The WEF, Greta, and We

At the end of this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting in Davos, its president, Børge Brende, concluded the meeting with this cautious but optimistic note: “In an uncertain and challenging time, one thing is clear. We can shape a more resilient, sustainable and equitable future, but the only way to do so is together.” While his sentiments about the results of future cooperation may be possible, the reference to “We” was presumptuous.

Who exactly did Brende mean by “We”?

On one level, he was addressing the 3,000 or so participants at the 52nd meeting of the self-declared world leaders in business, politics, and civil society. But this year’s “We” was not as impressive as it has been in the past. The top political leaders from China, the United States, and the Russian Federation were not there. So, on a superficial level, Brende was not addressing the major figures from dominant powers; all three members of the UN’s Security Council, all three nuclear-weapon states, two of which have the world’s largest economies.

Beyond the role of the top-level of national institutional political organizations, Brende was missing the general point of the diffusion of power in the modern world. While China, the United States and the Russian Federation may be the big three of nation-states, there are other actors in the private and public sectors who are playing important roles in challenging the traditional system. From social media’s success in creating new modes of news and communication to street demonstrations and non-governmental individuals and organizations, power is moving away from traditional centers, and places like Davos.

Not that a Biden, Putin or Xi have become irrelevant; they do, after all, have fingers on nuclear buttons. What they no longer have is absolute control of what’s going on in the street or on social media.

Davos, or similar summits of traditional leaders, cannot keep up with this diffusion of power. They cannot keep up with new centers of influence. If the talking points at the WEF concentrated on multiple crises, or a world confronted with polycrisis (the most current buzzword) that included trade, technology, climate, and health, they missed the crucial crisis, their own legitimacy.

On what basis are people invited to Davos? If being invited is a recognition of a certain standing, how can Davos Men and Women challenge their own invitation? To be invited to Davos is a badge of success. Why and how should someone challenge the basis of that success? How many of the participants would follow Groucho Marx’s line on resigning from the exclusive Friars’ Club: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as one of its members.”?

Davos Men and Women cannot imagine what Pogo said in a wonderful cartoon: “We have met the enemy and they are us.” If they questioned their legitimacy, they wouldn’t be at Davos.

Davos, and similar institutions such as the Trilateral Commission or the Council on Foreign Relations, are outdated because the loci of power are changing. We are no longer in the post-WWII hegemony of Western nation-states. Western powers as well as nation-state domination are not what they used to be. The inclusive “We” of Brende to the participants at Davos is a reference to a club of the past.

When the New York Times headlines “Davos Confronts a New World Order,” it misses the point that the mainstream press like the New York Times is also confronting a new world order in which journalism is confronting a crisis. What does the New York Times do when more and more young people get their news from Facebook or whatever else is the latest fad? Does the Times major Davos reporter Roger Cohen have more readers than some teenage influencer? Does he have more power?

At Davos, Greta Thunberg said:  “We are right now in Davos where basically the people who are mostly fuelling the destruction of the planet, the people who are at the very core of the climate crisis, the people who are investing in fossil fuels. Yet somehow these are the people that we seem to rely on solving our problems. They have proven time and time again that they are not prioritising that.”

To prove Greta’s point, research commissioned by Greenpeace International and conducted by Dutch environmental consultancy CE Delft, confirmed that: “During the week of last year’s World Economic Forum 1,040 private jet flights arrived and departed out of airports serving Davos, with about every second flight attributed to the meeting. 53% were short-haul flights below 750 km that could have easily been train trips, with 38% flying ultra-short distances of under 500 km. The shortest flight recorded was only 21 km.”

Although both spoke at Davos, Greta’s “We” was very different from Brende’s “We.” Greta’s “We” addressed a global audience, undoubtedly more numerous than the actual participants at Davos. Moreover, Greta’s audience was properly inclusive and a true loci of new power for a possible future of cooperation arrogantly alluded to by Brende.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.