Bathed in late afternoon sun, secretary of state Mike Pompeo boarded a steamboat on Lake Geneva. He was there for drinks and nibbles with the King of Holland and the head of Nato, a glamorous end to a busy day at the Bilderberg summit.
Representing the White House, Jared Kushner wore a beatific smile as he strode towards the boat, thinking, perhaps, of how best to sell a war with Iran over a glass of frascati.
Security at the wharf was drum tight. Amid a sea of secret service personnel, Pompeo was accompanied by the US ambassador to Switzerland, Ed McMullen. The pair looked keen to continue the geopolitical strategizing over canapés.
The secretary general of Nato, Jens Stoltenberg, was flanked by heavily armed bodyguards as he strode along the jetty. He has attended the last three Bilderberg meetings, turning up for “informal discussions” with a watchful squad of security and staff.
Officers aboard a Swiss police launch scoured the waterfront for trouble. Nothing broke the golden calm apart from a lone voice from the quayside that advised Pompeo, in French, that he should play more tennis as he might be looking a little overweight. That was the gist of it, at least.
Up on deck, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands chatted to James O Ellis, a former head of US Strategic Command, now a director of Lockheed Martin. A Netflix board member squeezed past on his way to the bar.
For the Dutch king to be seen networking with Lockheed Martin at Bilderberg might not be the best look: in the 1970s a lobbying scandal involving the company caused his grandfather, Prince Bernhard, to resign his public offices. Decades later, Bilderberg’s heady mixture of senior public figures, lobbyists and investors discussing policy behind closed doors remains hard to defend on transparency grounds. Even the air around the steamboat soirée, filled with the happy chatter of diplomats, industrialists and press barons, has an air of corruption about it. Although that might just be the gruyère puffs.
At the ship’s stern a former chief executive of Google, Eric Schmidt, broke off from chatting to the CEO of French finance giant AXA to take snaps of the lake. An influential figure, Schmidt is chair of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Board and also heads a new US government advisory group on artificial intelligence.
Bilderberg has a keen and growing interest in high-tech and AI. Schmidt’s fellow Bilderberg insider Peter Thiel, the billionaire founder of PayPal and a director of Facebook, was seen arriving with the Swedish physicist and AI expert Sara Mazur.
They were followed along the jetty by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, another adviser to the Pentagon on tech. The Microsoft board member and Bilderberg regular practically floated up the gangplank, looking delighted to feel the sun on his skin.
There were almost as many billionaires on the boat as there were bodyguards. And there were more journalists and commentators clinking glasses with bank bosses than outside the security cordon, reporting on the event.
This year’s conference was more than usually packed with “embedded” reporters who, as part of the deal, say nothing about what goes on. Here’s journalist John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News, happily putting it away between the head of Unesco on the left and another director of AXA on the right.
The Italian journalist Stefano Feltri strolled on board with cheery Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte. Feltri is right there, in the middle of one of the year’s biggest diplomatic summits, but he won’t be saying a word about it because of that white lanyard round his neck.
As the sun set on Lake Geneva, the boat set off for Chillon Castle, where Pompeo gave a Q&A and participants were treated to a banquet. It’s always fun to thrash out “a new strategic order” over a fondue.
In all, it was a bit eerie watching such a relaxed, twinkly drinks party in the context of a conference featuring so many Pentagon officials and advisers and Nato strategy chiefs. A large chunk of the agenda had a military flavour: “The weaponisation of social media”, “cyber threats”, even “the importance of space”. A couple of weeks ago, Stoltenberg announced that Nato is about to announce a new “space policy”.
Another glass of champagne?