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COMMENT: WHY DOES DAVOS ENDURE?

 


By Philip Revzin

NEW YORK, 20 JANUARY 2016 — As the great and the good gather for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the usual, and true, stories have emerged about the few rich people who control the rest of the world, the evils of globalization they espouse, the growing social and financial chasm between those up on that mountain and everybody else, and whether such a gathering, now in its 46th year, can long endure.

Endure it will, but not for what’s said at the dozens of speeches, roundtables and workshops on everything from monetary policy to cancer research. This year’s theme, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, will be largely ignored in favor of what really happens in Davos: the chance to sit down with colleagues, competitors and serendipitous contacts that just aren’t possible anywhere else. The Forum’s founder, Swiss business professor Klaus Schwab, has built its image on two foundations: exclusivity of attendees and careful cultivation of the world’s media.

The exclusivity is enforced by the high price of attendance for businesses and coveted invitations to top scientists and the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Richard Gere. For the Goldman Sachses and Googles of the world, Davos has often proved the perfect entertaining site. Professor Schwab also insightfully invited Silicon Valley and tech entrepreneurs very early on, and each year brings a group of young business leaders along.

The press is lured by access, however limited, to all those important people. Since nearly the beginning there’s been an invited (for free) group of media leaders, who tend to bring along dozens of reporters, editors and anchorpeople to interview sources they may never be able to see back home. (I was one of those media leaders a decade ago and I happily brought reporters along to harvest all those interviews.) All this free publicity, including this article, reinforces the image of Davos as the place to be.   

Still, the assemblage is unique. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, a Davos regular when he was a senator, dropped in to a roundtable of global cancer experts yesterday, a nice jumpstart for the kill cancer initiative he was charged with during the State of the Union speech last week. In past years, the isolated mountaintop has hosted meetings between Israelis and Palestinians, South African whites and blacks, Polish generals and striking coal miners, which, with the possible exception of the Middle East, clearly helped push along reconciliation efforts.

I had the great fortune of listening to then-Senator Biden discourse at length in 2005 about the problems of the world. At such great length in fact at a late-night cocktail party in a Davos hotel that Dr. Jill Biden had to come get him to leave three times before prying him away. I also had the chance to shake hands with Nelson Mandela a few months after he was released from prison, and to share a late-night drink with then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. When somebody asked him if he was worried about some Americans who feared that UN black helicopters were going to come to take over the U.S. government, he quipped: "We might be able to take it over, but knowing the UN bureaucracy, we wouldn’t be able to keep it for long." I also was privileged to attend a cocktail party thrown by our mutual alma mater with then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who had a large security guy pretty much stapled to each hip the whole time.

I also remember a session during which businesspeople hosted tables where prominent politicians would stop by for 30 minutes before moving on to another table. The U.S. executive hosting my table was a little perplexed when the Prime Ministers of Latvia and Lithuania showed up, and had to be guided by questioning to figure out they represented newly-freed Baltic states. He was more befuddled when the next visitors were the Prime Minister of Botswana and the King of Lesotho, requiring a geography lesson on southern Africa. When I saw the final guest, who I recognized, approaching, I told him to relax. "Here comes the Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs." He growled, "Of what country?"  "Ours," I replied.

These encounters are the real guts of Davos, and why everybody keeps coming back (along with the skiing, which I understand is great this year). No article on Davos would be complete without pointing out that Davos was the Magic Mountain in Thomas Mann’s novel, a center of tuberculosis sanitariums that mostly became today’s conference hotels after penicillin was discovered. Draw whatever inferences about treatment of the world’s ills that you wish.

Sadly for conspiracy theorists, there are no more world-dominating conspiracies going on here that don’t go on elsewhere. There is an enormous amount of talk, over-consumption of rosti and Swiss wine, a few major deals, and a lot of business card exchanging.

Does it make things better or worse? I don’t know. I do know that if it didn’t happen in Davos, it’d happen somewhere else. 

 

Philip Revzin is an award winning journalist and former editor-at-large for Bloomberg News. Previously, he was a long-time reporter, editor and publisher for The Wall Street Journal Europe in London, Paris and Brussels. Later, Mr. Revzin was named publisher and editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and the publisher for The Wall Street Journal Asia in Hong Kong. He last wrote on the film 'Concussion' and Gilbert M. Gaul's book 'Billion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big-Money Culture of College Football' for Culturekiosque.

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