The World Economic Forum at Davos
The World Economic Forum at Davos|Photo credit: World Economic Forum

Davos: Skiing on the Slippery Slopes of Geopolitics

Climate change dominated the global debate at the World Economic Forum

TP Sreenivasan

TP Sreenivasan

Thomas Mann immortalised Davos in the Swiss Alps in his intriguing novel, ‘The Magic Mountain’ which reflected his experiences and impressions after visiting a sanatorium there, when his wife, suffering from a lung complaint, was undergoing treatment in 1912.

He enjoyed the beauty and tranquility of the little village and became acquainted with the team of dedicated doctors, who were looking after his wife.

Davos became a ski resort, sought after by the rich and famous from year to year. After sunset, the skiers sat near fireplaces and began chatting about the problems of the times and returned with new insights.

The fireplace chats became more significant than skiing and became an institution established in 1971 by Professor Klaus Schwab as the World Economic Forum.

Over the years, numerous business, government and civil society leaders have made their way to the high Alps to consider the major global issues of the day and to brainstorm on solutions to address these challenges.

While many global institutions are notable for the breadth of nations or the powerful political leaders attending their gatherings, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting and all the activities and initiatives of the Forum around the world are distinguished by the active participation of government, business and civil society figures. The Forum engages the most experienced and the most promising, all working together in the collaborative and collegial ‘Spirit of Davos’.

Prime Ministers of India, PV Narasimha Rao, HD Deve Gowda and Narendra Modi visited Davos to participate in the Forum, as India emerged as a significant player on the world scene.

As a member of the delegation of PM Rao and External Affairs Minister Madhav Sinh Solanki in 1992, I had a glimpse of the setting and style of Davos.

The most striking thing about Davos was the easy informality of the place. Hotels were nothing but ski cottages strewn all over the mountains and participants had to trudge along the mountain slopes to see each other. More than the formal meetings, any participant could request meetings with any high dignitary over the computer terminals and they were answered positively most of the time.

Heads of state and government, who were distinguished only by the absence of name tags, mingled with the others and the friendships cultivated on the mountains went on to produce political, economic and personal alliances which changed the world in many ways.

Every year, a new issue or a personality dominates the Davos Forum because of their game changing nature. Many Davos milestones included the Davos Declaration signed in 1988 by Greece and Turkey, which saw them turn back from the brink of war, while in 1989, North and South Korea held their first ministerial-level meetings in Davos.

At the same Meeting, East German Prime Minister Hans Modrow and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl met to discuss German reunification. In 1992, the theme was inevitably the collapse of the Soviet Union and the newly independent states which emerged out of it.

Bristling with the new openness and hopes, the leaders of these states shared their aspirations with the rest of the world. Another historic event was a meeting of the South African President de Klerk, Nelson Mandela and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, their first joint appearance outside South Africa and a milestone in the country’s political transition.

India remained on the side lines in 1992, but PM Rao received attention for his new economic agenda presented at Davos.

To be effective in Davos, leaders have to be agile, informal and charismatic. But both our PM and EAM could operate only in formal settings with protocol and note takers, not very common in Davos.

Disaster struck EAM Solanki when it turned out that he had handed over a personal letter from the PM to the Swiss President, seeking a postponement of the Bofors investigations and he had to resign under pressure soon after his return to be the scapegoat to save the PM himself.

Davos 2020, described as “the place where billionaires tell millionaires how the middle classes should live their lives” was preoccupied with the climate emergency. It came to be known as the “global heating Davos”, with session after session devoted to the topic.

The adversaries were the most powerful leader of the United States, the formidable Donald Trump who considers that the whole climate change was a hoax and tiny and fragile Greta Thunberg, who has emerged as the conscience of mankind. Trump called her a prophet of doom while she characterised him as a messenger of climate doom.

Donald Trump, who has transformed from a maverick to an unpredictable man with a mission of his own, became the biggest draw in Davos with a kind of love-hate relationship with the chiefs of multinational corporations.

Like it happened at the United Nations General Assembly last year, the audience burst into disapproving murmurs when he boasted that the US was enjoying a “boom the likes of which the world has never seen”. But they appeared to favour his continuation in the White House rather than any Democratic candidate. His internal economic policies seemed to make up for his abandonment of globalism. Trump looked like a winner in Davos.

There may have been many deals, big and small, worked out quietly in the corners of Davos, which may be revealed only later. More important were the many contacts made between the government and business leaders.

Global warming was recognised as the biggest existential threat and Davos did its own symbolical bit by asking the participants to travel by train and to plant thousands of trees.

The nuclear threat, the fear of an economic slowdown, the Iran and Korean issues and challenges of technology received scant attention.

The real prophet of doom at Davos this year was Yuval Harari, the best-selling author of ‘Sapiens’, who dwelt at length on technological disruption, considered more serious than nuclear war and ecological collapse.

“In Davos we hear so much about the enormous promises of technology – and these promises are certainly real. But technology might also disrupt human society and the very meaning of human life in numerous ways, ranging from the creation of a global useless class to the rise of data colonialism and of digital dictatorships.” More than anything else, the warning of Yuval Harari will reverberate in the world in the next few years.

The Davos delegates may not have found much time to ski, but skiing on the slippery slopes of the global scene may have been as exciting and hazardous as the ski slopes of the Alps.

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