Reporting from Davos, James Landale, Diplomatic Correspondent, BBC News, says the fact that the British Prime Minister and US President were stuck at home dealing with domestic issues is symbolic of the fact that governments and voters are increasingly thinking along national lines
Summits come and conferences go but there is nothing quite like Davos. The annual gathering in the exclusive swiss resort is a unique diplomatic event. There is no host country like at a G7 or a G20 that tries to impose its agenda. There are no resolutions or votes like at the United Nations. And there is no time wasted crafting a laborious communique that is read by no one but historians.
This is the unspoken lure of Davos: not just the skiing or the mountain air but the freedom of participants to do what they want; to listen and talk, to network and recruit, to open their eyes and ears to new ideas and trends, untroubled by anything but their own schedules.
Little wonder that every January about 3,000 of the world’s most powerful business people come for their annual pilgrimage to the mountains in Switzerlandalong with about 60 heads of government.
The conference, of course, makes itself easy to lampoon. One friend says it is like a party conference for the guilty rich, a chance for elite business folk to take time out from maximising shareholder value to worry about the world in which they make their profits. So here they are, flying in on thousands of private jets to express their concerns about climate change, agonising about social inequality after a morning on the slopes, fretting about populism before trying to catch a glimpse of Bono at a late-night party. Some here do live the caricature.
And yet, you know what? It is actually quite fun, and it is also kind of works. That is the guilty secret of Davos. One businessman tells me it is the only place where CEOs get to talk face-to-face without their lawyers and that makes deals easier. Heads of government can roam relatively freely outside the usual confines of diplomatic convention, unencumbered by the usual cohort of officials. In hotels and restaurants all over town, there are seminars and briefings and meetings where new ideas are being shared. On the train from Zurich, I met a young tech entrepreneur who had come all the way from San Francisco to exchange ideas on cleaning up the oceans (drinking straws made from seaweed; a new substance that makes oil slicks magnetic and thus easier to clean).
So, the World Economic Forum – to give this conference its true name – probably does not have to be held in a swish ski resort, its participants probably do not have to indulge their globalism in such comfort. But if Davos did not exist, someone would probably have to invent it, because it works.
This year, though, all was not well up the mountain. There were many no-shows. USPresident Donald Trump stayed away, as did President Macron of France, and the UKPrime Minister, Theresa May. All were busy dealing with their domestic problems. And therein lies a clue. Davos is all about finding global solutions to global issues. Yet increasingly governments and voters are thinking – or at least are being forced to think – along national, domestic lines. Many pilgrims at the altar of globalisation here in Davos know that their religion is under challenge. Some electorates around the world are beginning to blame global elites for their woes: for their job insecurity; their endangered political and cultural identity, their sense of alienation from the centres of power that make decisions affecting their lives.
So, the question here at Davos, once again, is what can businesses and governments do to re-engage with their employees, customers and voters? What can be done to ensure that tackling climate change is now part every business’s bottom line? How can firms encourage and prepare their staff for the flexible working being driven by new technologies? How can globalisation be transformed so that its many benefits can be shared more equally? How can people be encouraged to trust their employers, their governments, their media, at a time when the very concept of evidence-based truth seems to be under threat?
And for governments, there is an even bigger problem. The World Economic Forum, or the WEF as it is known, is a rules-based organisation. It sits at the heart of the international rules-based order. And yet that order is under challenge by the rise of new powers like Chinaand Indiaand by the increasing distrust of global institutions in the West. Across Davos, there are serious discussions going on about how the west should engage with China. How much does it pose a threat and how much does it pose an opportunity? How can the international order be reformed, from a post-World War II system led by the United States into one that reflects modern balances of power, that incorporates countries like China that follow a different political and social model to western, liberal democracies? Is such a reform possible, or even desirable? I have to report that here in Davos there are more questions than answers.
The trouble with being a Brit at Davos is that Brexit follows you round like a bad smell. Everyone asks you what is going to happen. But I have discovered a way round this problem. I mutter a few inconsequential words before allowing them to butt in and tell you what they think is going to happen, which is what they wanted to do all along. There are as many different opinions on Brexit in Davos as there are in Westminster. Few here see it as a net positive – this is after all a conference that presumes international organisations are broadly a source for good – but many here are also interested in the opportunities that Britain’s departure from the EU could provide. And that sums up the prevailing attitude at Davos: the world is changing and how should we change with it?