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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 January, 2004, 15:55 GMT
Transatlantic thaw as Davos freezes

By Tim Weber
BBC News Online business editor in Davos

Vice President Dick Cheney
Dick Cheney: Hoping for a warm welcome
Tensions? What tensions?

A year ago, officials from Europe and the United States were barely on speaking terms at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The war in Iraq was weeks away and "old Europe" deeply critical of US policy.

But just as the snow clouds have finally lifted over Davos, plunging the valley into a deep freeze of minus 16C, relations are thawing inside the congress centre.

Originally the US government had planned to send a distinctly second-rate delegation to Davos.

There is not the venom or aggressiveness that was there six months or a year ago
Richard Haass, Council on Foreign Relations
Now at last it is wheeling out the big guns - and they promise to talk peace.

Vice President Dick Cheney has been persuaded to make what is only his second foreign trip since the Bush administration got into office.

He is due to hold Saturday's keynote speech, and in Washington US officials are promising that he wants to encourage even the critics of the Iraq war to participate in rebuilding the country.

Germany's economics minister Wolfgang Clement, one of the many top officials among the forum's 2,100 participants, will no doubt want this message to be loud and clear.

'Building bridges'

Richard Haass, President of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, says the mood has definitely changed.

US Secretary of Commerce, Donald Evans
Donald Evans noticed the improved atmosphere
"There are still differences over specific issues - Iraq, trade - but there is not the venom or aggressiveness that was there six months or a year ago."

There may be a "residue of resentment", he says, but this year's Davos is about "building bridges", not making accusations.

Donald Evans is as good a star witness for this thesis as they come.

The US commerce secretary confesses that - compared to last year, when he was confronted with "lots of concerns" - this time round he "feels a different reception".

What the Americans have done for us

And Professor Klaus Schwab, the 'inventor' of Davos says that this year transatlantic tensions are a "non-issue".

"Look how much the world has changed over the past year", he tells BBC News Online.

"We have the Iranian president Khatami here, and Libya's prime minister, officials from India and Pakistan... I believe all this is to some part only possible because of the US intervention in Iraq ... and the Europeans realise that and are more sympathetic," argues Professor Schwab.

Not everybody will see it quite that way, but speaking to participants at Davos it is obvious that nobody wants to be reminded of last year's disputes.

Business optimism

Peter Sutherland, former director general of the World Trade Organisation and now chairman of Goldman Sachs International, says there is "definitely less tension than last year".

Klaus Schwab, founder and president of the World Economic Forum
Klaus Schwab: Europe "sympathetic"
"The United States has started a positive momentum, and now the focus has to be on growth, and to ensure the sustainability of the economic recovery," says Mr Sutherland.

And it is business people who seem to be determined to spread optimism.

Dietmar Kuhnt, former chief executive of German energy giant RWE, speaks of a new detente.

"After all we have to work together," he says.

And like all other business people I spoke to, he insists that the only real tensions were those between politicians, not business itself.

"The situation never got bad, neither in Europe nor in the United States," says Mr Kuhnt, although he concedes that things could have got out of control if the political animosity had lasted long enough to influence the feelings of consumers.

Out of the dangerzone

His comments are echoed by Nasdaq chief executive Robert Greifeld.

"Whatever political tensions existed, no serious business person in the US would have jeopardised any business relations over this," he tells me.

And anyway, Mr Greifeld adds, "we are now out of the dangerzone".

Mr Cheney can breathe a little easier as he settles down in the seat of the airforce plane taking him to Europe.


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