In 1789, when the French Revolution was just beginning and the whole world order was about to collapse, the mood around Versailles must have been a little like it was in Davos, Switzerland, last week. Powerful men and powerful women who had believed themselves to be the masters of the universe kept trying to reassure each other that change would not be so precipitous or calamitous as all that noise from the rabble suggested. The fundamentals of their political and economic order were, well, a little shaky, but probably sound. A reform here or there would do the trick. No bread? Eat cake.
There were voices of reason and alarm, of course, even at Versailles and certainly at Davos. In the Alps they uttered words like recession, they described the megashifts in the global economy sapping strength from the United States and giving it to rising powers like China and India. They addressed critical issues like oil prices, water shortages and climate change. If you listened to them, in fact, as NEWSWEEK's team of reporters did, you might have more than an inkling of traumas that lie ahead for Americans and the unmitigated disaster facing many other peoples.
The best remarks were off the record, of course—a major stockholder in one Fortune 500 company saying bluntly, "We're all wondering how poor we are"; a seasoned U.S. political consultant telling friends over lunch that the next U.S. president will face the greatest challenges since any chief executive since Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933. The American economy is in bad shape, and the economic order of the last 60 years is collapsing—as the ultrarich George Soros stated flatly. The Iraq war is far from over, the challenge of Iran is undiminished, the threat of terrorism has not subsided. Even amid economic uncertainties the voracious consumption of resources by the United States continues, while the omnivorous energy appetites of the Asian giants grows and the "solutions" touted only months ago, such as biofuels, open the way to new calamities.
While I was at Davos, a place the German novelist Thomas Mann called "The Magic Mountain" in his novel set on the eve of World War I, it seemed to me that impending disasters were obscured by equivocal verbiage like craggy rocks beneath a blanket of snow. As Mann writes of his central character, people in that rarefied air have "a willful tendency to take the shadow for the substance, and in the substance see only shadow." And then I came back to what Mann called "the catastrophe-smitten flatland," and I listened to President George W. Bush's State of the Union address, and Davos suddenly seemed a haven of pragmatic realism.
If death and taxes are the only things certain in this world (as Benjamin Franklin wrote to a Frenchman in 1789), then the only thing certain about Bush is that he'll claim that lowering taxes cures economic ills and dealing death abroad makes Americans safer at home.
Scholars at the Council on Foreign Relations (another ivory tower more in touch with reality than the White House) came right to the point. Whether their backgrounds were liberal or conservative, their disappointment in Bush was palpable. At a moment of radical changes around the world, "President Bush's State of the Union was noteworthy for not being particularly noteworthy," wrote Charles Kupchan, while Peter Beinart noted, "It was as if the world outside the greater Middle East doesn't exist … It is an odd State of the Union speech that mentions Sudan, Zimbabwe, Belarus, and Burma, but ignores Russia and China." Max Boot praised Bush for the surge in Iraq, which has patched up a little of the massive damage done by five years of snafus. But Boot excoriates "Bush's failure to stand up to the Iranian menace [which] represents perhaps the biggest failure of his presidency—unless it is eclipsed by his failure to deal with the looming threat of Pakistan, which earned barely any mention at all in this State of the Union." And so on.
The general consensus: it's going to be up to the next president to sort all this out. But the candidates' campaigns are, as it were, all about shadows masquerading as substance. The latest kerfuffle about Barack Obama's alleged snub of Hillary Clinton in the crowd after the State of the Union is just the latest case in point. The leading Republican candidates, meanwhile, are no longer distancing themselves from Bush but pretending his policies have succeeded. They're quite comfortable with their party of more death and less taxes.
No wonder we heard at Davos that whosoever is elected will face the greatest challenges since FDR. And no wonder a few of the people I met drew a vindictive conclusion from that fact: someone—like Bush—should be held responsible. A former American intelligence officer now in private business looked me in the eye one night and said quite bluntly, "What they've done is criminal." The phrase had the kind of finality you might have heard in 1789—or maybe a couple of years later, when the guillotine got greased up. But of course that's not going to happen, even metaphorically. Bad kings don't pay for their crimes these days, nor do presidents who thought they ruled by divine right. Only the people do.