Winston Churchill once famously described watching Soviet politics from abroad as “like watching two dogs fighting under a carpet”. It feels slightly similar today, watching Iranian politics from the West. There is clearly a struggle going on, underneath the Persian carpet, but exactly who is doing what to whom remains opaque.
Take last night’s television interview with President Hassan Rouhani. The president’s appearance was delayed, prompting his staff to tweet that he had been “prevented live discussion w/people…which was scheduled for an hour ago.”
Guy Verhofstadt (Nicolas Maeterlinck/AFP/Getty)
The three main candidates to be the next head of the European Commission are now clear: Martin Schulz will be the left’s candidate; Guy Verhofstadt will be the standard-bearer for the liberals; and Jean-Claude Juncker will be the candidate of the centre-right, having apparently secured the all-important backing of Angela Merkel. (The German chancellor’s office has declined to confirm officially that Merkel is backing Juncker – but press reports, including in the FT, seem pretty certain.)
The most striking thing about this list is how very traditional it is. The EU has just been through a wrenching crisis that has raised questions about its very survival. And it is also now a club of 28 countries. But the three main candidates for Commission president are all traditional European federalists – drawn from the six founding member states. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
In 1996 a friend of mine called Jim Rohwer published a book called Asia Rising. A few months later, Asia crashed. The financial crisis of 1997 made my colleague’s book look foolish. I thought of Jim Rohwer (who died prematurely in 2001) last week as a I listened to another Jim – Jim O’Neill, formerly of Goldman Sachs – defending his bullish views on emerging markets in a radio interview.
Israel has enjoyed a quiet few years. No wars, no intifada, no increase in the international pressure on the Israeli state – and a strong economy. With the rest of the Middle East in flames, it has been hard to make the traditional argument that the Israeli-Palestinian question is the key to solving all other issues – or to argue that the plight of the Palestinians is the most urgent human-rights priority in the region.
But Israel’s quiet times may be about to end. The Scarlett Johansson controversy is just one part of it – the less important part, in fact. The other really significant element is that John Kerry seems to be about to launch his peace plan. When Kerry does that it will put Israel on the spot and may split its government. And if and when the talks fail (as I’m afraid, they surely will), Israel is likely to get a lot of the blame. The country will be back in the spotlight – and not in a good way. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
Faced with a dangerous political threat, governments the world over tend to place their faith in the same magic medicine – economic growth. When world leaders try to address the roots of terrorism, for example, they instinctively assume that prosperity and jobs must be the long-term answer. And when a regional conflict threatens to get out of control – in east Asia or the Middle East – the standard political response is to call for greater economic integration. From Europe to China, governments place their faith in economic growth as the key to political and social stability.
Yesterday I interviewed Bill Gates on stage at Davos, at an event designed to give the businessman-philanthropist a platform to expound his ideas on development – and to skewer some “myths” about foreign aid. I thought Gates did pretty well. But today I open my own paper to read a spirited attack on him by William Easterly, headlined – “Western vanities that do little to help the world’s poor”. Easterly argues that: “Mr and Mrs Gates promulgate myths of their own. They overstate the contribution that foreign aid makes to economic progress in the world’s poorest regions. And they exaggerate the role played by philanthropists and politicians. These misconceptions, too, are pernicious, for they focus attention on development programmes that spread a costly misunderstanding on how poverty really ends.”
So have I been duped by Bill Gates? Read more
Mykola Azarov (c) Getty Images
How humiliating for a political leader to be in Davos – but to be kept away from the Congress Centre itself. That is the fate that has befallen Mykola Azarov, the prime minister of Ukraine, who is in Davos – and was hoping to speak at the forum. Unfortunately, for him, his government’s reputation has now sunk so low that Mr Azarov did not make it inside the security perimeter.
Instead, he is holed up at the Hotel National, about a mile down the road. Among the visitors he received yesterday were Lakshmi Mittal, the steel magnate; Jorma Ollila, the chairman of Shell – and me.
When I asked him whether he regretted being unable to speak at the WEF, Mr Azarov replied stiffly – “The forum had a unique opportunity to listen to the head of government of Ukraine, to get a wider point of view – it’s hard to tell who lost more in this affair.” And why was he in Davos, anyway – given the chaos back home? The Azarov spin was that his presence shows that the government of Ukraine continues to function normally. Read more
Simply by coming to the World Economic Forum, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran is sending a message. He is the first Iranian president to have spoken in Davos for a decade. In a public speech at the forum and in private meetings with journalists, the president has sought to present a smiling and conciliatory face.
Certainly his personal style is a marked contrast to that of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, his predecessor. While Ahmadi-Nejad was all staring eyes and confrontation, Rouhani has a ready laugh and listens carefully to questions. Read more
One of the excitements of being a Davos delegate is when you are presented with all your kit at the beginning of the forum, including the distinctive World Economic Forum black shoulder bag. How useful, how prestigious – you think.
However, in my experience, it is a potentially disastrous error actually to use this must-have fashion accessory.
The reason is that there are thousands of other identical bags in circulation. As delegates move in and out of the Congress Centre, and to and from parties – perhaps even consuming alcohol – the potential for confusion is massive.
I witnessed an alarming example of this problem at the party last night to launch the World Post, a new internet based magazine. At the coat-check queue, I encountered an eminent American academic, looking a little flustered. Somebody had made off with her Davos bag, presumably mistaking it for their own hold-all. Worse, the professor’s bag contained her passport, her hotel key and her computer. Under the circumstances, she seemed admirably cool. When I left, she was still rummaging hopelessly among the discarded coats. Read more
(c) Getty Images
Here at Davos, I’ve just had the opportunity to moderate a discussion between the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and a group of international journalists. I asked Mr Abe whether a war between China and Japan was “conceivable”.
Interestingly, he did not take the chance to say that any such conflict was out of the question. In fact, Mr Abe explicitly compared the tensions between China and Japan now to the rivalry between Britain and Germany in the years before the first world war, remarking that it was a “similar situation”.
The comparison, he explained, lies in the fact that Britain and Germany – like China and Japan – had a strong trading relationship. But in 1914, this had not prevented strategic tensions leading to the outbreak of conflict.
Naturally enough, Mr Abe also made it clear that he would regard any “inadvertent” conflict as a disaster – and he repeated his call for the opening of a military-to-military communication channel between China and Japan. Read more