Nicolas Berggruen's Fight for Democracy: A Billionaire's Mission to Create a Better World

By Markus Feldenkirchen

Billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, the owner of Germany's Karstadt chain of department stores, makes do without a home and has no personal attachments. Now he seems to have found his great mission. He wants to make democracy work, and to create a better world.

Nicolas Berggruen wants to save democracy. Zoom
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Nicolas Berggruen wants to save democracy.

"It's a little depressing here," says Nicolas Berggruen. He is standing in the lobby of the Hotel Baur au Lac in Zurich, one of the world's best and most expensive hotels, surrounded by antique sofas and armchairs, but he is dissatisfied. "Let me see if I can find something nicer for us. With more light." Then he walks off again.

Berggruen was keen to talk about his mission, but it wasn't easy to get an appointment. It was clear that we might have to fly a great distance to find him. Trying to pin him down to a specific date and time was a different matter altogether -- about as tricky as making a date with a pinball.

Even his offices in Los Angeles, New York, Istanbul, Mumbai and Berlin don't always know where their boss, one of the richest men in the world, will be from one day to the next. "He just happens to be a very independent guy," said one his many aides. What he really needs is a coordinator to coordinate all of his coordinators.

"No light," says Berggruen, returning from his search for a nicer spot. "So we'll just stay here."

His mission sounds so audacious that it's hard not to smile while listening to him talk about it: The 49-year-old wants to save Western democracy. He says he wants to help the world, and that he has an idea of how it could work.

Why does he believe that democracy needs help, his help? "Because it isn't working well anymore," says Berggruen. He looks me in the eye, without blinking or smiling. He is completely serious.

On this afternoon, the man who wants to help the world looks like he just rolled out of bed. His hair is disheveled, he is sporting a two-day beard and his eyes look like they have seen a lot of parties. He exudes a nonchalance that can't be learned, that comes only with experience.

The bottom buttons of his jacket sleeves are open, and so are his shirt cuffs. The collar of his shirt is frayed, almost as if a mouse had nibbled on it. He has the chic look of the alternative rich, those who don't have to stick to the etiquette of polite capitalist society, who can afford to be imperfect. His net worth is estimated at $2.2 billion (€1.62 billion).

"I might have to answer this in a minute," he says, pointing to the BlackBerry next to him on the sofa. He begins almost every conversation with the same words.

Mega Rich and Homeless

It's probably impossible to know for sure when a feeling of emptiness creeps into a life that, to an outside observer, seems full to the brim, but in Berggruen's case it must have been in the last 10 years. In 2000, he sold all of his private houses and condominiums, including an apartment on Central Park in New York and his estate on a private island off the Florida coast. He shed material possessions after realizing that they hadn't made him happy. All he kept was his private jet, a Gulfstream IV. He has lived in hotel suites around the world since then. He isn't registered as resident in any one place, and in the United States, where he still spends most of his time, he has been classified as homeless for years.

He took his second step into a different kind of life two years ago. After spending six months being tutored in philosophy and political science, he founded the Nicolas Berggruen Institute. A holding company bearing his name had already existed for a long time, and it had made him an incredibly wealthy man. Now he wanted the institute to make him happy and satisfied -- and to do the same thing for the rest of the world.

It is quite common for the superrich to donate their wealth to good causes. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and George Soros are three prime examples. Sometimes their efforts are the result of a guilty conscience and of the realization that in capitalism, mind-boggling wealth is usually achieved only at the expense of other, usually weaker people. But Berggruen doesn't want to dig wells in the Sahara. He wants to treat the root causes, not the symptoms of the world's ills.

"Do you know California?" he asks. He isn't trying to be arrogant, but polite. He is very considerate. As soon as one of our teacups is empty, he immediately asks whether he should order more tea. He nods. "That's good," he says. And then he explains what he achieved in California. It's his key to a better world.

Saving California

Last year, his institute created the Think Long Committee for California, which could just as easily be dubbed the Committee to Save California. Berggruen invested many millions and many conversations into the project, and convinced two former US Secretaries of State, Condoleezza Rice and George Shultz, two former California governors, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger and his Democratic predecessor, Gray Davis, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and a philanthropist and a respected union leader to join the group. In the end, he had assembled a nonpartisan panel of credible, well-known personalities.

The committee soon unveiled concepts, including draft laws designed to make governing more responsible. It proposed setting up a "Rainy Day Fund," which would require the state government to establish reserves during high-revenue years to cover the leaner years. It also recommended that the state budget be approved by a simple majority instead of a two-thirds majority of the state assembly, as had been the case until then.

The committee released its list of ideas to the public and then called on the governor and members of the California State Assembly. The ideas were turned into laws soon afterwards. None of the proposals were new. In fact, for years most politicians had considered these ideas to be reasonable and necessary, but they were never put into practice. It was only the committee's considerable standing with the public, and its moral authority, that forced politicians to implement the measures. Berggruen wants to help democracy to stop getting in its own way.

"That's the principle," he says, and orders another double espresso. He believes that he has found the magic formula for significant reforms: a strong council of the wise. The right timing is also critical, he says. "You always have to show up when there's a crisis." Unfortunatey, says Berggruen, societies are only open to change when they are almost finished.

'Council for Europe'

Berggruen's next plan is to form a "Council for Europe," followed by a "Council for the World." He is in contact with former world leaders, like former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzáles and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Berggruen wants to present his world council in October, together with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country currently heads the G-20 group. The two men met a few days ago. But that isn't all. From Zurich, Berggruen will fly to Congo, where he hopes to create a model African state with the help of President Joseph Kabila and a "Council for Congo."

"I have to take this," says Berggruen. Then he sticks the earphone of his BlackBerry into his ear and disappears from the lobby.

Berggruen grew up in France. His father Heinz Berggruen, a Jew who lived in Berlin, fled from the Nazis in the 1930s eventually settled in Paris, where he built one of the world's most important art collections. His mother is the German actress Bettina Moissi.

At 12, he declared his independence and, at his request, was enrolled in the exclusive Le Rosey boarding school in Switzerland, where he read Marx and Lenin, Sartre and Camus, communists, existentialists -- mostly leftist fare. "I was very, very, left-wing," he says today, "a real rebel."

In boarding school, he refused to learn English. "I thought English was the language of imperialism." Berggruen was expelled from the school and returned to France. At 17, he enrolled at New York University, where he studied finance and international business, and he began to invest. He borrowed $2,000 and speculated in the stock market, and with friends he bought run-down buildings in Brooklyn, renovated them and sold them for a profit. It was the beginning of an empire consisting of office towers and old real estate, and of stakes in more than 20 companies, to which Berggruen recently added the Karstadt department store chain.

'What Really Counts is What We Create'

But the more he owned, the less it meant to him. "We are only here on this world for a brief moment. What really counts is what we create, what we develop," Berggruen said, shortly before founding his institute. "Our actions and our decisions count. That lasts forever. It's the true value of our existence." He recently confessed that he had been going through a midlife crisis.

On a Sunday afternoon in January, Berggruen invited a few journalists to his institute's Berlin office. He was wearing black loafers, a corduroy suit and a shirt just as frayed as the one he had been wearing in Zürich.

He was sitting on the top floor of the Lichtfabrik building in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood, gazing out at the sky over Berlin. He wanted to talk about Europe. He believes that this is the right time for change in Europe, with the euro wavering, countries like Ireland, Greece and Portugal tottering and solidarity seriously eroded. Berggruen wants to establish another council, like the one in California, to help shape events.

"What are the real problems in Europe, in Germany?" he asked the group. "Which personalities could you recommend for a Council for Europe?" The group looked baffled. At that moment, Berggruen probably sensed that Europe is not California and that it has few personalities whose reputation and authority extends across the entire continent. "Maybe it's still a tad too early for Europe," he said. "But there is a growing consensus that the current system in Europe is no longer working."

Berggruen is consumed by the basic impulse of many business leaders who are appalled by the inefficiency and self-destructiveness of Western, multiparty democracies, which they fundamentally despise. But unlike most others, who merely look on and prefer to praise the efficiency of authoritarian countries like China or Singapore, Berggruen wants to help democracy prevail in the worldwide battle of the systems.

The Shortcomings of Democracy

Underlying his approach is a skeptical view of the wisdom of democracy, of that long-held belief that the will of the masses will eventually produce the right results. "Voters often think too egoistically and too much in the short term," he says. "And they usually don't have the information or the knowledge voters should have." Democracy is good, says Berggruen, but in the end the people have to assign responsibility to those with the most knowledge.

Berggruen's approach also betrays a certain contempt for the business of politics, and the belief that politicians cannot pursue long-term visions, purely because they are ultimately beholden to parties and voter groups.

However, Berggruen believes that a council of the wise, whose members are wholly independent, is more constructive and honest than a panel of conventional, democratically elected politicians.

Is Berggruen an idealist?

He isn't quite sure how to answer the question. He bites his lips and eventually says that in his 30 years as an investor, he has acquired a realistic view of the way the world works. For this reason, he adds, he can say that it lacks ideals. Berggruen says he is identifying more and more with the visionary beliefs of his youth.

In the film "Up in the Air," directed by Jason Reitmann, George Clooney plays a modern-day nomad, a commuter between worlds, whose biggest goal in life has been reduced to the size of a super-platinum frequent flyer card. In one of the best scenes in the movie, Clooney, playing the role of a motivational speaker, gives a presentation.

"How much does your life weigh?" he asks his audience. "Imagine you were carrying a backpack and you were to fill it up with all the things you have in life." He begins to list some of these things, from bookshelves to apartments to friends and spouses. "Your relationships with other people are the heaviest parts of your life," he concludes.

It is a plea to keep the backpack light, a plea for total detachment as a condition for functioning in the modern world. "The slower we move, the faster we die. Don't fool yourselves: movement is life," says Clooney's character.

A Nomad Free of Attachments

If anyone in the world is living the life Clooney preaches in the film, it is Nicolas Berggruen. He seems meant for the age of globalized capitalism, which values nothing more than flexibility and detachment. When his aide is asked which woman he is currently dating, because various women appear in the photo section of his website, she says: "Don't even try."

Berggruen says that he owns a few documents, a few books, a few shirts, jackets and sweatshirts. "It would all fit into a paper bag." His life weighs as much as a full paper bag.

In Zurich, the photographer asks him to pose for a portrait in front of the hotel. But he doesn't like to pose. A few years ago, Berggruen bought up an entire issue of a Dutch magazine, because he felt that its portrayal of him was too positive. It's about the issues, he says, not me.

When the photo shoot is over, he stands around in the lobby of the Hotel Baur au Lac, his hands in his coat pockets, looking slightly helpless. For a moment, he seems vulnerable and sad, as if he didn't know where he belonged.

At the end of the film "Up in the Air," frequent flyer George Clooney has to admit to himself that there is no other recipe to fend off the emptiness in life than the love of a woman, an attachment, no matter how immobile it makes a person.

Berggruen seems to have found something else. "A better world," he says, emerging from his moment of sadness. He spins on his heel and says: "That's the idea."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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