain rituals,such as killing a lion or not sleeping for days.This long over due custom has finally caught up in Davos and all successful and not to successful people want to see and be seen that finally time for there Adulthood Test has arrived.

Posted by: jatihoon1 | January 25, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

In 39 years they have not figured out we are going the wrong way. Our employment lifestyle caused the world problems of pollution to our air, land, water and food making the planet, people and animals diseased, energy crisis, climate change fears, war, immigration, reoccurring financial crises, and social problems for young and old.

We can back off this lifestyle and turn to a garden paradise lifestyle with trees, plants and pets that provide fresh food around us. That solves all the world problems at the same time. It is easy, fair, quick and inexpensive. It is the only sustainable lifestyle. In our time of major unemployment, this is a perfect time to turn to the garden lifestyle. There will be an abundance of food. When we have food, we can take people into our homes and handle all other problems. Without adequate food available, nothing else matters.

http://www.divine-way.com
God has solutions to world problems we created by ignoring His wisdom.

Posted by: MarieDevine | January 25, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

like the lady said "let them eat cake!"
then guess what happened?

Posted by: wesatch | January 25, 2010 5:42 PM | Report abuse

It's the Thomas Mann "Magic Mountain" mystique

Posted by: AlexPope | January 25, 2010 11:56 PM | Report abuse

WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM
DAVOS SWITZERLAND

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: JANUARY 20, 2010

The 40th anniversary of the World Economic Forum Annual Boondoggle is a defining moment for world leaders as they meet under the theme “Doing Gods Work--Wall Street Crusade or Financial Jihad." During five days filled with hundreds of working sessions, over 2,500 leaders from more than 90 countries representing banks, investment banks, hedge funds, ponzi managers, big business, feckless regulators and other uncivil elements of cilized society will work together to design new and meaningful ways to fleece the masses by creating economic bubbles and exploiting future risks.

“Global multistakeholder cooperation lies at the heart of the Forum’s mission to mine the economies of the world,” said Professor Klaus Snowjob, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum. Speaking at a press conference at the World Economic Forum’s headquarters in Geneva, Professor Snowjob said: “We have rethought our values – we are living together in a global society with many different opportunities to get rich quickly. We have to redesign our processes – how do we deal with the challenges of klepto capitalism on a global scale. And finally, we have to support our beloved financial institutions which are so necessary for us to carry out our divine mission.

“We have to look at the Meeting in the context of what’s happening in the world … and we see that, clearly, the present system of global ponzi finance is not offering sufficient returns to our members. So we want to look at all issues on the global agenda in a systemically risky, integrated and strategic way, and we want to address in particular the issue of derivative of financial jihad. This is the reason why our Annual Meeting this year is tailored around the need to rethink and redesign out methods of doing Gods work and frankly will be just 2 big 2 fail.”

Posted by: williambanzai7 | January 26, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

I like to say "There are no real problems, just opportunities..." then finish "to make a fool of ones self."

This must be the ultimate big budget opportunity.

And I will stop here to avoid my normal instinct to make a fool of myself.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | January 27, 2010 5:42 AM | Report abuse

When does a country becomes to big to fail? Never, especially when it bases the economic welfare of its citizens on acts deemed illegal by other democratic nations. The tax systems of democracies are based on some simulation of equity. Any democratic country which undermines the ability of other democracies to promote the welfare of their citizens with a "weapon of mass destruction", i.e. banking laws with allow illegal acts, then they are no longer a viable nation. If Switzerland wants to maintain their economic viability on illegal acts, they should try to confined their business activities to, totalitarian countries, illegal drugs, aiding and abetting the theft of the assets of holocaust victims, etc. Remember, He who sleeps with dogs gets fleas.

Posted by: aview | January 27, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

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