The Last Clinton Global Initiative Meet Marks the Sharp Decline of Davos Culture

It seemed at first like one of the all-time great political ideas. Hold the then emerging Clinton Foundation's Global Initiative summit at the same time as the annual United Nations General Assembly gathering of heads of government. Could there be a better way to position a former Presidency and a further Presidency?

At first, it was a spectacular success, coinciding as it did not only with the highest profile annual UN confab but also with the apex of Davos culture. That was the belief that the great and the good, as the Brits had it, or the best and the brightest, as non-ironic Americans (or at least those who hadn't really read David Halberstam's classic on the architects of the Vietnam War) had it -- many of whom gathered for annual summits of the World Economic Forum at a famous little town in the Swiss Alps -- provided a real path forward for the solution of big problems around the world.

It all played great in the media.

But instead of fostering a benign new world order the Clintons supposed was the wave of the future during much of the Bill Clinton Presidency, Davos culture instead mostly provided a high gloss over the grimy developments of an emerging new world chaos.

Like many, I found the Davos concept to be fascinating, especially in an age in which problems increasingly transcend conventional borders and nationalism itself. So I was pleased to be asked to help on a keynote address for Davos late in the last decade.

In the event, the principal canceled the appearance. So no glamorous Gulfstream trip to the Swiss Alps. And in any event, my interest had already cooled somewhat as I looked more deeply into the doings of Davos itself. The proceedings looked more than a little self-congratulatory for already existing global elites, in some cases even fatuous, dominated by the one percent of wealth rather than intellect.

Former Bill Clinton opines at the 2015 Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York City. "We are in the middle of defining the terms of our interdependence, in a world where so much of our identity is caught up in our differences." Which, as a truism, is true enough. At least as far as it goes.

I'm not sure who today takes Davos all that seriously. Problems spin alarmingly in place or spiral out of control. The super-rich, big corporations and financial institutions, and those who attend them, look now like self-interested advocates gilding their own self-oriented agendas more than public-spirited futurists. What progress is achieved generally moves on very separate tracks.

Let's just say it was a different, more credulous, media era.

At least the Clinton Foundation is not just a yakfest threatening to melt a snowy landscape with its hot air.

In fact, the Clinton Foundation has carried out a lot of good works. It's helped train rural farmers and help them get access to seeds, equipment and markets for their crops; helped governments in Africa and the Caribbean region with reforestation efforts; helped a variety of nations to develop renewable energy projects; and has worked in dozens of nations to lower the cost of HIV/AIDS medicine, scale up pediatric AIDS treatment and promote treatment of diarrhea.

Yet there is something oddly tin-eared about it, especially considering that it has been headed up by someone, Bill Clinton, who is one of the most adept politicians of recent history. Rather than adjust to a world in which the rich are no longer worshiped as they once were, the Clinton Foundation has continued with splashy demonstrations of wealth up to and including last weekend's megabucks Bill Clinton 70th birthday party at Manhattan's glitzy Rainbow Room.

And despite the fact that the Clinton Global Initiative New York summit has served as the stage for the announcement of important initiatives, it is also true that too many of the feel-good, high-profile announcements have ended up meaning not much.

And even if one posits that pay-for-play charges rest largely on unfortunate circumstance, it is also true that there is an unfortunate pattern of payment for access.

So Hillary Clinton, who met a great many Clinton Foundation contributors during her busy time as US secretary of state -- a time which coincided with boosts in the former president's already sky-high speaking fees -- is forced to skip this announced last dance for the Clinton Global Initiative. As is her former rival-turned-boss, President Barack Obama. Who it turned out did not have much say over the Clinton Foundation after all.

But even this late adjustment of Hillary's tin ear around the Clinton Foundation and its Global Initiative hasn't improved another part of her hearing.

She boasted that she would nonetheless play on the global stage this week in New York in ways that Donald Trump supposedly can't by meeting with world leaders. Specifically, with the presidents of Egypt and Ukraine.

But the president of Egypt is a general who seized power from the country's only democratically elected president in a coup, a dictator who has gone on to crack down on the country's legitimate democratic forces, jailing thousands of activists. And the president of Ukraine is a billionaire oligarch who is caught up in the Panama Papers scandal.

Oh, well, right?

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