Wednesday, January 26, 2005

GENEVA - The rift between the United States and Europe and the fear of a new economic crisis were part of a daunting agenda for the star-studded five-day meeting of the World Economic Forum, which opened yesterday in the Swiss resort of Davos.

There appeared to be little optimism among heads of government, captains of industry and other luminaries of international finance at the forum’s 35th annual meeting.

Some 5,500 Swiss soldiers, two for every participant, threw a tight security cloak over the gathering.

French President Jacques Chirac used the event to call for a global tax on airline passengers and on financial transactions to fight AIDS.

The idea is certain to meet strong opposition from the United States, which is the largest contributor to global AIDS-fighting efforts.

Guests for this year’s event also include Britain Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Other leaders attending the meeting include South African President Thabo Mbeki, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil.

The United States will be represented by Vice President Dick Cheney.

The assembly, often called an exclusive club of the rich, will analyze a host of issues including complaints of America’s dominance of the world, the growing political role of Islam, the changing climate pattern and the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

Klaus Schwab, who founded the Switzerland-based World Economic Forum in 1971, hoped that its discussions would influence governments and make the world a better place. As time went by, the problems have become more complex and solutions elusive.

“We find ourselves at a crucial moment for the world and its leaders,” Mr. Schwab said.

The recent years saw growing differences between the United States and its European and Asian partners.

Europeans complain about America’s inability to cut its trade and budget deficits while the United States points an accusing finger at what it considers Europeans’ anemic growth.

Of further concern to the Davos conference is the threat of increased terrorism against Iraq’s elections on Sunday, questions about the stalled Middle East peace process and the situation in Afghanistan.

According to one conference participant, “The sense of unease is palpable here.”

Weighing on the Davos meeting is the forecast of a record U.S. budget deficit of $368 billion this year, a sum which does not include the expense for wars Iraq and Afghanistan.

Equally worrying, according to conference participants, is the future of the U.S. dollar, dwarfed by the euro currency of 12 European Union member nations.

The annual forum is more than just a chance to talk business, compare notes and devise corporate strategy. It’s also a chance for Hollywood to interact with business executives.

Angelina Jolie, Richard Gere and U2 singer Bono plan to urge the world’s richest countries to do more to fight poverty and AIDS.

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