Gathering Of The Titans

The participants' list is star studded, to put it mildly. The more than 2,000 delegates attending the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, will again represent some of the world's most powerful names in business and politics.Under an unprecedented blanket of Swiss security, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell plans to discuss trust, governance and leadership. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft will talk about shared values and the fight against terrorism.

Microsoft's Bill Gates will put on his philanthropist's hat to take part in a panel on using science for the global good.

King Abdullah II of Jordan will be there. So will the presidents and prime ministers of countries that include Mexico, Finland, Brazil, Colombia and Tanzania. Other attendees: Bill Clinton, Dell Computer CEO Michael Dell, Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, financier George Soros, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Don Evans, Britain's Most Rev. George Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, Saudi Arabia's Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander for Europe and so on...

The goals of the six-day meeting, which runs from Jan. 23-28, are equally lofty. With a conference theme of "Building Trust," delegates will devote themselves to discussing ways to restore declining public confidence in world leaders and global institutions. Panels will focus on corporate challenges, the global economic outlook, global governance, geo-political security and trust and values.

There will be discussions about migration priorities, the cost of the war on terror and CEO payment packages. On a less profound note, participants can also ponder whether Shakespeare's writing can teach them anything about leadership, consider humor in the workplace and investigate the hidden language of music. Then, of course, there'll be the networking. VIPs will mingle at soirees, music recitals, a Friday jazz dinner, a demonstration by Zimbabwean soapstone sculptors, out on the ski slopes and, between 1.45 and 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, at Cafe Philo--an intellectual free-for-all chaired by New York philosophy professor Lou Marinoff ("no issue too big or too small.")

Inevitably, of course, there will be tensions. Of special interest will be how participants respond to top-level U.S. delegates like Powell and Ashcroft. Public confrontations may be unlikely in so tightly scripted and controlled an environment, but there is no doubt that the meeting is taking place against a backdrop of rising anti-American sentiment that could erode trust rather than reinforce it.

One measure of how differently the rest of the world sees the United States was underscored in a WEF survey released earlier this month. The poll found that while 75 percent of Americans trusted their leaders to act in society's best interests, a mere 27 percent of those surveyed in other countries felt the same way.

The seemingly inexorable gathering of war clouds over Iraq can only exacerbate these divisions. The United Nations arms inspectors are scheduled to report to the U.N. on Jan. 27, the penultimate day of the Davos meeting, amid an increasingly acrimonious dispute over whether they've had enough time to do their jobs. The report--and the Bush administration's response to it--could deepen a sense that the world is dividing into America vs. The Rest.

Security, too, will be an issue. At the Davos meeting in 2000, anti-globalization protesters smashed the windows of a MacDonald's and set fires in the streets of the resort. When police tried to bar protesters from the town the following year--and sprayed water cannons on the several hundred who managed to gain access--demonstrators retaliated by smashing windows and burning cars in other Swiss cities. Riot police countered with rubber pellets, tear gas and water cannons.

Last year, to the relief of many Davos residents, the annual meeting was switched to New York--partly to signal sympathy for a city battered by the September 11 terror attacks.

With the forum back in Switzerland this year, the Swiss government has allocated a record $2.3 million to protect participants. It also announced that it would send up to 2,000 soldiers to the town, create a no-flight zone around it and empower the military to shoot down unauthorized aircraft in the restricted area.

Demonstrations will be allowed under controlled conditions: only on the third day of the meeting--a Saturday--with protesters subject to stringent checks before entering Davos. Authorities have also denied entry to about 100 people it has identified as sources of potential violence.

In addition, the WEF began talks with some of the protest organizers several months ago, inviting some of them to take part in the forum under the auspices of what WEF program director Thierry Malleret describes as a unique new initiative called Open Forum. "Key public figures from all over the world attend Davos," Malleret told NEWSWEEK. "They must feel pretty safe, otherwise they wouldn't come."