The Common Good

Jim Wallis: State of the Union - Reactions in Davos

DAVOS, Switzerland - The first comments I heard in response to President Bush's State of the Union message were from a diverse group of business, political, media, and civil society leaders from all over the world, gathered in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum. It was discussed at the first session of the morning, which focused on the current state of geopolitical affairs in the United States.

It was noted that the president spoke to a number of domestic issues and tried to reach out to a new Democratic Congress. There were hopeful signs on energy independence, with a direct reference to the problems of "climate change," a word not often heard from Mr. Bush. Some new initiatives, like a 20% gasoline consumption reduction over 10 years, don't go nearly far enough to really address global warming, but they are nevertheless a step in the right direction. Similarly on health care, Bush acknowledged the problem of the uninsured, but fell short of a plan to cover them. He again made a commitment to comprehensive immigration reform, which has more support among the new Democratic majority than in his own party.

But most of the questions and discussion topics in the seminar for these world business and social leaders were about American foreign policy - especially with regards to Iraq, Iran, and the Middle East. It reminded me again of just how badly the United States is now perceived, almost universally, around the world. And Bush was implacable on Iraq, vigorously defending his plan to escalate (he still says "win") a failed and disastrous war. Jay Nordlinger, the Managing Editor of the conservative National Review, rather sheepishly pointed out that Bush was doing what he believed in, despite its unpopularity, and that was a kind of leadership. Others weren't so kind, calling U.S. policy that pits "triumphalism" against "realism" nothing short of "delusional."

And there was even more concern about the potential for an American (or Israeli) military air strike against Iran. One of the panelists was The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who I met this morning for the first time. I have been deeply moved by many of his columns on Darfur, the modern slavery of sex trafficking, human rights, and foreign policy from a deeply moral perspective. I told him he was "doing the Lord's work," which got me a big smile. Kristof spoke very seriously about North Korea and Iran's progress toward nuclear weapons, but also said that an American military strike aimed at Iran's nuclear facilities in various cities would be "the height of irresponsibility," an action that would just give the "hardliners" more power.

David Gergen, of U.S. News and World Report and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, recalled flying on Air Force One in 1974 with Richard Nixon to Syria for intensive diplomatic negotiations. He suggested that no president since then (and he has worked for several of them - both Republican and Democrat) would have considered such military action without the kind of intensive and sophisticated diplomacy which we have yet to attempt with Iran. "To even be talking about a possible air strike this year, without that sort of diplomatic effort is," Gergen said, "Nuts!" He recalled a conversation with a European journalist the day before where the United States was portrayed as the "worst governed" nation in the developed world.

But for all the alarm and anger at George Bush, there was a great deal of hope expressed about America. Gergen said that "signs of hope are in the air, with a real desire for change." He pointed to many signs of hope: the nation being "ripe" for real immigration reform; new plans for comprehensive health care in several states; new ideas for education in places like New York City and the great popularity of programs like Teach for America; CEO's grappling with global warming; and a new generation of social entrepreneurs looking for answers. "America," David said, "has always had a great capacity for self-correction," and suggested that "the old order is passing, and a new order may be coming into place." Someone else humorously paraphrased Winston Churchill by saying, "you can always trust America to do the right thing, after exhausting every other alternative."

Arianna Huffington, the editor of the explosively growing blog, The Huffington Post, was equally optimistic about the future despite Bush's policies (about which she noted, "conviction against all evidence is fanaticism"). She said that questions like global warming, health care, and Iraq are now majority concerns, "70% issues, not "Left/Right issues." The key, Arianna said, is for journalists in particular to stop the Left/Right framing of issues, and for all of us to see things as "moral issues that go beyond just the sexual ones, and include matters like poverty. She called for "a new politics, beyond Left and Right, but rather from a moral center," and graciously pointed to our work, at Sojourners, for putting politics in those terms.

Despite the broad hostility to U. S. policies around the world, I am often amazed at how much goodwill there is toward Americans. And in another session this afternoon, a panel of international analysts from across the globe said that despite multi-polar shifts of power toward other nations (especially in Asia), U.S. influence will be unmatched in the world for the foreseeable future - hence the need for good leadership rather than bad dominance. Tomorrow I speak at a plenary session, here in Davos, on the role of religion, multiculturalism, and pluralism in all of this. Say a prayer.

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