There were metaphoric storm clouds on the horizon, too. In introductory remarks delivered Monday, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde pointed to the "continuing strengthening" of the global economy in 2018 and 2019, but she did not seem quite satisfied. She stressed that far too many people in the world were not seeing the dividends of this growth, citing data that showed about one-fifth of developing and emerging economies suffering a decline in per capita income in 2017. And she warned against "complacency" among world leaders, gesturing to troubling indicators that may suggest another recession is closer than we think.
“It is when the sun is shining that you want to repair the roof,” said Lagarde, an analogy that felt a bit out of place as the snow kept pelting down.
Lagarde's worries are echoed in the theme of this year's session — “creating a shared future in a fractured world.” Klaus Schwab, the forum's founder and most visible impresario, detailed the concern in a statement: “Our world has become fractured by increasing competition between nations and deep divides within societies,” he said. “Yet the sheer scale of the challenges our world faces makes concerted, collaborative and integrated action more essential than ever.”
For good measure, Pope Francis delivered a communique to the forum, warning of the “widening of the socio-economic gap” around the world and decrying the “private interests and ambition for profit at all costs” that seemed to define the “globalized age.”
That's a message many of the jet-setting CEOs traipsing around Davos may not take all that seriously. Despite the occasional gloom of its own rhetoric, the forum is a hotbed of corporate optimism, with myriad panels and events touting new technologies that save lives, hailing “activist” business execs and soliciting leadership tips from celebrities such as Elton John. In the part of town fully taken over by the forum, big tech companies boast pavilions alongside those of actual nations. In Davos, the Google Cloud is a brick-and-mortar shop.
Few of the prominent leaders attending the session are more primed for this sunny future than Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Tuesday speech will serve as a kind of opening address for the forum. Modi is expected to tout the “new” India emerging under his watch — the country now boasts the fastest-growing major economy in the world — and will be accompanied by both a mammoth Indian business delegation and prominent regional politicians.
Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan was feted at an awards ceremony on Monday evening, while Indian yoga teachers and chefs were scheduled to dazzle forum attendees with their techniques — all part of a big soft power push from Modi.
Following Modi's star turn on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron will take center stage. Macron is expected to use the forum as the latest platform to pitch his vision of a reinvigorated, integrated Europe capable of holding its own in a world increasingly unmoored from the geopolitical arrangements of the 20th century. His Wednesday speech will also probably serve as a preemptive broadside against the nativism and protectionism of President Trump, who will speak on Friday.
“Macron wants to be a global player but he is painfully aware that France, despite its status as a nuclear power with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, cannot compete. So he is enlisting Europe in his ambition,” wrote Sylvie Kauffmann, editorial director of leading French daily Le Monde. “In President Trump’s view, America will become great again by withdrawing from the world. In President Macron’s view, France can be great again only by making Europe a global actor.”
Trump and his allies may quibble with that characterization of his foreign policy, but that's increasingly how the rest of the world sees it. A Gallup survey of attitudes in 134 countries showed a dramatic drop in support for U.S. leadership in the world. “In fact, more people now disapprove of U.S. leadership than approve,” noted Jon Clifton, Gallup's managing partner. “This historic low puts the U.S.’s leadership approval rating on par with China’s and sets a new bar for disapproval.”
Communiques published by the forum itself champion causes that seem anathema to Trump's worldview. One paper pushes for a “global understanding of migration,” calling for collective action to address the plight of refugees as part of a broader rejection of petty, narrow-minded national politics. Another laments the “plunder of the commons” by governments intent on extracting resources from once public and protected lands.
“Think of President Donald Trump’s lifting protection from 2 million acres of federal national park land,” it observes, before concluding: “The primary losers in the plunder of the commons are future generations.”
Such liberal pearl-clutching may be exactly what Trump and his supporters can't stand. But it tells a larger story Trump will struggle to redress as the snows in Davos melt.
“What he has achieved is a remarkable weakening of America’s moral standing,” Norbert Röttgen, chair of the German Parliament’s foreign relations committee and an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, said to my colleagues over the weekend. “ 'America first' has made America weaker in the world.”
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