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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

UN postcard: What is the great debate of our time? 

Should we share power or grab it? World leaders ponder the big questions

Former US President Bill Clinton arrives at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York, on  September 20, 2017. Brendan McDermid / Reuters
Former US President Bill Clinton arrives at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York, on September 20, 2017. Brendan McDermid / Reuters

As UN week got into full swing on Wednesday, with the second day of speeches in the general debate and discussions on the future of global governance, public health, climate change, conflict resolution and education, to mention just a few topics, former American president Bill Clinton encapsulated all these themes as being determined by "the great debate of our time".

That debate, he said at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum, was "whether we should share power or grab it, or whether social inclusion is better than domination". While not mentioning US President Donald Trump, Mr Clinton’s reference to "separatist tribalism" and divisions in society was seen as a reference to Mr Trump’s approach. Of course, no member of the Trump administration attended the event, a platform championing multilateralism and global cooperation. Addressing a question as to whether he had hosted the event as a counterpoint to Mrr Trump's policies, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, "I can’t speak for the current administration, it is new and its policies keep changing."

Despite its name, the inaugural Global Business Forum focused greatly on politics. In a nod to the legacy of the Clinton Global Initiative, the former president was given the prime position of opening speaker, and Mr Clinton used his platform to call for a rejection of "the separatist tribalism that you see in everything from the expulsion of the Rohingya in Myanmar, to the 11 million refugees.. out of Syria, to the pressures on Jordan and Lebanon, to what they're doing in Yemen, and what is happening in Venezuela."

French president Emmanuel Macron graced the forum as another champion of openness and multilateralism.

"‘We are in a very specific moment. We have a lot of global challenges: climate change, migrations, terrorism -- and for that, we do need multilateralism," he told those present.

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Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, acknowledged there was "a push against globalisation," and from Jack Ma, founder and head of e-commerce business Alibaba, came a sobering reminder of what can happen when technology is used incorrectly or abused.

"The first technology revolution brought World War I, the second technology revolution brought World War II," he said. What would the third technology revolution, the internet, bring? he wondered .

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and EU foreign minister Federica Mogherini - champions of liberalism, both — were also in attendance. To accommodate hectic schedules, the Bloomberg forum set up discussion panels of 25 minutes. On average, the world leaders present stayed at the Bloomberg event for 30 to 40 minutes before being ushered out and off to the next speaking engagement.

In his speech, Apple CEO Tim Cook focused on the need to keep borders open to "talent".

"If I was the leader of a country I would think of the best way to bring in the most talented people," he said. He criticised efforts to limit migration to the US. "You can’t change the world if you are ignoring the world."

And yet, the clear absence of voices disagreeing with the ‘"accepted norms" of liberalism showed there were voices being ignored, which limited any substantial debate.

The event wrapped up and the carpet in Bloomberg blue was replaced by the more traditional red. And 20 blocks south in Manhattan, the "great debate" continued.