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Political market place

February 4, 2010

This time of year is a busy period for the global political elite. As the Munich International Security Conference gets underway, we ask two experts just how important these meetings really are.

A hotel employee sweeps the street prior to the conference
Munich's Bayerischer Hof hotel is the next stop on the global conference circuitImage: AP

It's the same procedure every January. The year is barely a few weeks old and a massive stream of business travelers from all over the world is already en route to Europe. The main destinations for thousands of political leaders and executives are Davos and Munich.

In the Swiss mountains the World Economic Forum, as it regularly does, this year attracted more than 2000 delegates. Munich's Security Conference traditionally taking place this week usually attracts around 300 participants.

But that's not all. Add to those long established venues this year's new Global Zero Summit with its focus on nuclear disarmament held in Paris squeezed in the few remaining days between Davos and Munich and the DLD conference on digital innovation in Munich right before the World Economic Forum and you can appreciate why a good travel consultant is necessary for the many people participating in more than one conference.

While the meetings in Davos and Munich by now have a long history, they are criticized on a regular basis for what essentially are two contradictory reasons. One is that at these private gatherings, high-profile figures make decisions behind close doors and thus effectively undermine the work of the legitimate international bodies. And two, that these meetings are just hyped-up talking shops that have no real significance and therefore are basically superfluous.

No threat to UN

"I wouldn't share this criticism," says Juergen Chrobog, a former state secretary in the German Foreign Office and ambassador to the US. "I think the conferences in Munich or Davos are not meant to solve problems, to lead to certain results."

Werner Weidenfeld, who served for twelve years as the German government's coordinator of transatlantic relations and currently directs the Munich based think tank Center for Applied Policy Research, agrees that conferences such as Davos and Munich do not undermine the work of United Nations and other institutions designated to solving global problems.

Participants pass sign at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland
Private meetings are no threat to the work of the UN, say expertsImage: AP Graphics

Both experts point out that these conferences in no way can or want to rival the formal decision making processes at UN level or other official venues. No politician would skip an important UN meeting because of these private conferences. Major decisions, the experts argue, are prepared long before important global meetings and concluded at these meetings.

What about the claim then that these private meetings are essentially much ado about nothing?

Chrobog, who declares jokingly that he himself has not only attended many, but too many of these conferences and has limited his participation in recent years, nevertheless believes that this meetings do serve an important function.

"It's simply for people to get together and have a free exchange of views and to allow them develop their own ideas," he says. "That's very important. People have to meet, they have to get together, they have to build networks."

Events like Davos and Munich are attractive because they make it easy to do exactly that Participants can meet lots of people in a very short time.

Nothing wrong with communication

Just because these conferences don't produce results, doesn't mean they aren't valuable, Weidenfeld told Deutsche Welle and points to an important, but often neglected aspect of the nature of politics.

"You have to realize that politics is also about communication," he says. "Everything is perception. How do the other actors perceive the reality and the problems. What do the others think that I am thinking and what is their reaction to my way of thinking about a problem. I think this is the positive aspect of these kind of activities."

While Chrobog and Weidenfeld argue that private gatherings like the ones in Davos and Munich have a place in the political calendar, they both feel that with many new venues springing up all the time, the conference circuit has gotten very crowded and events have become too big and similar in nature.

The biggest danger for the conferences however, stems not from the meetings themselves, but from the expectations of concrete outcomes. People and the media shouldn't exaggerate the meaning of those conferences and expect concrete results.

"It's more or less a market place of politics to exchange perceptions", says Weidenfeld. "It is a certain form of a vanity fair with a great deficit on strategic thinking and real problem solving."

No problem solving

"I think they have a certain importance, but they will not change the world", says Juergen Chrobog who currently heads the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt. "They never helped me to solve a problem, to be very frank." But, he adds, some of the people he met at conferences did actually help him to solve problems later.

US Vice President Joe Biden, left, meets French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the International Conference on Security Policy in Munich
Nicholas Sarkozy didn't mince words last year in MunichImage: AP

Asked about how he personally benefitted from these conferences, Werner Weidenfeld tells an anecdote about last year's Security Conference in Munich involving French president Nicolas Sarkozy. The president had just delivered a very tough speech that stood out from the previous soft addresses given by other leaders.

"Then there was a coffee break and I observed that none of the other top politicians from America, from Germany or elsewhere talked to President Sarkozy. He stood alone in the corner, nobody talked to him, because his speech had been too tough in their mind. Then I myself went to him and talked to him and he was so grateful that he almost tried to kiss me. So I learned first hand that Sarkozy doesn't only have friends in international politics."

Author: Michael Knigge
Report: Rob Turner