World Economic Forum ends on a note of optimism

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DAVOS, Switzerland - If talk produces action, the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum that concluded here yesterday could herald progress on issues such as fighting misery in the developing world and achieving Middle East peace.

Prominent political and business leaders used the five-day event to unveil pledges of aid to poor nations with a focus on concrete solutions, such as speeding the flow to Africa of generic drugs to combat AIDS and mosquito nets to prevent malaria.

In addition, upbeat Israeli-Palestinian conversations raised hopes that this year could bring new areas of international consensus.

"There is a meeting of moods as well as of minds," said Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres during a panel discussion with Palestinian counterparts last week.

Nonetheless, the hopeful mood was tinged with concern about perennial triggers for global strife: Iran's nuclear program, trans-Atlantic discord and U.S. deficits that could threaten world economic stability.

Even when it came to Africa, perhaps the most prominent issue at Davos, a closing discussion yesterday highlighted differences over strategy as well as agreement that the time has come to act.

In contrast to Europeans who favor using international institutions, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and John Thain, the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, emphasized the response of nations and free markets.

"The trade policies of Europe have denied access to agricultural exporters from some of the poorest countries in the world," Howard said. He said Africa would benefit enormously if Europe drops trade tariffs and farm subsidies that block African commodities from European markets.

French President Jacques Chirac will have a harder time persuading his voters to forgo domestic farm subsidies than accept an international anti-poverty tax, a proposal he offered here last week to a lukewarm response from corporate executives.

There was more enthusiasm about a British proposal to create a mechanism for floating bonds on financial markets to raise aid money.

European leaders said the time has come for revitalizing a trans-Atlantic alliance hurt by divisions over Iraq. They also said European negotiators should be given time and U.S. support for seeking a diplomatic accord over Iran's nuclear program.

Participants say nonproliferation could serve as a unifying issue for Europeans and the Americans seeking rapprochement. President Bush's visit to Belgium and Germany next month will be decisive on that point.

For all the talk about helping the developing world and reaffirming alliances, Western nations have internal economic challenges to confront, participants agreed. There were warnings here about the future of the global economy and the U.S. budget and trade deficits that have contributed to the dropping value of the U.S. dollar against the euro.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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