The Spirit of Davos

The Davos Man is supposed to be gracious and civil. Not this year.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Like the carpet in my room at the Club Hotel, the Spirit of Davos is getting a little frayed this year. In most years, the mood at Davos is not gregarious friendship—this is Switzerland, after all—but at least it’s civility and politesse. In the real world, when a CEO or private equity big shot doesn’t want to talk to a reporter, his PR person will (sometimes rudely) say no. Here, the CEOs themselves will make pleasant chitchat, give you an off-the-record quote or two, and move on. Davos is like a large, mobile country club. And there are certain things country-club members just don’t do to one another—like embarrassing one another socially or financially. (Ahem, Mr. Madoff.)

But rising financial and geopolitical stress has made it difficult to maintain a veneer of civility at the 2009 Davos. The big news from last night? A well-attended forum on the Middle East, featuring Shimon Peres of Israel and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ended in a storm of controversy. Erdogan left the stage in a fit of pique, arguing that Peres’ impassioned defense of Israel’s Gaza offensive—at one point, he asked Erdogan how Turkey would respond if it were attacked in a similar manner—was “in a manner not in line with … the spirit of Davos.” He was also angered that moderator David Ignatius of the Washington Post had tried to keep him within prescribed time limits, while Peres had spoken at length. Erdogan said he’d never return. Two things: First, Turkey and Israel are supposed to be allies. Second, droning on beyond allotted time frames isn’t rude at Davos. It’s a sign of a Davos Man’s virility. That’s what people do here. They talk—a lot and at length. If people angered by the inadequate speaking time allotted them and the overgenerous speaking time allotted rivals were to start boycotting the World Economic Forum en masse, next year’s edition could safely be held in the Club Hotel’s bar.

The less-than-generous spirit could be seen elsewhere, too. I had dinner with a group of executives in the airline, shipping, and auto industries, where (alert: name-drop warning!) I was seated near Nissan’s worldly and sharp CEO Carlos Ghosn. During the evening, an Indian industrialist, prefacing his remarks by saying that he didn’t want to criticize a competitor on the record, dished about how one of India’s best-known industrial names had made a series of poor decisions and would probably need a bailout.

Make no mistake, the good-time Charlies are still here. At a paparazzi-packed lunch on philanthropy, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair provided a double shot of charisma, bonhomie, and humor. But they made introductory remarks and quickly left together. Shorn of their offices, Clinton and Blair have been reduced to bit players on the global stage. And so the spirit of these cuddly politicians, who craved affection, no longer dominates. Instead, the large geopolitical presences here are brooding, and standoffish—Chinese premiere Wen Jiabao and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Even though we’re in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, schadenfreude is a sentiment generally frowned on at Davos. Rather, the powerful and wealthy congratulate themselves for taking time out of their busy schedules to ponder the plight of the less fortunate. One of the unofficial Davos events is the “Refugee Run,” a simulation of life as a refugee, complete with hostile, armed rebels, power outages, and barbed wire. (My politically incorrect first thought on reading about the event: I don’t need to travel 4,000 miles to see shellshocked people living hand-to-mouth. I work for a media company.) And yet, in the hallways and in the plenary sessions at the private dinners and in the informal cocktail hours, there has been an avalanche of schadenfreude over the travails of Wall Street. At a dinner Wednesday night, Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, his gray beard set off by a black turtleneck, was positively giddy over the failure of Lehman Bros.—not just because he may have profited from the volatility in the financial sector but because it gave this preening smart guy great pleasure to see so many stupid people who had enjoyed unwarranted success fail. His next book should be a memoir: The Gray Peacock. Ah, the spirit of Davos.