Rich, Famous and Powerful Converge at Bilderberg
Staff Writer, CNBC.com
Dominique Strauss-Kahn, naturally, isn't attending this year, and his likely successor Christine Lagarde is in China, but the Bilderberg Conference which kicks off in the Swiss resort of St. Moritz on Thursday retains its conspiratorial chic and pulling power.
The attendee list of Bilderberg is still pretty much the only thing that is not a closely guarded secret, as 120 of the world's richest and most powerful people meet behind closed doors, this time at the Suvretta House hotel in Switzerland, a venue which not only boasts a "fairytale castle" design, but also its own "Teddy World."
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne are known to have attended in the past, although it seems unlikely that either will attend this week.
A spokesperson at the U.K. Treasury press office said it "didn't know" whether or not Osborne would go this year, but promised to call CNBC.com back. They did not. Given the secretive spirit of Bilderberg, that could well be taken as a confirmation.
The first Bilderberg meeting in 1954 was an attempt to stamp out post-war anti-Americanism in Europe, bringing together senior U.S. and European figures to meet and discuss the international challenges of the day.
Since then, the rich and powerful have continued to meet. The2010 event, in Sitges, Spain, included on its agenda "The Growing Influence of Cyber Technology," "Security in a Proliferated World," "Promises of Medical Science," and "Can We Feed the World." according to its official website.
Its secrecy only serves to add fuel to the innumerable conspiracy theories that circulate around the event, with Internet message boards often channelling Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown and putting the "club" in the same bracket as the Freemasons and "Illuminati."
The 120 participants attend in a private capacity and, officially, they do not forge agreements over global economic policy.
"Bilderberg is a small, flexible, informal and off-the-record international forum in which different viewpoints can be expressed and mutual understanding enhanced. Bilderberg's only activity is its annual conference. At the meetings, no resolutions are proposed, no votes taken, and no policy statements issued," the official Bilderberg website says.
In which case, you might ask, what is the point of Bilderberg?
Andrew Kakabadse is professor of international management development at Cranfield University. For his recent book "Bilderberg People," co-authored with Nada Kakabadse and Ian Richardson, Kakabadse interviewed a number of past attendees in order to understand how the network of global influence works.
"It's a meeting. It's not an organization. It's not an official summit," he told CNBC.com. "It's basically a meeting of friends.
"The Bilderbergs are probably the most influential global network of all time. It's an honor to be invited, it's a tremendous honor. Part of it is recognition for work done and part of it is for contribution to enabling world affairs.
"The people we talked to are quite genuine. Mostly they don't understand the conspiracy bit, because they say when you go there what you find is people of all sorts of varying views. But the fact that they've been invited is indicative of the position that they've reached in life," he said.
Nevertheless, Bilderberg is where ideas are shared and a transatlantic, capitalist consensus view of the world comes together.
"You do get the impression that what is happening is a shaping of ideas and the shaping of a way forward does take place," Kakabadse said.
"The name we'd put to this is smart power or shaping, but it is definitely not doing something definite, like 'we're going to go and make that investment or conspire against them.' It's more about getting a consensus around a position that then infiltrates itself into society."
The networking opportunities are unique, he added.
"Had you not gone to a Bilderberg meeting, you may not be able to ring X and for them to answer the phone directly. Having gone to a Bilderberg meeting, that happens," he said. "It may have taken you six months hard consulting to get into somebody's diary. Having gone to a Bilderberg meeting, it takes two minutes on the phone."
"There's many reasons why people want to go to the Bilderberg meetings, there are many advantages at a personal level, but then I suppose there's the supreme professional advantage of being recognized as a person who has the capability and has achieved a position in life where you can influence thinking on world affairs," Kakabadse said.
That "supreme advantage," however, can come at a price. Different people identify themselves differently with the meetings, Kakabadse said, but the greatest anxiety over acceptance, he noted, is amongst those who are invited once, but not asked again.