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Bright ideas in the Wild West

By Jonathan Marcus
Diplomatic correspondent, BBC News

Rocky Mountains, Aspen
Luminaries gathered in spectacular surroundings to trade ideas

Aspen, high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in what used to be the "Wild Wild West" is perhaps an unlikely setting for a festival of ideas.

Nestled between soaring peaks, it was once famed as a frontier silver-mining town. It enjoyed a brief boom towards the end of the 19th Century. But its prosperity was short-lived and it settled into a long period of decline.

But Aspen revived in the years after World War II with a new boom based on tourism - skiing and outdoor pursuits. There are still patches of ice on some of the mountain tops as I sit here even in July.

But ideas also contributed to this resurgence: this high-altitude setting is also the home of some lofty thinking, hosted by the Aspen Institute - organisers of the Ideas Festival - which brings together politicians, academics, artists and people from the world of commerce for a week-long session of brain-storming and debate.

All of these people have come here with one central conviction. It is that ideas matter and especially so in a presidential election year. Men and women can change the world by thinking about problems and by approaching them in new ways.

Audiences clearly share a profound unease about the capacities of their government

Hundreds of people pay to attend - it is probably the most intellectual holiday camp in the world, set on a university-like campus with electric golf carts shuttling back and forth.

The festival opened with several key-note speakers offering brief summaries of their "big ideas"; a kind of smorgasbord for the brain.

Professor Lawrence Lessig of the Stanford Law School focused on what he sees as the corrupting effect of the quest for money in the US political system.

"The most impossible idea that you will hear during the festival will be the one that makes you put trust and faith in our government," he said.

John Holdren of Harvard University issued a clarion call for America to assume leadership in the struggle against climate change.

Senior physician Dr David Katz's big idea was what he called "a food supply for dummies" - simple labelling of all food-stuffs to show what was healthy, with the goal of trying to turn back the rising tide of diabetes and heart disease.

Leadership calls

Daily sessions typically begin at 7.45 in the morning: you have to be willing to take your dose of ideas early.

Aspen Ideas Festival banner
Delegates pondered whether ideas could really make a difference

What does the audience make of it? Well they seem to lap it up. Many are here for the second or third time. They clearly love the surroundings and love their ability to rub shoulders with the good and the great.

The age range is towards people in their middle years, the clientele clearly prosperous - Aspen is that kind of place.

But their questions are often probing. Speakers are listened to attentively but do not always get an easy ride. The proceedings reach a wider world by way of the web and the Aspen Institute itself has a year-round range of activities and study groups.

But can ideas really make a difference? Again and again speakers - whether from the world of science, industry or the universities - have returned to one theme: the need for leadership.

And audiences clearly share a profound unease about the capacities of their government.

Smart power

I sat chatting with Joe Nye in one of the tented refreshment areas with an electrical storm rumbling in the distance. Professor Nye of Harvard University is an expert on power.

If he could not tell me how to turn some of these ideas into practical policy then no-one could.

Having coined the terms hard and soft power to distinguish between say the Pentagon's military might and the attractive power of America's universities, he subsequently went on to argue the case for the blending of these two kinds of power into a new amalgam - something he now calls smart power.

With the presidential election looming, he is now thinking very hard about leadership.

President George W Bush, he noted, had described himself as "a decider" - the man at the top who makes the decisions. This, said Professor Nye, was old-style leadership. The next president would have to use smart power - a mixture of tools - to prevail in the policy debate.

Both of the contenders for the White House, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, displayed, he said, an attractive tendency to look beyond their own circles for advice.

There is clearly no shortage of ideas, but so far the machinery is not in place to create a new, less hierarchical style of government to put the best of those ideas into practice.

According to Professor Nye, if America ever needed a dose of smart power it is now.


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