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Ten years on, there seems to be less optimism. Instead of a “post-crisis” moment, it’s more common to talk of a “permacrisis,” of a world buckling under a never-ending cascade of calamity — war, climate catastrophe, energy price chaos, inflation, epidemics of hunger and disease, political instability and widening economic inequity. This year’s WEF theme, a plaintive appeal to find “cooperation in a fragmented world,” seems more possessed by the ruptures that have already taken place. In a press call with reporters last week, WEF President Borge Brende said the meeting “will happen against the most complex geopolitical and geoeconomic backdrop in decades.”
Top on the agenda are concerns over a possible global recession. There’s also the vexing challenge of climate change and the ongoing war in Ukraine and its downstream effects, including the snarling of the world’s grain trade that contributed to the onset of famine conditions in swaths of sub-Saharan Africa. Beneath it all is a deeper Davos anxiety: Few institutions are so immediately connected to neoliberalism and the project of globalization as the forum. In an age of ascendant nationalism and great power rivalry, where the United States itself is waging trade wars, where does globalization go?
The latest cover story of the Economist, which every year puts out an issue that tries to define the Davos zeitgeist, bemoaned the “new logic that threatens globalization.” It decried the Biden administration’s “abandonment of free-market rules for an aggressive industrial policy,” pointing to subsidy-laden programs to power the United States’ green transition as well as new efforts to make the nation a hotbed of semiconductor manufacturing.
All of this, the classically liberal Economist argued, has “set off a dangerous spiral into protectionism worldwide” and frays the global order that the United States spent decades creating and securing in the aftermath of World War II. It may even imperil “the causes of liberal democracy and market capitalism.”
The hosts in Davos want to hold the line. The kickoff panel Tuesday morning, featuring economic historians Adam Tooze and Niall Ferguson, is set to ponder “de-globalization or re-globalization.” The latter concept reflects new trends of the moment, with governments and multinational companies reconfiguring supply chains away from conflict spots and adversarial states. It’s on view with the departure of a significant number of Western companies from Russia and China.
“I would say we are in a re-globalizing moment,” Tengku Zafrul Aziz, Malaysia’s minister for trade and industry, told me at his nation’s pavilion along the snow-lined central promenade of Davos. He said in the short term, Malaysia may benefit from companies and businesses pivoting away from China to markets in Southeast Asia — but the bigger picture is more worrying.
“People are becoming more siloed,” he said. “In the long run, we are concerned about the costs of trade going up.”
The forum estimates that this year’s attendance involves the highest numbers of political and business leaders ever to make the trip up the mountain, including more than 50 heads of state or government, 56 finance ministers, 19 governors of central banks, 30 trade ministers and 35 foreign ministers.
But conspicuous in their absence are the bulk of the leaders of the world’s major economies. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will be the only leader of a Group of Seven nation to make an appearance, with his European counterparts likely keen to avoid the optics of glad-handing with the global elite while their publics cope with cost-of-living crises at home. The top officials from the Biden administration are U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, who given the course of current events may find herself engaging in rather testy conversations through the week.
After a hiatus during the pandemic, China has sent its own top-level delegation, led by Vice Premier Liu He, who is slated to deliver one of the event’s major keynote addresses on Tuesday. It marks a return of Beijing’s engagement with the forum, though still not at the level that was on show in 2017, when Chinese President Xi Jinping himself keynoted proceedings with a speech defending globalization that cast China as an upholder of the liberal order. It was seen then as a statement of intent from a leader keen to seize the mantle of global leadership and a thinly veiled jab at a newly installed ultranationalist Trump administration bent on populist disruption.
That moment in Davos was arguably a high-water mark for Xi on the world stage. In the years since, his autocratic fist tightened at home, while many governments elsewhere see China under his leadership as a threat, if not necessarily an adversary. Whatever the WEF’s entreaties for dialogue and cooperation, there’s an increasing view in the West that Xi’s designs over Taiwan must be checked. There’s also an evolving consensus that China’s admission two decades ago into the World Trade Organization — perhaps the single most important event in the history of globalization — was a mistake.
In 2013, WEF organizers hailed the participation of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as a national leader who understood “global responsibilities.” Of course, Medvedev along with Russian President Vladimir Putin are now all persona non grata in Davos, as well as the coterie of Russian oligarchs and business elites who used to throw some of the most lavish parties on the sidelines of the forum. The war in Ukraine will shadow discussions, with a major delegation from Kyiv, including Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska, in attendance.
A huge part of the forum has little to do with politicians or the doom-mongering of pundits. There will be dozens of discussions and events spotlighting all sorts of examples of innovation and collaboration in the private sector, on issues ranging from food security to youth education to forestry (WEF has pledged restore and plant a trillion trees around the world). WEF organizers speak rosily in technocratic jargon of how the forum’s attendees enable “systems positive change” and are nudging the world toward a happier, more sustainable future.
“There’s a cynicism around Davos, they can say it’s a talk shop,” Penjani Mkambula, who works on fortifying grains with minerals and vitamins in the developing world at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, told me. “But there are so many positives that emerge. A lot of partnerships get forged, a lot of work gets done and you sometimes only see the results years later.”