Message From Davos

A century ago, tuberculosis sufferers used to go to the Schatzalp to recuperate in its therapeutic gardens and healing alpine air. Today, it was business and political leaders who rode the funicular up to the former sanatorium--now a luxury mountain hotel--for a lunch formally ending the much-hyped six-day annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

Overall, it was not a happy session. Business confidence is down, fears over war in Iraq dominated the agenda and often the conference seemed divided along the lines of America vs. The Rest. "The mood of the meeting is very subdued," Gareth Evans, president of the Belgium-based International Crisis Group and Australia's former foreign minister, told NEWSWEEK. "There's a very real fear that conflict [in Iraq] is imminent and no real feeling that it's justified."

Nonetheless, the Davos meeting was a valuable one. However easy it is to deride gatherings of this kind as empty talk shops, participants here unquestionably took home valuable insights that could shape their future approach to policies and problems. For Americans, the central lesson was just how much the rest of the world mistrusts Washington's policies. The wave of goodwill following the September 11 attacks has dissipated and many delegates were taken aback at the resentment toward a nation that, said U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in his Sunday address, wanted only to help bring about security for others.

Said Evans: "Americans are always surprised to find out what the rest of the world is saying about them. [But] one of the great things about Davos is that it gives them a chance to do so." (That message was not lost on at least one American congressman. When Ohio Republican Robert Portman was asked during a panel session what message he'd take back to the United States, he replied: "The need to listen more.")

Europeans were especially critical of what they saw as President George W. Bush's failure to present tangible evidence that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is indeed concealing weapons of mass destruction. "At the moment the [difference] of opinion is about how the evidence has been presented," said Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga. Many felt, too, that Washington had the wrong priorities-that it should be working toward an accord between Israelis and Palestinians rather than trying to topple Saddam Hussein.

With the U.S. and Iraq so central to the agenda, other constituencies complained their interests were being ignored. One Asian minister confided that he felt Asians were present as passive observers rather active participants. An Egyptian political analyst told a panel on political Islam that she resented being made to feel that Islam had to be on the defensive. A Belgian delegate complained that the agenda was too "Anglo-Saxon"-both in the dominance of the English language on panels and on topics chosen for discussion.

African delegates, especially, were angry about the little attention devoted to their troubled continent. "The one concern I have is that Africa has not featured at all in the course of the forum," South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel told a sparsely attended press conference. Manuel said the conference was almost canceled after former U.S. President Bill Clinton, slotted to address the media with Manuel, had been unable to attend. "I think it's a tragedy," said Manuel. "If the WEF is committed to improving the world, there should be more concern about the number of people living in poverty."

The dearth of women participants drew criticism too. Kumi Naidoo, secretary-general of Civicus, a global alliance devoted to strengthening civil society around the world, noted that 12 percent of delegates were women-but less than one percent had participated in panels. "It's not that these things aren't on the agenda," says Naidoo. "It's just that they're not taken seriously."

Business executives had their own complaints. While the meeting did attract a top CEO list that included Microsoft's Bill Gates, Sun Microsystems's Scott McNealy, HP's Carly Fiorina and Dell Computer Corp.'s Michael Dell, some veteran delegates felt the number of top global executives wasn't what it used to be. Indeed, a dinner discussion about the hot topic of how much CEOs should be paid struggled to attract American executives to lead the debate.

Even the critics, however, saw this year's gathering as a valuable one. "The forum's not just about regions, it's about issues," said South Africa's Manuel. There had, for example, been useful talk on subjects like international financial architecture and trade. For Naidoo--who raised questions about racial profiling when he was on a panel with John Ashcroft to discuss the war against terrorism--being at Davos meant having unprecedented access to opinion and policy-shapers like the U.S. Attorney General.

And for some delegates, there was the sheer excitement of being able to hear informed opinions from other countries. "It's always more interesting when there's a common concern," said David Lyman, a Thailand-based American lawyer attending his 16th consecutive Davos forum. "Then people are more interested in hearing views from others around the world. It may not be perfect, but I always go home from these meetings feeling stimulated by what I've heard."