The World Economic Forum has always understood itself to be a window into the future. When 3,000 of the world’s movers and shakers will make their way to Davos this week, the most important topics of discussion will be new technologies, new forms of business and new political visions.
Three years ago, Oxford historian Margaret MacMillan took it upon herself to project what the WEF would have looked like if it had taken place in the year 1914, when the first ever phase of true globalism was coming to an end and nationalism was on the rise. At the time, Oswald Spengler was writing "The Decline of Western Civilization," which would go on to define the era.
According to Ms. MacMillan’s historical experiment, the WEF in 1914 would have included industrialists and bankers such as Hugo Stinnes and John Pierpont Morgan, as well as Thomas Edison and Graf Zeppelin walking next to the likes of literary figures such as Thomas Mann and H.G. Wells. The then new U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson, would most likely have warned attendees about the destruction of the middle class. “It would look a lot like today,” said Ms. MacMillan, whose verdict is as frightening as it is eye-opening.
This week, when world leaders such as Chinese President Xi Jinping meet Wall Street giants like Jamie Dimon and innovators like Google co-founder and Alphabet mastermind Eric Schmidt, an important part of their brainstorming on globalization will focus on how to maintain peace and generate wealth in a world in which the old order is dissolving in front of our very eyes.
Many see only dark days ahead for both economic globalization and political multilateralism. But the question remains: Who is to blame?
But there won’t be much time to come up with real answers. By the spring, France’s right-wing radical party Front National could win the country’s presidential election and test Europe’s breaking point. In the fall, Angela Merkel, now one of the last protagonists of democracy and open society, will also be up for re-election. Will she too fall to German voters' grumblings and discontents? For George Soros, a longtime Davos attendee and one of the world’s wealthiest investors and philanthropists, the only certainty in our future is uncertainty.
“Democracy is in a serious crisis,” he recently said. That could be seen as an understatement. Former German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, went one step further, warning that “the end of the West is all but certain.” Many see only dark days ahead for both economic globalization and political multilateralism. But the question remains: Who is to blame?
For famed American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, it’s the fault of the American and European elite. Mr. Fukuyama declared the “end of history” and the victory of liberalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But things turned out a little different. Today, the world’s top bankers, executives and politicians will be confronted by angry citizens looking to topple the establishment. Much like in 1914. Can they come up with better solutions for how to maintain the values of liberal democracy?
Many of these angry citizens can barely control their rage and disillusionment with an economic system that jails the little guy for not paying debts in the hundreds while letting managers whose crimes have cost taxpayers billions of dollars off the hook. Free trade and worldwide migration have these same citizens worried about not only their jobs but national identity. These are issues the elite can no longer ignore as evidenced by both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Open society is losing its proponents by the millions.
It’s a global rebellion against the establishment that Klaus Schwab, the 78-year-old founder of the WEF, also can’t ignore. Mr. Schwab has described the goal of the forum as developing ideas which will “become the glue holding together global society.” That’s an ambitious goal for an event seen as the epitome of elitism and decision-making behind closed doors.
Ever since he established the WEF 46 years ago, he has seen himself as a mediator between the global elites and the rest of the world. “We want to be the glue of the global community,” Mr. Schwab described his forum’s task on its website. But this doesn’t seem to stick, as the world seems about to swing out of kilter, a failure for Mr. Schwab and the WEF.
And worse, as Davos is increasingly seen as a byword for elitism and the very part of the establishment that is driving so many people to the barricades. Samuel Huntingdon, who anticipated many of today’s difficulties in his classic “Clash of Civilizations,” described the managers who gather as “Davos man.” Steve Bannon, the right wing advisor to President-elect Donald Trump, said dismissively, “the working men and women in the world who are just tired of being dictated to by what we call the party of Davos.”
There were a lot of smart people around in 1914 who thought they had a handle on everything. I don’t think our elites are doing any better. Margaret MacMillan, Historian
The WEF is trying to support dialogue between elites and members of the public and Davos’ “open forum” is open to anyone who is interested. “We don’t want to be seen as arrogant but as people who serve,” Mr. Schwab told the Bertelsmann Foundation last year. It’s a noble view, but not one that's shared by the chosen attendees at Davos.
Now, the coming years will be busy with the Herculean task of keeping the world together, economically and socially. That will be difficult as events this week show symbolically: as Donald Trump takes the White House with his isolationist “America First” agenda, his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping has opened up to the global stage from Davos. It isn’t yet clear what the effect will be of such a tectonic change of roles for the liberal world order. But what is clear is that rival powers will set the rules rather than shared values.
Angela Merkel is seen by some media in the United Kingdom and the United States as the last hope for a liberal world order. The chancellor will not come to Davos this year, yet she will be unable to counter the autocrats and populists from Moscow to Beijing alone – she needs the support of the very elites gathering this week in Davos.
For too long, the men and women of Davos have silently assumed the liberal order they benefit from is a given and have accepted authoritarian regimes from Moscow to Beijing if it was beneficial for business. And they naively believed their own lives at home to be freer, more just, more peaceable and better. This certainty is now gone, since the tide turned in 2016, and populists like Mr. Trump and autocrats like Mr. Putin attacked the liberal foundations of our society. This is not abstract, but attacks each and every one personally.
But this sense of personal attack has reached the executive suites, government halls and the promenade of Davos too late, if at all. To feel it, you need to move from the elite to the depths of society where citizens are angry, to the car plant workers of Detroit who lost their job or the steelworks, almost abandoned, near Pittsburgh.
In Germany, this anger can also be found in the integration classes in the schools of Neukölln, one of the poorest and most ethnically diverse districts in Berlin, or in Orsoy, in North Rhine-Westphalia where 500 refugees have joined the village’s 4,000 inhabitants. Or travel to the forgotten industrial cities like Sunderland in the north of England or the futuristic but empty data centers owned by Apple, housed in places like the former “furniture road” in North Carolina, now home to the temples of the digital economy.
“When wealthy, powerful people come together in places like Davos, they tend to forget what’s happening down in the valleys. There were a lot of smart people around in 1914 who thought they had a handle on everything. I don’t think our elites are doing any better,” Ms. MacMillan, the historian, said.
Managers, politicians, experts and also the journalists now have a chance to prove him wrong.
Torsten Riecke is Handelsblatt's chief international correspondent. To contact the author: [email protected]