t’s the end of January, and for some of us that can mean only one thing: The World Economic Forum is upon us. But while the routine may be familiar, this is no ordinary Davos. President Donald Trump announced his intention to visit the WEF a couple of weeks ago, and suddenly this annual event took on a new dimension.
The Forum’s theme this year is Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World. When your guest of honour has arguably played a key role in fracturing that world, the sense of irony will be lost on few.
This isn’t the first year that Donald Trump’s influence has been felt at Davos. Last year’s event coincided with his inauguration, and many world leaders stayed away. Discussions felt flat and prosaic, partly because it was so hard to predict what the world would look like in the new Trump era. Twelve incendiary months later, the eyes of the world will be on the Swiss mountain town, and the conversation could scarcely be more charged.
Trump was elected, in large part, to disrupt everything that the WEF represents. To his most fervent supporters, Davos is exactly the walled garden of money-soaked power, the lofty perch of the self-serving elite, to which they would dearly love to set light. The prospect that their hero, torch in hand, will swagger into this arena on Friday and take the delegates to task must be mouth-watering.
The president has in many ways walked that walk, with disdain for much of what Davos represents. Withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, threatening to withdraw from NAFTA, goading North Korea, threatening countries that voiced disapproval of his Jerusalem decision, and describing African nations in vulgar, dismissive terms. He has ripped up the presidential rulebook. Davos will be his victory lap, a chance to reaffirm his America First agenda and rub the naysayers’ noses in his success.
The counterpoint to that is that, in fact, the president may well be in exactly the place where he feels most comfortable. This is, after all, a billionaire, born into money and accustomed to striking deals with business leaders, politicians and interest groups. He cheers the stock market and delights big business. There is simply no place on earth where such a confluence of those types exists. He may well be in his element in the plush carpets of the Davos Congress Centre.
The World Economic Forum is an easy target for criticism. In the 47 years since its foundation, one might reasonably expect that its contribution to the world would be clearer. The last decade, in particular, has seen its original mission diluted. Improving the state of the world is a noble goal, but the circus surrounding the speeches and plenaries, in the chalets and five star hotels dotted around this picturesque town, can seem more important than the Forum itself.
The fact is that the rich are getting richer, while the poor are being left behind; women remain under-represented in boardrooms and under-engaged in the global workforce; environmental change is leaving the poorest countries vulnerable; voters are becoming more and more politically polarised and partisan; far too many children do not have the benefit of secondary education. This isn’t the WEF’s fault, of course, but its impact on these problems feels negligible.
If Davos needs a wake-up call, it will surely get one now. The WEF has needed to hear the perspective of those who voted for Donald Trump, not to mention those who voted for Brexit, or Marine Le Pen, or Germany’s AfD. The jury may be out on whether Trump is the hero these disenfranchised people craved, but he has at least put them on the agenda.
No matter how uncomfortable or difficult those views may be, understanding the people who hold them is crucial. They are the very people likely to be left behind by the Fourth Industrial Revolution about which the WEF founder Klaus Schwab has written, and they need to be represented here. One thing is for sure, this year’s Davos will certainly be interesting.