Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

WEF Shifts Its Focus to New Dangers

NEW YORK -- The world's most powerful policymakers and entrepreneurs, who have in the past used the World Economic Forum to promote the opportunities promised by technology and borderless commerce, seem more obsessed this year with their endless vulnerabilities.

In seminar rooms and in the hallways of the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan, the men and women who once trekked to Davos, Switzerland, to talk about how the Internet could revolutionize life in Indian villages have spent much of the last few days discussing more prosaic concerns: Keeping their corporate headquarters secure, their chemical and biological materials out of the wrong hands, and how to best fight terrorism.

While the meals have been opulent -- sushi and cocktails at the Four Seasons, followed by endless courses at Le Cirque 2000 -- for the chief executives and prime ministers, economists and "media leaders" gathered at the World Economic Forum, the main dish is anxiety. Gone, too, is any post-Sept. 11 reticence about criticizing the Bush administration's war against terrorism and its charting of the economic rules of the road.

Almost every speaker congratulated the United States on how it has fought the war in Afghanistan. But in the next breath, many European and other leading diplomats say that Bush's use of the phrase "axis of evil" on Tuesday night, to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea, made them fearful that a superpower on a roll was now looking for trouble.

The phrase instantly entered the Davos lexicon here and led members of the coalition against terrorism to question whether they had been seduced by the mirage of a new partnership with Washington, only to discover that Bush planned to run the war his way -- if necessary.

The confrontations have been polite, but not exactly subtle. On Friday morning, no sooner had Secretary of State Colin Powell finished a brief discourse about dealing decisively with "rogue regimes," than Javier Solana, the secretary-general of the council of the European Union and the former secretary general of NATO, told him that his allies do not just want consultation. They want a real vote, he said.

"For me, the coalition is a collective ambition to share responsibility, but to share also decision-making," he said.

The sentiments grew more blunt in small-group discussions seeking ideas for both fighting terrorism and "draining the swamp" of poverty that can breed terrorists.

After leading an hour and a half of discussion that produced more sound bites than new policy approaches -- "freeze-dried foreign policy" muttered one human-rights official -- Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, summed up the message he was hearing. "For the Europeans," he said, "'axis of evil' was a bridge too far. There's a strong suspicion here that Bush is back to unilateralism, that after Afghanistan, America isn't especially interested in listening to the rest of the world."

Davos was on the road to pessimism even before this year's session. At the last meeting in Switzerland, Yassir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, turned what was supposed to be a rapprochement with Shimon Peres, then the Israeli prime minister, into an ugly confrontation accusing Israel of "fascist military aggression," that was built on policies of "murder, persecution, assassination, destruction and devastation."

Arafat is surrounded by Israeli tanks this year, and did not make the meeting. Peres was scheduled to take part in three sessions Sunday.

Arafat is not the only one who is missing. Relatively few Japanese executives and just a smattering of government officials showed up. In the past, they came to argue that that they had their economic problems in hand and that their country was on the cusp of a rebound.

Now the numbers look bleak -- on Friday the Nikkei stock average dropped below the Dow Jones industrial average for the first time in 45 years -- and the government's popularity is sinking. So when a panel considered whether Japan would emerge from its difficulties intact, no one made a successful argument that Japan could find its way back for years.

Even without the Japanese, business executives here were in a deep funk. "If you want to talk to negative people talk to CEOs," said Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who used to be one, at Alcoa.

But O'Neill, who once argued that he had his finger on the pulse of the American economy because he made real products sold in real markets, has been in Washington long enough to believe that he now has a truer picture.

Company executives worry incessantly about what could go wrong, but he argued "that is not really reflective of what is going on in the real economy."

For true doom and gloom, though, there was the discussion on Friday about "asymmetric threats," an exploration of whether nuclear, chemical or biological weapons could be used by rogue states or groups.

Some CEOs wondered openly about whether their factories or laboratories could become victims of theft, sabotage or attack, or, to bring the issue truly close to home, whether they were safe inside the Waldorf.

For all the worry, the protests were nonexistent Thursday and Friday. On Saturday, some 7,000 protesters gathered for nonviolent marches but there were 38 arrests.

Ever since the debacle of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle two years ago, store windows have been shattered and tear gas has been the official odor of meetings of world leaders. But near Park Avenue this week, windows were intact and the strongest smells have emerged from the coffee cups as idle police officers seek a place to stay warm.

Thus, New York bore no resemblance to Genoa, Italy, last summer, which was wrapped with razor wire to protect leaders of industrialized nations for their annual summit. Genoa was a ghost town of empty sidewalks and locked steel grates.

In contrast, traffic buzzed slowly around the East Side, and participants at the conference scooted across Lexington Avenue to pick up a latte at Starbucks. "Look!" said one amazed veteran of recent global conferences, "They've still got windows!"

But if the ranks of the protesters were thinned, so were the ranks of the entrepreneurs.

A few years ago in Davos the world seemed more prosperous and the stars of the show were Bill Gates, the Microsoft chairman, and Silicon Valley CEOs who ran seminars like "Wiring the World," and mixed it up with bureaucrats on the question of whether the Internet would foster so-called virtual democracies -- like-minded people of many lands bringing about change.

This year, the seminars have more down-to-earth subjects, like survival. There was "The Future of Terrorism: What Are the Next Threats?" and "Crisis Management: Look Out Ahead."

Three years ago, Ted Turner entertained the elites with a discussion of how far media conglomerates could reach, boasting that CNN was making national borders irrelevant. Government officials sheepishly agreed.

But now borders are back and being secured. So is the power of government over private enterprise.

On Friday, the subject of one media panel was whether the American military would be within its rights to bomb broadcast facilities of al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite network, if it appeared to be giving aid to the enemy.

Former Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia warned that unlike nuclear material -- which is almost all controlled by governments -- chemical and biological agents are overwhelmingly in the hands of private industry, and that the responsibility should fall on corporations to devise ways to keep such material out of the hands of those who would misuse them.

"We're going to have to have a private sector effort here," he said, noting that if he were in business, "I'd want to get out in front" before the biological version of a Three Mile Island nuclear accident led to the imposition of "regulations that will stifle commerce."

Then the dispirited executives went to lunch, so that they could brace themselves for the afternoon session, "New Sources of Vulnerability: Thinking the Unthinkable."