Days long forgot.
A decade ago, political power brokers and corporate titans convened in the Swiss Alps under an optimistic banner, globalization. It was a time for “resilient dynamism,” declared the World Economic Forum‘s 2013 summit organizers. They argued that the globe has entered a “post-crisis” period following the travails of the global financial crisis. It was incumbent on the Davos elites to bring in additional reforms in the service of economic “sustainability” and “competitiveness,” recurrent WEF watchwords that tap into the liberal ethos that has long underpinned its proceedings, where doing good need not conflict with profit margins.
After ten years, there appears to be less optimism. Instead of a “post-crisis” time, it’s more usual to speak of a “permacrisis,” of a world teeming with calamity — war, climate catastrophe, energy price mayhem, inflation, epidemics of hunger and illness, political instability, and growing economic injustice. This year’s WEF theme, an impassioned plea for “cooperation in a fractured globe,” seemed to be more obsessed with the ruptures that have already occurred. Last week, WEF President Borge Brende told reporters that the meeting “will take place against the most complicated geopolitical and geoeconomic backdrop in decades.”
Issues that are still hounding the WEF.
Concerns about a probable global recession are high on the agenda. There’s also the perplexing issue of climate change, as well as the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and its ramifications, such as the snarling of the global grain trade, which contributed to the development of famine conditions in large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Underneath it all is a deeper Davos anxiety: few institutions are more inextricably linked to neoliberalism and the globalization movement than the conference. Where does globalization go in an age of rising nationalism and great power competition, when the United States itself is launching trade wars?
The Economist’s recent cover story, which attempts to describe the Davos zeitgeist each year, criticized the “new logic that threatens globalization.” It criticized the Biden administration’s “abandonment of free-market standards in favor of an aggressive industrial policy,” citing subsidy-laden programs to support the country’s green transition as well as new efforts to make the country a semiconductor manufacturing hotspot.
All of this, according to the historically liberal Economist, has “kicked off a perilous spiral into protectionism worldwide,” fraying the global order that the US spent decades constructing and securing in the aftermath of World War II. It may potentially jeopardize “liberal democracy and market capitalism’s causes.”
The Davos hosts want to maintain the status quo.
Tuesday’s launch panel, comprising economic historians Adam Tooze and Niall Ferguson, will debate “de-globalization or re-globalization.” The latter approach mirrors current developments, with governments and multinational corporations redirecting supply chains away from conflict zones and unfriendly states. It is visible with the exit of a large number of Western corporations from Russia and China.
“I would say we are in a re-globalizing moment,” Malaysian Trade and Industry Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz told me at his country’s pavilion along Davos’ snow-lined central promenade. He believes that while companies and enterprises may benefit in the near term from shifting away from China and into Southeast Asian markets, the larger picture is more concerning.
“People are getting more compartmentalized,” he remarked. “In the long run, we are concerned about rising trade expenses.”
According to the forum, this year’s attendance includes more than 50 heads of state or government, 56 finance ministers, 19 governors of central banks, 30 trade ministries, and 35 foreign ministers, making it the largest gathering of political and business leaders ever.
The majority of the world’s leading economic leaders, though, are conspicuously absent. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will be the only Group of Seven leaders to attend, with his European peers presumably keen to avoid the optics of rubbing shoulders with the global elite while their own populations deal with cost-of-living difficulties. The key officials from the Biden administration are US climate envoy John F. Kerry and US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, who, given the current state of affairs, may find herself in some heated discussions over the week.
Following a pause caused by the pandemic, China has dispatched its own high-level delegation, led by Vice Premier Liu He, who is scheduled to deliver one of the event’s major keynote addresses on Tuesday. It is a revival of Beijing’s engagement with the forum, albeit not at the level seen in 2017 when Chinese President Xi Jinping keynoted events with a speech championing globalization that portrayed China as an upholder of the liberal system. It was interpreted at the time as a declaration of intent by a leader eager to take the mantle of global leadership, as well as a thinly veiled jibe at the recently appointed ultranationalist Trump government bent on populist disruption.
That occasion at Davos was perhaps a watershed moment for Xi on the global scene.
His dictatorial hand has tightened at home in the years afterward, while many nations worldwide regard China under his leadership as a threat, if not necessarily a foe. Whatever the World Economic Forum’s pleas for discussion and collaboration, there is a growing consensus in the West that Xi’s ambitions for Taiwan must be checked. There is now an emerging consensus that China’s admittance to the World Trade Organization two decades ago — possibly the single most momentous event in the history of globalization — was a mistake.
In 2013, WEF organizers praised Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s participation as a national leader who grasped “global obligations.” Of course, Medvedev and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as the entourage of Russian billionaires and business leaders who used to throw some of the most expensive parties on the fringes of the forum, are now all persona non grata in Davos. The conflict in Ukraine will cast a shadow over the talks, with a large delegation from Kyiv, including Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska, in attendance.
Looking into the future.
A large portion of the discussion has little to do with politicians’ or pundits’ doom-mongering. There will be hundreds of lectures and events highlighting various examples of private-sector innovation and collaboration on topics ranging from food security to youth education to forestry (WEF has pledged to restore and plant a trillion trees around the world). WEF organizers describe the forum’s attendees as enabling “systems positive change” and guiding the globe toward a better, more sustainable future in rosy technocratic language.
“There’s skepticism around Davos; they can say it’s a talk shop,” Penjani Mkambula, who works at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition on fortifying grains with minerals and vitamins in the developing world, told me. “However, there are numerous advantages that emerge. A lot of alliances are formed, a lot of work is done, and the effects are sometimes visible years later.”
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