I went to two international conferences last week. The Herzliya security conference took place on the Israeli coast and the World Economic Forum was held in the Swiss mountains. It felt as if they were taking place on different planets.
Herzliya gathered together Israel’s political and military leaders. The guest speakers included the number twos at the Pentagon and the State department, as well as a clutch of American presidential candidates. The mood was dark and dominated by the increasing likelihood of a military conflict between Iran and either Israel or the US. Other blood-curdling possibilities discussed at Herzliya were a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, renewed civil war in Lebanon and American defeat in Iraq, leading to a broader regional war. Read more
Davos finished a couple of days ago, but I’m still banging on about it. After all, there is not much point in going to the World Economic Forum if you cannot boast about it for at least a week afterwards. Or as my colleague Martin Lukes put it: “The crush of business leaders, politicians, scientists and thinkers is so great I can hardly get my head around what I have seen and heard.” So true.
In fact one of the novelties of Davos for me was an introduction to Lukes-style brain-banging at the two “CEO Series” seminars, on globalisation and talent. I realise that in previous postings I have made a number of sniping comments about the CEO Series, so I would just like to put it on record that they were quite interesting. And – for me – one of the most interesting aspects was the strange way these things are conducted.
I knew it was a good idea to go to the “classic clarets” dinner. Some crazed benefactor had donated an extraordinary collection of wines for us to taste: Latour 1952, Lafite 1962, Cheval Blanc 1975 – and six others.
Seated next to me was Victor Yanukovitch, the prime minister of Ukraine. Since we do not share a common language, we were unable to exchange the usual chit-chat – “faint whiff of pencil shavings” – that sort of thing. In the event, he had to leave half-way through. This was a lucky break for me, since he left behind unfinished samples of Latour and Lafite, which I swiftly poured into my own tasting glasses. It did cross my mind that there have been some unpleasant cases of poisoning involving politicians from this part of the world – so I hesitated briefly before knocking back Yanukovitch’s left-overs. But what the hell, you don’t get to taste Latour every day. I’m pretty sure I got away with it. I do feel fairly appalling this morning – but I think it’s just a standard issue hang-over.
After the clarets dinner, it was over to the Belvedere Hotel, where the “young global leaders” were having a drinks party in an igloo – to underline their concern about global warming. I got into discussion with a young guy, who informed me that he might be about to become prime minister of Serbia. Perhaps I looked sceptical, because he then said – “or maybe deputy prime minister.” I’ve got his card, anyway. Read more
I think they have invited too many people to Davos this year. The Congress Centre is heaving and it is very hard to find somewhere to sit. However, I have found a spare seat just outside the prayer room. This could be a useful source of investment tips. I intend to short the shares of any company whose CEO seems to be spending an excessive amount of time praying.
The ostensible theme of Davos this year is the “the shifting global power equation”; or possibly “the shifting equation of global power”. Personally, I think the “the global power of shifting equations” also has a nice ring to it. Read more
Before leaving Israel yesterday, I and some colleagues had the chance to talk to various members of the Israeli military and foreign policy establishment. Obviously, they were well aware they were talking to journalists, so one must discount for spin. But here, briefly, is how they see the world:
Iran: The Israelis are obsessed with the development of an Iranian bomb. They say it will be the first time an "enemy state" has the capacity to exterminate Israel. They think the Iranians are 12-18 months away from crossing the technical threshold and three years away from having the bomb itself. They acknowledge that the Americans seem to think that Iran is further away than that – perhaps five years. There is time for diplomacy to work, and they think President Ahmadinejad is not in a secure position. But they clearly think that it is most likely that Israel and the United States will soon be faced by the decision over whether to take military action. They hope the US will do it. But the strong implication is that Israel will take action alone if necessary. But they are far from sanguine about the potential regional consequences, in terms of a wider war, terrorism and so on.
It sounds like the stuff that conspiracy theories are made of. In a coastal resort near Tel Aviv, senior Israeli politicians and generals confer with top officials and politicians from Washington to discuss the threat of a nuclear Iran. In any good conspiracy theory, however, these talks would be going on in secret – preferably in an underground bunker. In fact the Herzliya conference on “Israel’s national security” is taking place perfectly openly in a smart hotel. And I am in the audience.
The Israel participation is, as one would expect, high level. The conference is scheduled to close with a speech from Ehud Olmert, the prime minister. The lunch-time speaker yesterday was Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader, and maybe the next prime minister. We’re hearing from the foreign minister, the defence minister and a string of present and former generals.
But what has really struck me is the number of top Americans who have bothered to come over for the conference. The speaker at dinner last night was Gordon England, America’s deputy defence secretary; earlier in the day we heard from Nick Burns, the number three at the State Department. Several contenders for the presidency in 2008 have also felt obliged to tip their hat to Herzliya. Mitt Romney, who is probably second favourite for the Republican nomination, is turning up in person. John McCain, the GOP front-runner is appearing by satellite, so is Rudy Giuliani. For the Democrats, John Edwards is also scheduled to make a satellite address. I cannot think of any other country in the world that could summon up this level of American participation for a conference like this. Certainly not Britain.
When Gordon Brown arrived in India for his first ever trip, he probably thought he had a clear idea of what would be involved. The British chancellor would visit Bangalore to get a first-hand look at the Indian hi-tech miracle; he would discuss important issues of world trade in an effort to re-start the WTO’s Doha round; he would make a speech or two, burnishing his credentials as an international statesman and a prime minister in-waiting. Hell, if he was lucky, he might even get time to take in a bit of culture – the Taj Mahal, that sort of thing.
What the chancellor cannot have imagined is that he would be dragged into a diplomatic incident, sparked by events in a reality TV show back in Britain.
The implications of the Bush administration’s new Iraq strategy are still sinking in. Two of the most interesting comments I’ve read recently are from Dan Plesch and Niall Ferguson. Plesch argues, all too persuasively I’m afraid, that the Bush administration is gearing up for a military clash with Iran.
That’s a subject I’ll come back to – probably next week. In the meantime, I want to discuss Ferguson’s argument that the United Nations should take over from the United States in policing Iraq. Coming from a conservative historian, noted for his sympathy with the idea of an "imperial" America and his distrust of international institutions, this is a very striking conclusion. In fact Ferguson himself writes: "I never thought I would see myself write these words, but here goes: Call off the green berets. It’s time to send in the blue helmets."
When John F. Kennedy was first asked to send troops to Vietnam, he said this: “The troops will march in; the bands will play; the crowds will cheer…Then we will be told we have to send in more troops. It’s like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another.”
Watching George Bush’s announcement that he is sending extra troops to Iraq, I couldn’t help being reminded of JFK’s metaphor – and not just because Mr Bush is a reformed alcoholic.
If everything goes according to plan, President Bush will announce his new plan for Iraq on January 10th. It is already clear that he is going to say that he plans to send more troops to Iraq – the famous "surge". But beyond that, there are some big questions that remain.
There are five issues that I will be particularly interested in: troop numbers – how big will the surge be?; duration – how long will the troops be there?; enemies – are they going to take on the Sunnis or the Shia, or both at the same time?: Iraqisation – will the new security strategy still aim at handing over to the Iraqis as fast as possible? And finally – regional negotiations – is Bush going to try and sugar the pill by launching some new diplomatic initiative?
Sitting in my inbox is an e-mail from Farr Vintners– who claim to be the biggest fine wine dealers in the world – inviting me to buy some 2005 Bordeaux. Apparently it is a vintage of “compelling greatness”.
And what a bargain too! For just £22,000 you can buy a 12-bottle case of Chateau Pétrus. If you are too much of a cheapskate to stump up for the Pétrus, you might consider something a bit more downmarket – like a case of Chateau Margaux for £5,000.
As it happens, I can remember a halcyon age when I used to drink wines like Margaux and Pétrus reasonably regularly – the 1970s. It is true that Britain was in dire trouble back then: strikes were endemic and electricity was intermittent. But there were also some good things about the British economy of the 1970s. One of them was that even a London University academic (my father) could afford occasionally to buy wines like Lafite, Margaux or Pétrus and serve them to his deserving children. It was all pleasantly redolent of the immortal cry from “Withnail and I”: “I want the finest wines known to humanity. I want them here. And I want them now.”
The British love to think of the French as irredeemably corrupt. But take a look at recent corruption scandals in Britain and France, and it is hard to avoid the impression that it is the French who are taking a tougher line on sleaze than the supposedly upright Anglo-Saxons.
Last month, both the British and French prime ministers were interviewed by the police within a week of each other. But the handling of Tony Blair was noticeably softer than the treatment meted out to Dominique de Villepin. Mr Blair had a gentlemanly chat about the “cash-for-honours” scandal – which involves allegations that the Labour Party essentially sold peerages in return for loans to the party. His interview took place in Downing Street in the middle of the day, and took less than two hours. By contrast Mr de Villepin was subjected to a 13-hour interrogation, ending at three in the morning. He was apparently being questioned about suggestions that he may have attempted to smear fellow ministers in the “Clearstream affair”. (Warning to readers: Do not attempt to understand the Clearstream affair, that way madness lies).