Will Davos disintegrate?

I am now in Davos and preparing to play my part in “shaping the post-crisis world”, which is the official title of this year’s forum. I must say this strikes me as over-optimistic. The words “shaping” and “post-crisis” seem misplaced. (I will grudgingly accept “world”.)

But what would be a better title for this year’s Davos? “Sinking in quicksand” is closer to the spirit of the times; “Buried under an avalanche of debt” acknowledges our Alpine surroundings; “Up shit creek without a paddle” has an appealing directness and shares the same length and meter as “Shaping the post-crisis world” – so that is my favourite for the moment. But I am open to suggestions.

I wonder whether Davos itself might not become the next victim of the globalisation crisis. The streets are still full of important-looking people, falling over in the snow. But two rather crucial groups are notable by their absence: bankers and official Americans.

The original programme advertised an impressive array of top Obama-appointees: Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Jim Jones – the new head of the NSC and General David Petraeus (who was meant to be in the session I’m moderating on Nato.) But none of them have showed up. Fair enough, perhaps – it’s a busy time in Washington. But it does detract from the event. In my pre-Davos preview in the paper, I wrote that the American delegation would be the most closely watched at the forum. But, actually, there is not much to watch.

The absence of bankers is also predictable.  John Thain of Merrill Lynch was originally going to be a big draw, but he has been thrown into the parchment waste-paper basket of history. Lehmans are no more. Goldman Sachs have cancelled their party. Boo hoo.

Disappearing bankers pose a problem for Davos in a couple of respects. First – as the people who funnel money around the world – they were part of the draw for the various potentates who turn up here. Second, the banks are important funders for Davos itself. They all paid their subscriptions for this year, long ago. But will the various shrunken and nationalised institutions cough up their dues next year?

Like all good party-organisers, the people who run Davos depend on “buzz”. People come because other people are coming. But without bankers and important Americans, the cast-list looks less impressive: a mix of journalists, academics and dictators. Mind you, they are still doing well on the latter front. Later today, I am going to events with Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, and Vladimir Putin, the Russian PM. So I better go and shave.

Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs columnist

Davos blog 2009

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