British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac urged political and economic leaders Wednesday to take drastic action against poverty and global warming as the World Economic Forum began its annual meeting here.
Blair and Chirac used the gathering of major world figures at this Alpine resort to speak for a European Union that was trying to forge an assertive foreign policy targeting social and environmental causes. In contrast to the major initiatives and strong turnout by European leaders, there were notably fewer high-level U.S. officials present than in previous years.
And the opening messages highlighted tensions between Europe and the U.S. Whereas Blair called climate change one of the most urgent international challenges today, the Bush administration remains a holdout from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming.
Chirac proposed new international taxes to fund the fight against poverty and disease in the developing world and soften the alleged damage done by what the French see as aggressive, U.S.-driven economic globalization. Chirac’s proposal, delivered by videoconference hookup, and his praise for the United Nations seemed likely to clash with Washington’s free-market views and distrust of the world body.
Nonetheless, the speeches stopped short of presenting a united front. Blair praised Bush’s inaugural address outlining a U.S. mission to spread freedom, and the British leader scoffed at the frequent European description of Bush administration officials as lone-wolf conservatives.
“I always thought that progressives were in favor of freedom rather than tyranny,” Blair said. “The underlying thesis of the speech, it seemed to me, was that terrorism cannot be defeated by military might alone. The more people live under democracy with human dignity intact, the less inclined they or their state would be to indulge terrorism or to engage in it.... It is the very antithesis of isolationism, the very essence of international engagement.”
Without mentioning France, Blair also dismissed the very French vision of a multipolar world in which rising regional powers such as the European Union, China and India would eventually counterbalance the U.S. superpower.
Calling climate change an urgent threat, Blair said scientific evidence compelled him to push for action in his current role as head of the Group of 8 industrial nations.
“Business and the global economy need to know that this isn’t an issue that is going away,” Blair said.
The overall message of the day was that this year brings rare opportunities for renewed international cooperation. Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, said this sense of hope stemmed from concurring milestones: Bush’s second term, the recent election of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, this Sunday’s historic balloting in Iraq and the electoral triumph in Ukraine of reformist President Viktor Yushchenko.
Yushchenko and Abbas are to address the Davos event, which brings together top figures from the political, corporate, academic and cultural worlds. Abbas also is to meet here with Shimon Peres, Israel’s vice premier, and other high-level Israelis.
The agenda at Davos highlights cutting-edge issues and ideas. The participants singled out education, poverty and global governance as top priorities. This reflects a desire to move beyond recent preoccupation with terrorism and Iraq.
The focus on social commitment also continues an effort to refute critics who dismiss the meeting as an elitist retreat in a snowy oasis guarded by thousands of police and soldiers.
Blair and Chirac called for partnerships between governments and corporations to take on Third World crises, especially in beleaguered Africa.
Chirac outlined an experimental international tax that initially would be used to finance AIDS programs. The idea could involve levying taxes on international financial transactions, capital flows into countries whose bank secrecy laws attract tax evasion, or ship and plane fuel.
Funds also could be raised by placing a $1 tax on the 3 billion airline tickets now being purchased each year, Chirac said.
“What is striking in each of these examples is the disproportion between the modesty of the needed effort and the benefits for all that would result,” he said.
He said the initiative would give a globalized economy that mainly enriched Western nations “its ethical dimension, humanize it, control it, enlarge it to the real dimensions of the world.”
Participants in the conference are also to include former President Clinton; Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and outgoing U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, Bush’s nominee as deputy secretary of State; as well as leaders from other nations, among them Germany, Turkey and Brazil.
Organizers said more top U.S. officials could not attend because the Bush administration was immersed in the transition to a new term.