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World Economic Forum Opens In Switzerland


The World Economic Forum is underway at the Swiss Alpine resort of Davos. It's an annual meeting of the world's business elites but also in attendance are world leaders and academics, celebrities and charities.

Gideon Rachman is chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times. He's a regular at Davos and he joined us from there. Good morning.

GIDEON RACHMAN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Tell us about who is there this year and if there are some names that you're surprised to find are not.

RACHMAN: OK. Well, Davos is advertised as the World Economic Forum. So you have central bank governors, the head of the IMF, the head of the World Bank, those kinds of people are all here in force. You also have a huge business presence, people like Jamie Dimon from J.P. Morgan or former businessmen like Bill Gates.

But for me, what's particularly striking is how many top politicians they drew in. So yesterday, for example, I interviewed Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan about relations with China. Coming up soon is President Rouhani of Iran who will obviously be followed with great interest. So there's a kind of very interesting overlapping world.

MONTAGNE: One big topic this year: growing income inequality, the gap between rich and poor. What sorts of things have you heard from participants about this?

RACHMAN: To be honest, it's always slightly hard to take Davos very seriously when it talks about poverty and inequality, because there are more billionaires in this place than anywhere else I've ever come across. To be a little less cynical, I think there is a sense this year that we are more conscious of the flaws in the economic system. In one of those flaws is this concentration of wealth because it's become a political issue, a dangerously destabilizing political issue.

MONTAGNE: Well, what else then might be on the agenda for this very elite group?

RACHMAN: You know, all the fashionable issues that would fill up the op-ed columns of newspapers in your country and mine. On the first day, for example, I went to a session moderated by Al Gore, of course, on climate change. And next door they were talking about cyber security and privacy. And then there'll be is the mainstream economic session because the core business remains economic and political.

MONTAGNE: You know, you've touched on this but I'm curious. Last year, European debt did seem to top the agenda. This year, what is the feeling and the sense there that's may be different from last year?

RACHMAN: Well, I certainly think that the sort of terror of the European financial collapse has receded. But I think that Europe is probably (unintelligible) of economic concern. I ended up talking to the Finnish prime minister and he was saying, Look, I'm very worried that the European Union could still fall apart, because of the tensions created by the economic crisis that we've been living through.

I think geopolitically, there's a lot of concentration on the tensions between China and Japan. I mean when I interviewed Shinzo Abe, I asked him directly whether it was possible that there would actually be a war between China and Japan. And I half expected him to say no, no, that's ridiculous - that would never happen. And he didn't actually say that.

He said in some ways the situation between China and Japan now reminded him of the situation between Britain and Germany before the First World War, which is obviously a fairly worrying comparison. I mean he wasn't saying that they were about to go to war. But he said that they had a very strong training relationship, as Britain and Germany did. But that wouldn't be enough, necessarily, to mean that the strategic tensions between them would just go away. On the contrary, they were very, very serious.

MONTAGNE: What actually gets achieved at this World Economic Forum?

RACHMAN: Well, that is a good question. I've always slightly wondered about that. But if you ask yourself why is somebody like Abe here, there's a chance that it is a kind of one-stop shop to do a number of things; to have diplomatic talks, maybe whip up a bit of investments to get your message across to the world media, and also I think everybody finds it a place where they have interesting random conversations - and that's part of the point, as well.

MONTAGNE: Speaking to us from Davos, Switzerland, Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times, thanks very much for joining us.

RACHMAN: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.