One thing was certain at this year’s World Economic Forum: Davos and its values are in a state of deep crisis. The decline had become evident even before the start of the annual conference that sees the global elite gather in this lofty village in the snowy Swiss Alps, thanks to a letter penned and published by the WEF’s founder, Klaus Schwab.
“Globalism is an ideology that prioritizes the neoliberal global order over national interests,” Schwab argued a week before the summit, in a text that was strikingly similar to populist election campaigns around the globe. Even the mastermind of Davos – undeniably one of globalization’s biggest proponents – attempted to hijack anti-globalist rhetoric and appease the world’s masses and their grievances with an article antithetical to the legacy of his own inception.
The decline of the annual meeting became even more apparent on the first day, with an opening conference far less impressive and dynamic than those of previous years. It was defined much more by the absence of world leaders – Donald Trump, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron were all battling crises back home – than the content it managed to produce.
Suffice it to say that this year’s keynote speaker was none other than the newly elected far-right president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro. In the past, the controversial president has referred to the military dictatorship as a “glorious period in Brazilian history” and has not refrained from expressing his distrust toward the international community.
“Brazil will change the history of history, with our motto: God lies above all,” the Brazilian president pompously declared, forgetting perhaps that the Davos audience rarely considers religion when dealing with balance sheets, economic planning and the challenges of global markets. It was a speech diametrically opposed to the ideological charter of the World Economic Forum, and even Bolsonaro supporters expressed their dissatisfaction cautiously.
On the other hand, George Soros lit up the Davos stage like a firecracker with his criticism of China and its president, Xi Jinping. Soros described the Chinese head of state as an enemy of “open and democratic societies” – a rare departure from the usual Davos etiquette.
Beyond the absences and the controversial statements, the biggest Davos paradox this year was that it addressed some of the world’s most pressing challenges, but with a considerably more limited impact compared to previous years.
An illuminating example was climate change, with conversations regarding global warming rising to the forefront as beloved British journalist David Attenborough, Prince William, Matt Damon and 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg became its passionate spokespeople. The latter traveled for 32 hours by train to get to Davos and slept in a tent as an act of protest, despite temperatures as low as minus 15 degrees Celsius.
The environmentalist message managed to inspire International Monetary Fund Chairwoman Christine Lagarde, who during the closing ceremony positioned climate change at the heart of the global debate. “If temperatures rise two more units, we risk losing 15 percent of global GDP,” agreed the president of the World Bank, Kristalina Georgieva; however, her words echoed in relative silence as the Congress Hall was already half-empty.
“It is a typical characteristic of Davos to host some of the most crucial debates on the planet’s future, while those who should be listening most carefully are strolling down the main promenade, securing deals and multiplying their personal gains behind closed doors,” commented a veteran CNN reporter under the condition of anonymity, before adding with a note of pessimism, “That being said, in the 12 years that I have been covering the WEF, this year the phenomenon was more blatant than ever before.”