Caroline Baum: Davos thinks it runs the world, but populism begs to differ

Ah, Davos. One word, so many connotations. Davos is a place, an event, a symbol, even a state of mind.

Elites from the worlds of business, finance, government and academia are gathering in the chic, Swiss ski resort this week, as they do every year at this time, to rub shoulders with one another, schmooze about global affairs, and address the world’s problems.

Then they’ll share it all with the rest of us in a press release.

This year’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum comes at a particularly inauspicious time. In 2016, the U.K. voted to leave the European Union. Nationalist parties gathered strength throughout Europe. The U.S. elected Donald Trump, who ran on a platform of “America First,” as president.

Trump, China Diverge on New World Order

Donald Trump’s suggestions that he would use Taiwan as a negotiating chip with China to extract concessions over trade have hit a raw nerve in Beijing. Photo: EPA/Reuters

The confluence of nation-states turning inward would seem to pose a challenge to the WEF’s commitment to a globalized world of free trade and open borders; a world where elite decision-makers set the agenda for governments and socially conscious corporations to carry out. The WEF acknowledged as much in its overview of this year’s meeting, warning of an erosion of confidence from “segments of society that are not experiencing economic development and social progress” and calling for “more agile, inclusive and collaborative responses.”

Those concerns are reflected in its choice of a theme for this year’s annual meeting: “Responsive and Responsible Leadership.”

In other words, what’s needed is better top-down management committed to “equitable growth” to solve the divisions in today’s society between the haves and have-nots. When the world goes small, Davos goes big.

And Davos has always aspired to greatness, judging from the themes of prior annual meetings. (The WEF insists that it doesn’t do conferences; only meetings.) Active verbs are a prominent feature. And Davos Man, a term coined by the late political scientist Samuel Huntington to describe the ethos of the typical attendee, sees himself as a doer.

For example, in 2007, prior to the Great Recession and the global financial crisis, Davos Man dedicated himself to “Shaping the Global Agenda, the Shifting Power Equation.”

While he was shaping, the sands were shifting under his feet. By the time of the 2009 annual meeting, Davos Man was entrusted with “Shaping the Post-Crisis World.”

Three years later, the world was still misshapen. Global economic growth was tepid. Something more was needed. So Davos Man initiated “The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models” in 2012.

And when shaping fails, Davos Man can do it all again. At the 2014 meeting, he was tasked with “The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business.”

The WEF uses terms such as “holistic” to describe its mission. “We are committed to improving the world in ways that are objective, measurable and sustainable,” according to the WEF.

Scaramucci: Economy Could Tolerate Strong Dollar

Anthony Scaramucci, the founder of SkyBridge Capital and an advisor to president-elect Donald Trump, speaking during a panel Tuesday at the World Economic Forum, said the U.S. economy could withstand the impact of a strong dollar, while warning that deflation could cause a downturn that would be worse than past economic crises.

Searching for some of those measurable results on the website, I came across a 280-page book on the WEF’s first 40 years, complete with photos of founder Klaus Schwab and his wife, snapshots of notable meeting attendees, a “Davos Manifesto” (1973), and various milestones. Not much in the way of results.

The historical timeline is a bit more useful, highlighting some memorable moments, including talks between Israel Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat at the 1994 meeting. WEF lore holds that the foundation for the Oslo peace accord was laid in Davos. Look how well that’s worked out!

Actual, objective results from the annual meeting are hard to identify. Of course, when you put enough of the world’s movers and shakers in an idyllic environment for a few days and keep the champagne flowing, one is bound to see results from all the introductions, networking and follow-up meetings.

The question is, would it all happen without Davos? The annual meeting probably raises awareness of issues facing today’s society, but the folks who are paying attention to Davos, or are even aware of what it is, aren’t the same ones who voted for Brexit or for Donald Trump.

To the contrary, those who have been left behind by technological innovation and outsourcing are more apt to support a protectionist trade agenda, something that is anathema to Davos patrons. No doubt this year’s attendees appreciated the irony of Chinese President Xi Jinping defending free trade while it was left to Trump adviser Anthony Scaramucci to tone down his boss’s extreme views on the subject.

The year 2016 was a year of surprises. The opinion polls were wrong about Brexit and the U.S. presidential election. The betting markets were wrong as well.

France, the Netherlands and Germany all hold national elections this year against a backdrop of rising nationalism. Davos’ answer? A session on “Fixing Europe’s Disunion.” That should heal the rifts.

The WEF’s annual meeting concludes on Friday. What could be a more fitting denouement —one that aptly describes the disconnect between the world inside and outside Davos — than Trump’s inauguration on the very same day?

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