On a clammy Tuesday morning in Paris at the end of May, George Soros, the world’s second-most-vilified New York billionaire (but worth many billions more than the other one), addressed the European Council on Foreign Relations, an organization he helped found a decade ago. Described by the woman who introduced him as a “European at heart,” the Hungarian-born Soros, who made his fortune running a hedge fund and is now a full-time philanthropist, political activist and freelance statesman, was there to share his thoughts on salvaging the European Union.
Wearing a dark suit, tieless and with the collar of his blue shirt outside the lapel of his jacket, Soros took the stage with the determined stride of an 87-year-old who still plays tennis a few times a week. But there were some concessions to age. He gave his speech sitting down and used a desk lamp to illuminate the text. (In fairness, the hotel conference room hosting the event was morosely dark.) He turned the pages with his right hand while keeping his left hand on his left knee, as if propping himself up. There were moments when he seemed on the verge of losing his place, although he never did.
In person, Soros is quite charming, with a wry sense of humor. But his writings — he has published 14 books — and speeches can be a little wooden, and this occasion was no exception. He barely acknowledged the audience, which included the president of Serbia and the prime minister of Albania, except to say, “I think this is the right place to discuss how to save Europe.” But apart from urging the European Union to direct more aid to Africa, which he said would ameliorate the refugee crisis that has led to so much of the recent political upheaval in Europe, his remarks were more descriptive than prescriptive. The European Union, he said, faced an “existential crisis.”
Briefly touching on Europe’s economic outlook, he said, “We may be heading for another major financial crisis.” Partly in response to his warning, the Dow fell nearly 400 points that day. Soros is generally considered the greatest speculator Wall Street has known, and though he stopped managing other people’s money years ago, the reaction was a real-time display of his continued ability to move markets. The attention given to that comment also underscored, in a subtle way, an enduring frustration of his life: His financial thoughts still tend to carry more weight than his political reflections.
Yet the political realm is where Soros has made his most audacious wager. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, he poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the former Soviet-bloc countries to promote civil society and liberal democracy. It was a one-man Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe, a private initiative without historical precedent. It was also a gamble that a part of the world that had mostly known tyranny would embrace ideas like government accountability and ethnic tolerance. In London in the 1950s, Soros was a student of the expatriated Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, who championed the notion of an “open society,” in which individual liberty, pluralism and free inquiry prevailed. Popper’s concept became Soros’s cause.
It is an embattled cause these days. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has reverted to autocracy, and Poland and Hungary are moving in the same direction. With the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, where Soros is a major donor to Democratic candidates and progressive groups, and the growing strength of right-wing populist parties in Western Europe, Soros’s vision of liberal democracy is under threat in its longtime strongholds. Nationalism and tribalism are resurgent, barriers are being raised and borders reinforced and Soros is confronting the possibility that the goal to which he has devoted most of his wealth and the last chapter of his life will end in failure. Not only that: He also finds himself in the unsettling position of being the designated villain of this anti-globalization backlash, his Judaism and career in finance rendering him a made-to-order phantasm for reactionaries worldwide. “I’m standing for principles whether I win or lose,” Soros told me this spring. But, he went on, “unfortunately, I’m losing too much in too many places right now.” [Continue reading…]