When I tell friends I'm off for the World Economic Forum in Davos, they usually assume this is some kind of boondoggle. Five days in a Swiss alpine town, at a conference with more than 2,400 global political, economic and cultural leaders, including 800 top CEOs - the assumption is that Davos is one big party on the ski slopes.
Well, there are a lot of receptions and parties (although the Davos conference center is mostly underground, with no view of the slopes, and anyway I don't ski). But the astonishing thing about the Davos meeting, which started Wednesday, and the reason so many busy people keep returning, is that its packed sessions offer an acute snapshot of global trends.
This year's focus is on "the shifting power equation" - another way of saying that global economic and political power is fragmenting and the American unipolar moment is gone.
There is no sense of triumphalism from non-Americans here at the slow decline of U.S. power, nor is there any anointed successor. This year is unlike Davoses past, which extolled American economic and technological primacy (late 1990s) or the rise of Asia, or the hope for a powerful United Europe that would rival the United States.
Passing of an era
This is a chastened Davos, with no country or region being lionized, and a frisson of unease about the political future. A survey of participants showed that 61 percent believed that the next generation will live in a less safe world.
If the era of U.S. primacy is gradually passing, no one knows who or what will succeed it. For the first time, China, Brazil, Russia and India account for 40 percent of world output, the Davos organizers say, and Asian consumers are playing an increasingly important role in global demand. A spate of seminars fall under the heading "Economics, new drivers." One panel is titled, "What's on the Mind of Asia's New Business Giants?"
But the world still depends on America as a reliable growth engine. And, as China's economic power grows, we don't know how responsibly it will, or will not, behave. Or as another seminar blurb asks: "What Kind of World Does China Want?"
Nor do we know what will be the result of Chinese and Indian search for more sources of energy - or whether Russia will continue to use its supplies of oil and gas as a weapon over former communist countries and, possibly, Western Europe. (I intend to drop in on a discussion of whether power derived from oil will endure, or rise and fall with the price of crude.)
The Davos panels on geopolitics pay sad testimony to the decline of U.S. global influence. Several focus on the troubles in Iraq, and many of Iraq's top leaders will attend. Lebanon's embattled Prime Minister Fuad Saniora will be here, along with Jordan's King Abdullah and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. The meetings on the Middle East's future are likely to be glum.
Indeed, the sense of this year's program is that governments, including ours, are falling behind non-state actors in driving the world, whether those non-state actors be terrorists, or individuals networking together with computers, or the World Wide Web itself, which can be used to rally movements in ways that states find hard to thwart or duplicate. A whole series of panels will look at technology and society and how networking is driving change.
Yet amid all this uncertainty, there is a bright spot: the exciting potential of nongovernment actors - including a huge role for big-company CEOs - to affect one of the most crucial issues of our time: climate change.
This year's meeting focuses heavily on environmental issues, with 17 panels on aspects of climate change. According to Dominic Waughray, head of environmental initiatives at the forum, the organizers are "getting huge demand from our members to place climate change and issues of environmental security at the very heart of the program."
What makes this issue especially appropriate to Davos is that many top corporate leaders in the energy field, such as Duke Energy Corp. chief executive officer James Rogers, are pushing for U.S. government action to reduce carbon emissions. They are way out in front of the Bush White House on the issue. (Rogers will be on a panel called "Advancing the U.S. Energy Agenda.") Senator John McCain, Republican-Arizona, will also be pressing the issue, and other panels will spotlight what India and China need to do.
Davos organizers say that one in five of their participants listed protecting the environment as an issue on which world leaders should concentrate. This was up from only 9 percent last year. This issue is becoming so hot that even a reluctant President Bush had to touch on it in his State of the Union message. If one trend defines this year's Davos, it may be the recognition by top business leaders that the world can't wait any longer to confront climate change.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.