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Elephants come back down to earth

Published Aug. 27, 2005

A year ago, at the Davos World Economic Forum, I saw elephants fly. Yes, sir, right here in the Swiss Alps I saw big ideas defying gravity. At this year's Davos forum, though, all the elephants came crashing down. Turns out elephants can't fly after all _ and the world is a better place for it.

Since Davos gathers together a sample of global leaders, business executives and social activists, it's a good place to take the world's pulse. Last year's Davos was dominated by three big ideas. The first was put forth by Bush officials that the United States not only was ready to invade Iraq largely on its own, but could also pull off regime change there without the help of either the United Nations or major allies _ France, Germany and Russia.

This year, Vice President Dick Cheney, who, more than any Bush official resisted cooperation with the United Nations in the Iraq war, made a firm, low-key defense of the U.S. policy. But after Cheney spoke, a "senior administration official" privately told reporters that the Bush team was ready to give the United Nations pretty much whatever authority it wanted to help oversee Iraq's transition to elections _ and the only thing standing in the way was whether the United Nations would assume the risks. It turns out that while there is no regime in the world the United States can't destroy on its own, there is none that it can rebuild on its own.

Last year, France was indulging its illusion that it could galvanize all the antiwar, anti-U.S. sentiment to make itself the great global Uncola to America's Coca-Cola _ the new balancer to America. It would be a win-win for President Jacques Chirac. He would enhance his political stature at home by opposing America and make France the supreme power in Europe, marginalizing Britain.

A year later, France was not only unable to stop the war, but it paid a big price in Europe. "It turned out to be lose-lose for France," remarked Peter Schwartz, head of the Global Business Network. By going to such lengths to oppose the United States, and by denouncing those Europeans who sided with America, France drove pro-U.S. Europeans, like Poland and Spain, deeper into the U.S. camp, noted Schwartz. This, in turn, gave Poland and Spain more backbone to resist German and French demands for greater control over E.U. affairs.

France was not quite the elephant it thought it was, and the winds of anti-Americanism couldn't carry it any further than its real economic and military weight. Thud.

The last elephant to crash was the antiglobalization protesters, who almost shut Davos down the last two years. This year, they were nowhere. Maybe because this year it was the Western business executives who were besieging their colleagues from India and China. They wanted to hear from the Indians about how Western firms could shift more service jobs _ ranging from software design to reading X-rays _ to India, and from the Chinese how they could absorb more manufacturing.

With the world's two biggest developing countries doing so well by globalizing in their own ways, it's no wonder much of the hot air has come out of the antiglobalization movement, which never did have any real alternative growth strategy.

So in the end, the laws of gravity in geopolitics and geoeconomics brought everyone back to earth.

"What we have here are not friendships regained but lost illusions," says Josef Joffe, editor of Germany's Die Zeit. "With the Bush administration politely asking the United Nations for help in Iraq, Gulliver now realizes that . . . the most important interests require legitimacy and cooperation, especially in Iraq. The French and Germans learned that by trying to make the giant stumble, they ended up splitting Europe.

"So now you have this teeth-gnashing effort at rapprochement. It is a sobering up and a rethinking of power on both sides of the Atlantic _ and no one is having fun doing it. . . . The Bush team has not really been converted to a more generous view of diplomacy, and the Europeans still have their fears and own agenda."

In short, gravity has moderated everyone's behavior, but big disagreements about how to order the world still lurk beneath this surface calm. Any new big crisis could bring them all to the surface. So enjoy this calm, but don't look underneath. Thierry de Montbrial, a French foreign affairs expert, told me that this moment reminded him of a joke: Mikhail Gorbachev was once asked how _ in one word _ he would sum up the Soviet economy. "Good," he said. Then he was asked how _ in two words _ he would sum up the Soviet economy: "Not good," he said.

Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.

New York Times News Service