Davos in New York


Almost 150 days to the day that the Sep 11 horror struck New York, the 31st Annual World Economic Forum (WEF) opened in the Waldorf Astoria, the first time the annual gathering had traveled outside the ski-resort of Davos. As a vote of solidarity and sympathy, Klaus Schwab rang up (then) Mayor Rudy Guiliani to initiate the logistics feat of shifting the world’s “movers and shakers” to be able to discuss tangible issues under tight security. Seattle New York is not, New York Police Department (NYPD) outnumber Seattle’s 6000 cops by many multiple times. Well trained, the city’s finest handled protesters without resorting to violence. Over 3000 important figures from the world of business and industry, at least 30 Heads of State and Government (including a handful of monarchs), government functionaries, academics, media persons, NGO representatives, etc ran the gauntlet of protesters on Park Avenue and stringent security checks to discuss the theme of the Meeting, “Leadership in Fragile Times”.

The opening Plenary Session “For Hope”, had Bono, U-2’s Irish singer, Archbishop Tutu of South Africa, Queen Rania of Holland, Philosopher Elie Wiesel of Boston University, President Arroyo Macopagal of Philippines and incongruously Abdullah Abdullah, the Foreign Minister of the Afghan Interim Government (AIG), in place of Hamid Karzai who had to head home hurriedly because of the flare-up of in-fighting between warlords. In the opening Session itself, the high point was a special appearance by New York’s feisty former Mayor Rudy Guiliani, other than President Kaspar Villiger of the Swiss Federation, Governor George Pataki of New York State and New York’s new Mayor, millionaire Michael Bloomberg.

One had an opportunity to grill Samuel Huntington over two Sessions “Shared Values” and “the Root Cause of Conflict”, and his self-fulfilling prophesying of strife between western civilizations, Islam and the Chinese. India sent its Deputy Foreign Minister, Omar Abdullah, he promptly lambasted Pakistan even though the forum does not permit bi-lateral attacks, glibly laying out untruths about Kashmir without the bat of an eyelash, in reply to a question saying that his grandfather Sheikh Abdullah was imprisoned for nearly two decades because of some “disagreement” with Nehru. Some disagreement! Outnumbered 35 to 1 by the Indians, it is rather a difficult task to represent a country in a forum where social contacts influence policy and where our own government functionaries conveniently put patriotism on a back burner so as to maintain their cheap popularity and social acceptability. Without genuine rapprochement South Asia has no future but where is the hope with such hate and venom in India’s business community? Many westerners do speak up for Islam, including Samuel Huntington, the Indians revel in the denouement of Islam. The Arabs present left it mostly to Pakistanis to defend Islam, are we the only guardians of the faith? The saving grace was that WEF itself had invited a number of representatives from Islamic organizations, in good circulation, they managed to take the edge of most insidious attacks.

The real star of the present US Administration is Secretary of State Gen Colin Powell. With Australian PM John Howard, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson, former NATO Secretary General Javier Solano, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine and South Korean Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Han Seung-Soo, discussing “who will share the burden of building a coalition for a stable world”, he easily outshone all the others, all heavyweights in their own right, Colin Powell is the President the US should have had, mature and logical, his presence gives not only gives stability to US foreign policy in the face of contrary world perception of a cowboy, shoot-from-the-hip image, it gives confidence to the rest of the world. Amre Moussa, formerly Egyptian Foreign Minister and now Secretary General of the Arab League gave a very emphatic reply to Islamic nations being viewed as “the enemy” though they were as much part of the USA-led Coalition. The fueling of global anger against the US has to be addressed so that it did not go out of control.

On the same table as Abdullah Abdullah, the Foreign Minister of the Afghan Interim Government, in the Session “Stability in Afghanistan. Can we avoid another Great Game?”, I noted viz (a) he was very much representing the Panjsheeri Tajiks viewpoint rather than the Afghan’s (2) UN’s Kieran Prendergast was desperately shoring up the UN proposed Bonn Agreement (and therefore the AIG) and (3) that the discussions were devoid of reality on the ground. Given that Richard Haas, the US State Department’s Policy Head and Lakhdar Ibrahimi were in the same room, it was more of a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Wonderland. We heard about “possible interference” from Pakistan and Iran, on the suggestion that since Afghanistan did not have a border with India and the AIG’s rather cosy relationship with India would evoke Pakistan’s concern and possible reaction, I was met with blank stares. With 17 of Pakistan’s 26 provinces bordering Pakistan, with 28 million refugees at US$ 3 per day (UN estimates) eating up our economy, no one was prepared to discuss the US$ 3 billion that Pakistan should be paid annually to host the refugees. Pakistan did not want to have anything to do with Afghanistan, what was the reciprocal possibility for the Afghans having nothing to do with Pakistan?

About the World Economic Outlook the developing countries felt that despite WTO there would be selective protection against their products while they would be made to open their markets without any protection whatsoever to western consumer goods. A genuine partnership could only be formed if the developed world had greater sensitivity to the needs of developing world, that aid could be replaced with trade and that debt relief could be made more meaningful by targetting the relief to health and education. In the session on “debt relief”, both Bill Gates, Microsoft’s owner (who has personally given US $ 28 billion to a charity foundation) and Bono (U2’s lead singer), encouraged aid to critical areas in fighting AIDS, ignorance etc. Paul O’Neill, the US Secretary of Treasury, said we have precious little to show for the aid given over the years. We have to show more compassion and concern to make individuals and communities income generating as well as making life real for the underprivileged.

In “Paradigm for the Future” moderated by BBC’s Tim Sebastian with a star- studded panel “challenged” by US Senator Hilary Clinton and composed of among others Israeli Deputy PM and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, former Chairman US National Security Council Zbigniew Brzezinski, Professor Samuel Huntington and George Soros, the most telling observation made by Brzezinski about unscrupulous nations using the present Coalition and situation post-Sept 11 to further their own narrow animosities and label their enemy country as terrorists, a clear reference of India’s posturing today vis-a-vis Pakistan.

In the discussion on “Fundamentalism”, speaker after speaker warned against labeling only Islam as the only one having the problem, one or two motivated speakers even tried to show only Islam as having the problem. When it was pointed out that maybe the spread of Islam from the Philippines to Morocco counted for many of the conflicts, the density of Hindu civilization within South Asia almost wholly confined facts so that they did not come to the attention of the world e.g. the three Baptist Christian revolts for over 50 years in Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur, the Hindu-Buddhist divide in Sri Lanka, the Hindu-Sikh divide in Indian Punjab etc. The world media remained unaware of this situation. The finest session was moderated by BBC’s Nik Gowing on “Rebuilding Failed States”. He kept the audience participating meaningfully. However Richard Haas’s comment about Pakistan being on the way of becoming a “Failed State” pre Sep 11 was disappointing and unnecessary. It reveals a hostile mindset well within the heart of the US administration. If we were on the verge of becoming a “Failed State” why were we being requested repeatedly for UN Peace Keeping forces? Jean-Maurie Guehenno, UN’s Under Secretary General for Peace Keeping Force, sitting next to Haas, was very appreciative of Pakistan’s commitment and performance.

There were many distinguished leaders present, among them King Abdullah of Jordan, Mahathir of Malaysia, PM Chretien of Canada, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, President Pastrana of Columbia, PM Macombi of Madagascar, President Mbeki of South Africa, President Wade of Senegal, President Toledo of Peru, former US President Clinton, PM Kasyanov of Russia, Emir Al-Thani of Qatar, etc, and a host of Foreign and Finance Ministers.

The message of this year’s meeting was very clear, there was a reluctant though appreciable shift from perception to reality, an after-effect of Sep 11. Terrorism has roots other than Islam’s extremists in isolation. Reluctantly one must note however, the educated and wealthy elite do not want to hear what they were not ready to believe, facts notwithstanding.

Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).