Davos, The Slow Melt Into Irrelevance
The Davos Forum was once a true shaper of our collective future in a globalized world. Today it is beyond its expiry date, even if global solutions to global problems are needed more than ever.
PARIS — For almost three decades now, perched in the Swiss Alps, has been the sunny face of a globalization that works.
It was the place, in the 1990s, where I understood for the first time the impact of the digital revolution. Davos was a place where one could meet Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk or Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres, up close, and far away from South Africa or the Middle East.
It was also there that the new democracies of Eastern Europe took their first steps into the free-market economy and where emerging countries could be paired up with international investors.
This era, we must say, is now truly over. The dream-like world of Davos, the world of the free flow of goods and capital, the world of globally integrated supply chains, and technology designed for the common good, has run into perils it did not or could not predict.
The world has fractured, walls have reemerged, and the 2023 edition is being held on the same continent as the first high-intensity war in Europe since 1945.
The WEF mistakes
The last truly notable initiative of Davos will remain a historic error: the red carpet rolled out to Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2017, to allow him to present himself as the savior of the global system of free trade. It was a clever move with new U.S. President Donald Trump moving into the White House, yet misguided in the face of the evolution of Chinese power.
The Davos Forum is like a cartoon character that keeps running
COVID-19 and geopolitical rivalries in the world have exposed the expiry date of a certain model of globalization. Davos accompanied the rise of China as "the world’s factory" in its ability to provide cheap goods for export, but did not see the growing demand for the regionalization of production, or even "decoupling" with China on sensitive technologies.
The Davos Forum is like a cartoon character that keeps running even when the ground disappears beneath its feet, only to realize too late that it is running into the void.
The annual meeting in the Swiss resort remains a good networking opportunity for big business, but it has lost the compass of globalization that it had once embodied with delight — and profit.
F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shake hands at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum held in Davos in January 1992.
A new Davos?
Paradoxically, the Alter-globalists, whose rhetoric had been in direct opposition to that of Davos, have also experienced a simultaneous loss of relevance: the parallel society they had promoted has run out of steam.
We are wedged in an unsettling inflection point. Globalization has some worthy remnants, but it is more the legacy of the last 20 years than a promise for the future. Climate change and current geopolitics make this all too clear.
Tomorrow is hard to envision because of the current high political tensions. What will our relationship with China look like in three or five years? What will be the impact of our decisions — or non-decisions — on climate ? And most urgently, how will the various scenarios for the war in Ukraine influence our world?
It is safe to say that the answers to these existential questions won’t be provided by Davos: it is no longer its role. What is left to do is to invent a different kind of Davos for the 21st century that is less elitist, more inclusive — simply more human.