Friday, January 25, 2008
In Davos: The U.S. On a Downhill Slope
David Gergen
360 Contributor
DAVOS, Switzerland (CNN) -- It is unsettling these days to be an American at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

When I first started coming here about 15 years ago, the U.S. was the centerpiece of attention and respect. Especially after the Cold War, we were seen as a benevolent hyper power.

I remember vividly how Larry Summers, then a professor, argued that not since the days of ancient Rome had there been such a large gap between the most powerful society on earth versus the No. 2 -- in economic, political, military and cultural influence. Where there was some definite resentment among some of the leaders on hand, the more general reaction was one of warmth.

One felt extremely proud to be a representative from the USA.

That view actually started to change before George W. Bush took office, as others around the world worried how governable we are. Still, the immediate reaction to 9/11 was an outpouring of support and sympathy -- so strong that the founder of the forum, Klaus Schwab, moved the January 2002 sessions to New York City as a message of world solidarity with the U.S.

Never before or since has the World Economic Forum been held away from Davos.

Iraq brought a change here, just as it did in world opinion. The sessions just before and after the war started, touched off the greatest anger toward the United States that anyone can remember at Davos. It got pretty ugly in some sessions. But the Europeans and others thought there must be a saving grace. Surely, they thought, the president is acting without much public support at home.

How wrong they were.

When Bush swept to a resounding re-election in 2004, the Davos of January, 2005 was one of pretty sullen resignation by delegates from other countries.

By 2006, the mood changed again: ok, if you are not going to lead well in America, we will have to start moving ahead without you. By 2007, China and India suddenly became the center of attention as people spoke in awe of their growth and crowded into sessions on "Whither Asia?"

Now this year, my observation is that people are following the election campaign closely but they are not at all optimistic that the U.S. is going to resume its world leadership role. And there is far more despair here about the U.S. government's foot dragging on climate change than Iraq (fortunately, some U.S. CEOs like Jim Rogers of Duke Energy are much more aggressive in fighting carbon emissions than our government, so that helps in arguing that America may one day soon play a more responsible role on the environment.)

Overall, I would have to say, Asia is seen as the future here while there is a big, big question mark hanging over the U.S.

Does any of this matter? I think it does.

Davos brings together about 2,500 leaders from business, finance, government, the academy, journalism and the like. One can dismiss them as elites, but for better or for worse, elites do play a significant role in shaping the course of events.

If you believe, as I do, that it is critical to the future of the globe that the U.S. become once again a power to whom others turn with respect and for leadership, we need to pull ourselves back up.

We don't need to be the world's only superpower -- we have to respect the right of others to share join leadership -- but it will be a much more threatening world for our kids and grandkids if others rise and we continue on a downhill slope.
Posted By CNN: 2:50 PM ET
  7 Comments
If the past seven years have taught us nothing else, I hope we've finally learned that the Presidency is not a job for a C-student.

Electing a leader based on how 'likeable' he's perceived to be (wrongly, it turns out) or whether or not you'd like to have a beer with him has proved to be a faulty decision method. Norm from "Cheers" isn't running this go-round, so I hope people actually consider qualifications and abilities, to say nothing of platform.
Posted By Anonymous Arachnae, Sterling VA : 3:37 PM ET
David,

Thank you for a thought-provoking, but depressing post. I am an optimist by nature, so I'd like to think that the next president can repair all the damage done by Bush, et al. Yet it's just possible that the world is passing us by and we can never again attain the standing we had in the world. Others have compared our times to the fall of the Roman empire. I don't know if it's that bad, but I do know that we need the very best person available to become our next president. I pray that for once people will vote with their intellect rather than their emotions. There is just too much at stake this time.
Posted By Blogger Barbara in Culver City, CA : 3:51 PM ET
It is disheartening to know how far we have fallen in the respect and good regard of the world. With Iraq and the down playing of global warming and inaction by the Bush Administration I don't blame the other countries for thinking that leadership will come from other countries now.

Leadership by the US may be too much to hope for initially; if we can just get back to working with the rest of the world instead of putting our own desires first that would be an exceptional first step and might retrieve some of the respect we have lost. I'm not sure though that the average American even cares about this.

Annie Kate
Birmingham AL
Posted By Blogger Annie Kate : 3:59 PM ET
In order to continue our way of life for our children, it is necessary for the United States to maintain it's world position in order to maintain world stability.

The first step is to rebuild the mutual respect between nations, especially our allies, which have been either strained or destroyed by the Bush administration. The next President has a lot of fences to mend.

I agree we don't have to be the only superpower but we do need to maintain our own superpower status to maintain world stability.
Posted By Anonymous Joseph Kowalski, North Huntingdon, PA : 4:10 PM ET
We CAN NEVER regain our leadership role in the world we once had because:

1) our culture/society is founded upon GREED, MATERIALISM, CONSUMERISM, POWER, etc., all of which makes us a very shallow and selfish people/nation (e.g., the "Ugly American" abroad--the world sees how selfish and "small" Americans are...);

2) we have allowed PC "Political Correctness" to warp and fog all common sense and truth in this country (you can't "call a horse a horse" or "tell it like it is");

3) years of misguided social engineering programs such as Affirmative Action and Ethnic/Racial hiring quotas have institutionalized "Discrimination Against Whites" as an acceptable policy;

4) we are so "Dumbed-Down" in this country, it's really a SHAME and shocking the levels of low-quality education and literacy we have sunken to and have come to be seen as "acceptable"--the average US citizen is so dumb and ignorant it's a real embarrassment to us all (but, ignorance is bliss, right?!? just give me another Twinkie, burger and fries, please, Thanks!); and

5) ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION has slowly dragged the US onto a downward spiral to the 3rd world level of poverty as found in our invading neighboring country Mexico. The rise of Spanish-only speaking Mexican barrios (ghettos) in the US has collapsed our health system, increase crime and disease and illiteracy, and created a host of other ills and problems. And the liberal "look the other way" softy, namby-pamby tendency to just let the problem go on is DISGUSTING!!

Whewww!! Enough *RANTING* for today--TGIF!!

Lastly, I am SOOOO NOT-NOT-NOT proud to be an American: we are selfish, ADD-afflicted, tech-addicted, "it's all about ME" saturated nation of sickos!!
Posted By Anonymous Mark, Sacramento, CA : 5:26 PM ET
David:

Wow, 15 years you have been going to the forum. How exciting! Thanks for sharing your perspective. It is interesting how the mood of the forum changed through the years. I continue to be impressed by the number of leaders from around the world who attend and still have the passion to better our world. However, I'm not surprised that Asia is being seen as the future. They are becoming a growing force. The U.S. has a big challenge on our hands to bring back the respect we have lost through the years and I'm glad that U.S. CEO's are not waiting for the government and showing their leadership by just doing the right thing. Thanks for the update.
Posted By Anonymous Jolene, St. Joseph, MI : 7:09 PM ET
Hey David, did you go to the panel w/Bono, Al Gore, and Thomas Friedman?
Davos sounds like both an enlightening and humbling experience. So we've been a rather disappointing country this decade. Uh...don't let it bring you down? (How consoling, I know!)
Posted By Anonymous rosephile, Minneapolis : 5:28 AM ET
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