- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2004

GENEVA — The insecurity that threatens global prosperity, the fate of the dollar and the perennial problem of the unequal distribution of wealth have highlighted the expensive five-day verbal marathon in a posh Swiss Alpine resort known as the World Economic Forum in Davos.

There was a distinct uneasiness at the start of the scheduled 270 meetings, conferences, lectures and seminars for which the 2,100 participants paid an average of $30,000 per head.

The Swiss host provided a security apparatus of close to 4,000 soldiers — almost two for each participant in what the European media has dubbed “the meeting of the rich.”

There was a sprinkling of heads of state and a solid phalanx of captains of industry, top executives, international experts looking for an audience, hangers-on from some 94 countries and the ubiquitous international speculators. Significant representatives from Third World countries were in short supply.

The forum’s discussions revealed a continuing rift between Europe and the United States. While European speakers blamed the U.S. trade deficit for the world’s problems, Americans expressed skepticism about the future of the European Union.

As in the previous 33 Davos gatherings, no unexpected conclusions are likely and no final communique was planned when the conference ends tomorrow. The organizers have always seen the meetings as informal gatherings of influential men and women, hoping that their contacts would eventually filter through to policy-making.

Philippe Bourguigon, director-general of the forum, said the theme of this year’s gathering was “security and prosperity.” Yet, answering reporters’ questions, he said he doubted that the risk of terrorism today was greater than before.

“The threat of terrorism has always existed,” he said. “But today the media highlight it more and the growth of enterprises creates bigger targets. Consequently, business organizations have become more fragile.”

Besides formal meetings governed by prepared agendas, the Davos participants have been given an opportunity to ask unorthodox questions in an “open forum.”

Among the discussion questions: “Why do intelligent bosses make stupid decisions?” and “Are chief executive officers really indispensable?”

The start of the meeting Wednesday attracted massive media coverage in Europe, coverage that dwindled steadily as the conference progressed. Most of the prepared statements represented nothing new, complained Nicolas Verdan of the Swiss daily Tribune de Geneva.

Commenting on the much-publicized appearance of Iranian President Mohammed Khatami in Davos, he quipped, “He hinted at change in the constitution of the Islamic Republic. But that was in Davos, in the snow, far from Tehran and the [hardline] Guardians of the Revolution.”

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