By Ishaan Tharoor * – The Washington Post
DAVOS, Switzerland — In some ways, the agenda at this year’s World Economic Forum — the annual conclave of the global elite — is not that different from the deliberations of 2018. There will be declarations about the struggle against climate change and plans put forward to help mitigate it. Politicians, academics and chief executives will keep puzzling over inequality and the ills and boons of globalization.
But while last year’s edition featured star turns from President Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and other heavyweights, the political roster this week is lighter. It’s a reflection of a world in which domestic passions and pressures are crowding out internationalist concerns.
Trump announced he was skipping Davos amid the federal government shutdown he instigated a month ago; he later scrapped the visit for the entire U.S. delegation. Facing a sustained insurrection of “yellow vest” protesters, who revile the French president as an aloof elitist, Macron thought it better not to hobnob with plutocrats at an alpine resort. British Prime Minister Theresa May won’t be present, either, as her country teeters on the brink of a disastrous crash out of the European Union.
Of the Group of Seven countries, only Germany, Italy and Japan will send their top leaders. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping also won’t be in attendance: Xi’s deputy, Vice President Wang Qishan, will deliver Beijing’s message to the world.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no chance of fireworks. A new crop of statesmen will get to make a splash, from right-wing Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his Italian populist counterpart, Giuseppe Conte, to Ethiopia’s reformist prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, and New Zealand’s pathbreaking female leader, Jacinda Ardern.
The most anticipated appearance may be that of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who is not even a full month into his presidency. Bolsonaro may well fly a Trumpist flag in Davos: He is a known climate change skeptic and rode to power on an ultranationalist campaign suffused with contempt for the liberal order. In a tweet, Bolsonaro said he would present “a different Brazil, free of ideological ties and widespread corruption.”
The World Economic Forum isn’t neutral on questions of illiberalism and populism. In an essay, its head of programming framed this week’s guiding theme as an attempt to “shape global architecture” despite “fortresses and walls.” The forum’s organizers also released an opinion poll of 10,000 people from all over the world that found significant majorities in favor of multilateralism, positively inclined toward immigrants and opposed to the notion that “national improvement is a zero-sum game” — all tantamount to a rejection of Trumpism and far-right nationalists.
“The combination of climate change, income inequality, technology and geopolitics pose an existential threat to humanity,” Klaus Schwab, the WEF’s founder and executive chairman, said in a statement. “What we see with this research is that, while the international community’s capacity for concerted action appears constrained, the overwhelming desire of the global public is for leaders to find new ways to work together that will allow them to cooperate on these critical shared challenges we all face.”
But critics contend that Davos is hardly the right place to look for change. Anand Giridharadas, a former New York Times columnist and author of a recent book that attacks the pretenses of the Davos class and Silicon Valley elites, heaped scorn on the wealthy investors and jet-setters wringing their hands about populism.
“You enabled the nationalism that threatens our societies. You stiffed so many of us,” he wrote in an open letter published by Time magazine, addressed to the gathering in Davos. “You fought for rules that let you steal the future from our children. You pushed for monopolies … and austerity and deregulation. People got angry, and some of them voted for hell. And who benefited? You again. Because instead of following their anger up to the summit where you gather, the enraged were goaded, sometimes by your fellow plutocrats, into punching downward and turning on the most vulnerable.”
On cue, poverty-relief organization Oxfam released a study this week finding inequality is only getting worse. “The way our economies are organized means wealth is increasingly and unfairly concentrated among a privileged few, while millions of people are barely subsisting,” said Matthew Spencer, Oxfam’s director of campaigns and policy.
The organization called on governments to raise taxes on the wealthy and big corporations. If the richest 1 percent paid just 0.5 percent more in taxes on their wealth, Oxfam calculated, it could raise more money than it would cost to educate the 262 million children out of school around the world and provide health care that could save the lives of 3.3 million people.
Those at Davos are more likely to focus on challenges unrelated to redistribution, not least fears about economic growth around the world and the shadow of a recession on the horizon. “I think there is anxiety. There are concerns the slowdown could be quite deep,” John Hagel, co-chairman of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, told my colleague Heather Long.
But the week’s greatest emphasis will probably be on climate change. On Monday night, the forum honored British naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough in part for his advocacy on the perils of global warming. On Thursday, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres is expected to cajole governments once more on the need for greater collective climate action.
“A decade ago, the WEF elite were apparently so obsessed with the fear that finance would melt down that they did not have time to worry about the environment,” observed Gillian Tett of the Financial Times. “Now they are so alarmed that the planet and/or the internet will collapse that the economic risks are less prominent.”
- Long’s piece is worth reading in full. She paints a bleak picture of how executives, businesses and consumers are losing faith in the global economy:
“The IMF made its biggest cuts to growth for Germany, France, Russia and Mexico, citing trade tensions and new government policies such as Germany’s stricter auto exhaust regulations as headwinds for growth.
“The U.S. was supposed to be a bedrock of the global economy this year as hiring and confidence remained strong heading into the year, but the shutdown is starting to shake sentiment.
“The IMF warned that a ‘protracted’ government shutdown would be a sharp drag on U.S. growth. The Federal Reserve and many others have made similar warnings. What’s concerning for many executives about the shutdown is that Trump appears unwilling to make necessary compromises.
“‘If you want to be a superpower in the world — and the U.S. still is — you have to engage with people,’ said Hans-Paul Bürkner, chair of the Boston Consulting Group. He warned that ‘everybody will be a bit more careful’ until the shutdown and trade disputes are resolved.”
*Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York. Follow @ishaantharoor