Each January I take the narrow-gauge Swiss railway up through the snowy Alps to Davos to attend the World Economic Forum. Just as in the days when tubercular patients arrived "for the air" at the community's sanatoriums (made famous by Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain), this outpost still has the rare feeling of a self-contained place -- a world unto itself.
During the five days of the Forum, this feeling is enhanced by the steel fence erected around the conference area, the thousands of Swiss police who guard the perimeter against demonstrators, and the bunker-like Congress Centre where many of the speeches, panels, discussions and much of the endless networking that characterizes Davos take place. Here, undisturbed by the chaotic world, the two-thousand-plus participants -- from corporations, government, academia, politics, the media and civil society exist as if in a bubble, but an unusual bubble, because so many of the attendees rank high on the periodic tables of wealth, power and fame.
In fact, I often think of Davos as a global agora, the forum-marketplace in Periclean Athens where those with citizenship -- as distinguished from the lower castes and slaves -- gathered to deliberate on the affairs of the city-state. In one of the many available conversation corners, you may find yourself chatting with a friend or newly met acquaintance over a cup of coffee next to the likes of the International Atomic Energy Agency's Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei, US Senator Marie Cantwell, financier George Soros, Playboy Enterprises CEO Christie Hefner, Warsaw Stock Exchange President Wieslaw Rozlucki, President of Columbia University Lee Bollinger, or the Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan Kassymzhomart Tokayev. And it is perfectly within the etiquette of the Forum to say hello and take up a conversation.
Almost every prominent figure is in attendance without staff, much less the customary retinue that normally trails behind the high and the mighty. There is, in fact, a curious and unexpected equivalence among the participants. One is just as likely to find the president of some country as the lowly head of an environmental NGO wandering vacantly through a narrow street, or the CEO of a mighty corporation as a poorly paid professor struggling to get his e-mail at an internet kiosk.
It is, in a sense, a momentary democracy of the elite, and even though this elite is sequestered in a thoroughly privileged environment, there is an enormous amount of exchange because no one is fortified against anyone else. Global decision-makers, who might normally run into each other only in the Op-Ed columns, meet personally. One regularly finds heads of environmental groups at dinner debating oil-company chieftains; well-known literary figures in discussion with the owners of hotel chains or mining companies; human rights leaders challenging heads of oppressive regimes; and journalists contradicting owners of giant media outlets.
Whatever one might say about the rarified air of the World Economic Forum, no one in the Davos bubble is in an individual bubble as well -- or at least that was true until Vice President Dick Cheney descended on Davos, roaring up the narrow valley in his helicopter, accompanied by a squadron of military choppers as if part of some misplaced Alpine search-and-destroy operation. On what was only his second trip abroad while in office, he brought with him the bubble of all bubbles.
Although this year such world leaders as French Foreign Minister Dominique Galouzeau de Villepin, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, former President Bill Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Anan, and Commerce Secretary Don Evans were in attendance, Cheney proved the capo di tutti capi of this Godfather film, and wherever he went, even his unseen presence altered the prevailing chemistry.
Certainly, given our terrorized planet, one expected the vice president to be accompanied by a considerable security complement, but the security measures taken for him outstripped by a light year those taken for any other leader, even President Musharraf, who had just experienced two major assassination attempts. Helicopters swooped in; bomb-proof limousines appeared; caged attack dogs materialized; elaborate communications systems were set up; and scores of bulky Secret Service agents, emblazoned with tell-tale American flag lapel pins and armed with ear pieces (and who knows what else), fanned out in advance of Cheney's every movement.
Whole sections of major cities are closed off when the U.S. president and vice president travel abroad -- and, as it turned out, not even little Davos was exempt. Cheney's arrival at the five-star Belvedere Hotel left the world's elite suddenly experiencing periodic lock-downs. Some complained that they were confined to their rooms whenever he was about to enter or exit. And when he arrived at the Congress Centre to give his well-delivered speech, the normally relaxed atmosphere of the Forum was suddenly transformed. Officious officials with clipboards bustled about, security guards fanned out, and yellow tape mysteriously blocked off certain spaces. It was as if the emperor himself had suddenly appeared among the scholar-officials of ancient China, who saw themselves holding sway not only over "the Middle Kingdom," but the known world.
Cheney alone seemed to have the droit de seigneur to trump the Davos ethos. While he answered a few unscripted questions from the audience after his speech, there was no schmoozing in the lobbies à la Bill Clinton, no chance encounters or random cups of coffee, and no real opportunity for him to participate in the back-and-forth that makes Davos, Davos. Like some potentate-of-potentates, he arrived, spoke, and then -- as far as the rest of us elite mortals could discern - vanished behind his security shield.
To experience first-hand how alienated our Vice President and President have become from the world -- and often the world from them -- is deeply disturbing. If the Vice President needs such security in possibly the most secure place on the planet, then we are facing a truly tragic situation involving an incomparable loss for our country, not to say the world.
I came away from Davos sensing that the leaders of our country are ever more cut off from normal information-feedback loops so crucial to anyone who wants to stay up-to-date on how the world is turning. An administration little inclined to read the daily press, unmotivated by the kind of intellectual curiosity that makes people seek out discussion, and so tightly wrapped in fearfulness and insecurity that even Davos fills with frightening possibilities, is not an encouraging spectacle.
Hermetically sealed inside his bubble, Cheney for a short moment entered the larger bubble of the World Economic Forum. But like a missionary, his only urge was to deliver a message, to evangelize for his faith. Missing was any desire, perhaps even the ability to learn something meaningful about the heathen lands around him
Indeed, the Bush bubble reflects a spirit deeply evangelical. In its embunkered totalism, more concerned with justifying and converting than questioning and learning, it seems strangely akin in spirit to the party discipline of Leninism. What is most important to men like Cheney is "teaching" in the almost biblical sense of that word, which means "preaching." Not emphasized is "learning," in the sense of engaging in constant questioning or wrestling with ambiguity.
Whatever one may choose to say about Davos as a summit of elitist power-brokers, it is an institution deeply committed to asking questions in an informal setting that encourages spontaneous exchange. It would have been reassuring just once to spot Cheney on a couch quietly talking with some European counterpart or having a cup of coffee with an Arab journalist. But there were too many souls to be saved elsewhere for him to linger. His limousines, security guards, and helicopters were soon packed up and he was whisked away from Davos without, in a sense, ever having arrived.
© 2004 Orville Schell
Orville Schell is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Among his many books, the most recent is Virtual Tibet, Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood. This article was first published at TomDispatch.com