The Portuguese sun was doing its cheery best to make this year’s Bilderberg meeting seem warm and welcoming, but nothing could take the deathly chill out of the official agenda of the secretive shindig for some of the world’s most powerful people.
Ukraine, Russia and Nato weighed heavy on the schedule, with “Fiscal Challenges” and “Transnational Threats” seeming like light relief. “Today,” said the head of Nato, Jens Stoltenberg, arriving in Lisbon to attend the talks, “our security environment is more dangerous than it has been since the cold war.”
This annual three-day conference is many things – an elite networking event, a diplomatic summit, a lobbying opportunity for transnational financial interests, an intense focus of conspiracy theory gossip – but above all, the 69th Bilderberg conference, at the glorious Pestana Palace, appeared like a council of war.
Ukraine’s foreign minister hadn’t come to Lisbon because he loves the happy clatter of trams, and the supreme allied commander Europe wasn’t here for the custard tarts. Which was a shame, because they’re excellent. I guess they can’t risk dusting them with cinnamon in Henry Kissinger’s presence, because one sneeze might be enough to carry him off to his reward.
On the eve of Kissinger’s centenary, the former US secretary of state and longtime Bilderberg kingpin will be delighted, or whatever dull ache he feels instead of delight, to see so many US intelligence officials at this year’s meeting.
They’re Kissinger’s kind of people.
Biden sent his director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, and his senior director for strategic planning at the national security council, Thomas Wright, plus a shadowy gaggle of White House strategists and spooks. Among them, Jen Easterly – the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, who said recently that the western world faces two “epoch-defining threats and challenges” – artificial intelligence and China, both of which feature on this year’s agenda.
Aside from Ukraine, it was these issues which dominated thinking in Lisbon.
China’s overarching aim is “to rearrange the world order” said Lisbon attendee Elizabeth Economy, who’s participating in her second Bilderberg as Biden’s senior adviser for China at the Department of Commerce.
The rise of what she called “a China-centric order with its own norms and values” is a gauntlet thrown down at Bilderberg, the elite forum which has helped frame and foster the western world order for nearly seven decades. They don’t mind a new world order, but they want it to be manufactured at Bilderberg, not made in China.
The twin threats of China and technology are intertwined in the thinking of Bilderberg board member Eric Schmidt. Just a few days ago the former boss of Google told a congressional hearing that AI “is very much at the center” of the competition between China and the US. And that “China is now dedicating enormous resources to outpace the US in technologies, in particular AI.”
Schmidt acknowledges the existential risks of AI, even warning that “things could be worse than people are saying”, but rejects the call made by some AI experts, including Elon Musk, for a six-month pause in AI development, because any delay “will simply benefit China”. There seemed a darkly ironic logic at play: we have to push ahead with developing something which might destroy us before China develops it into something that might destroy us.
Another of the Silicon Valley luminaries in Lisbon was Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI.
Earlier this week, Altman shared his concerns about AI at a US Senate hearing, and warned of the growing capacity for AI to bamboozle the voting public with plausible fakery – a particular worry for Altman “given that we’re going to face an election next year and these models are getting better”.
Interestingly, the question of “US Leadership” is on the conference agenda here at Bilderberg, although with the looming release of OpenAI’s next generation ChatGPT-5, the 2024 presidential debates might well be won by a witty and charismatic chatbot.
Altman is in favour of “regulatory intervention by governments” which he says “will be critical to mitigate the risks of increasingly powerful models”. But not everyone here at Bilderberg agrees.
Schmidt says that AI needs “appropriate guardrails” but caused a stir last week for suggesting, rather snootily, that AI companies should be self-regulating, because “there’s no way a non-industry person can understand what is possible.”
The more than two dozen politicians at this year’s Bilderberg might take issue with that argument. But we’ll never know, because the entire conference takes place behind closed doors, with zero press oversight. Nothing’s leaking out from behind the luxuriant bougainvilleas of the Pestana Palace.
Incredibly, Kissinger has been attending Bilderberg conferences on and off since 1957. His “preoccupation with secrecy and personal diplomacy”, as a 1975 profile of the controversial statesman put it, fits perfectly with Bilderberg’s ferocious desire to keep the annual talks private.
But it’s a desire that sometimes tumbles over into paranoia. On Thursday the Guardian met the European head of Bilderberg, Victor Halberstadt, coming out of a pharmacy in Lisbon, clutching a packet of barrier skin cream. Halberstadt didn’t just ignore a polite media approach he flat-out denied that he was Victor Halberstadt and then hopped into a Mercedes which whisked him off through the security cordon.
This kind of cold war cloak-and-daggerism seems oddly anachronistic for a conference that is hosting a cutting-edge conversation about artificial intelligence with the CEOs of DeepMind and Microsoft. That said, all the ducking and weaving seems to work, if the endgame is inattention by the press.
Considering the number and seniority of public figures and policymakers who attend, Bilderberg, there is eerie lack of coverage in the world’s mainstream press. This year the roster reads just in part: three prime ministers, two deputy PMs, the president of the European parliament, the president of Eurogroup, the vice-president of the European Commission, two EU commissioners, an MEP, any number of European ministers and a member of the House of Lords, Dambisa Moyo – who, besides being a baroness, is also on the board of giant oil company, Chevron.
As ever, big oil was a powerful presence at Bilderberg, with the heads of Total, BP and Galp getting a seat at the table. Big pharma had a healthy presence, with the heads of Merck and Pfizer and a director of AstraZeneca on the list. And the international chemicals industry is represented by the CEO of BASF and a board member of Coca-Cola.
Naturally enough, the likely primary interest of these chairmen, directors and CEOs is their bottom line, to which end they’re always keen to ensure industry regulations are bent in their favour. Luckily, many of them are senior members of trade federations and commercial lobbying groups.
A good example is the International Institute of Finance, a major force in global financial governance. It’s chaired by the head of Banco Santander and Bilderberg steering committee member, Ana Botín. John Waldron, president of Goldman Sachs, is also on the board. These are two of the most powerful financial lobbyists in the world, and yet they get three luxurious days to chew the fat with the policymakers.
This is the dark heart of Bilderberg’s accountability problem. Just because the conference plays out in private doesn’t mean the talks take place in some kind of sanctified orb, in which the commercial concerns of a Luxembourg-based hedge fund boss like Rolly van Rappard, the co-chair of CVC Capital Partners, are somehow temporarily suspended.
When the Spanish foreign minister is mulling over Ukraine with the head of Nato, he’s doing so within earshot of some of the world’s most rapacious investors, like Henry Kravis, or hedge fund boss Kenneth Griffin, the 21st richest man in America.
These are people whose billions depend upon having the informational edge over their competitors, and it’s hard to know what the Griffins and Van Rappards are even doing there, except to pick up geostrategic tidbits to help make a quick buck.
Yet that doesn’t seem to raise any ethical red flags with any of the politicians who trot along to the talks. They’re quite happy to talk turkey behind the bougainvilleas with a bunch of billionaires and profiteers.
But heaven forbid there’s a press conference at the end of it.