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Why We Need Davos Man Back

It’s fun to bash billionaires. But with the global system under assault, we need all the help we can get.

By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
From left, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin, European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde, Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger, and World Economic Forum (WEF) President Borge Brende attend a session at the WEF annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on May 25.
From left, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin, European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde, Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger, and World Economic Forum (WEF) President Borge Brende attend a session at the WEF annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on May 25.
From left, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin, European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde, Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger, and World Economic Forum (WEF) President Borge Brende attend a session at the WEF annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on May 25. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

I never thought I would say this, but we need Davos Man back in the game.

“Davos Men” was a term coined by Samuel P. Huntington in 2004 for the transnational elites who, “empowered by new notions of global connectedness,” made a point of attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, every year.

I am one of the legions of journalists and writers who, at one time or another, also attended and huffed at the hypocrisy of it all. I mean, c’mon: a bunch of billionaires and elites pretending to solve the world’s problems when, in truth, they were often the very culprits perpetuating those problems? All that feel-good nonsense about globalization when, year by year, global markets were generating vast inequality—most of the benefits of which accrued to filthy rich Davosians. All those oh-so-earnest daytime discussion panels about food shortages when, making deals at champagne soirees the same evening, Davos participants were selling the global economy short with elaborate tax dodges.

I never thought I would say this, but we need Davos Man back in the game.

“Davos Men” was a term coined by Samuel P. Huntington in 2004 for the transnational elites who, “empowered by new notions of global connectedness,” made a point of attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, every year.

I am one of the legions of journalists and writers who, at one time or another, also attended and huffed at the hypocrisy of it all. I mean, c’mon: a bunch of billionaires and elites pretending to solve the world’s problems when, in truth, they were often the very culprits perpetuating those problems? All that feel-good nonsense about globalization when, year by year, global markets were generating vast inequality—most of the benefits of which accrued to filthy rich Davosians. All those oh-so-earnest daytime discussion panels about food shortages when, making deals at champagne soirees the same evening, Davos participants were selling the global economy short with elaborate tax dodges.

Worst of all, the thing was so appallingly inbred. In spite of the forum’s stated goal of “stakeholder capitalism,” or the idea that corporations should be held accountable for the interests of the broader community, the Davos set met high in the Swiss Alps, divorced from the realities on the ground, and confidently imposed a one-size-fits-all concept of globalization. This involved pushing deregulation like crazy, unleashing hot capital, and pretending markets were a panacea. Not surprisingly, those wise men on the mountain failed to see the social and political backlash until it was upon them. (And they were mostly men: Although in 2018 the organizers boasted an all-women leadership team, just 21 percent of the participants that year were women.)

For decades, in other words, Davos was a monument to the overcentralization of globalization. But now, more than 50 years after the summit’s founding, the world needs those centripetal forces again, in whatever form they might take, because the international system is in danger of falling apart. Davos, for all its past issues, still stands for preserving this international system. Sure, plenty of billionaires continue to descend on the magic mountain in their private jets, paying their $29,000 entry fee, but Davos isn’t just about making money. The weeklong forum is also an unrivaled gathering place for political leaders and heads of major international organizations. It’s a fertile breeding ground for public-private partnerships that are crucial for securing green financing of climate-friendly projects, figuring out how to handle cybercrime, and preparing for the next pandemic, among other pressing issues.

Most of all these days, it’s a place where internationalists can meet and search for ways to preserve what’s left of globalization.

Because there may not be much left. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the centrifugal forces of populism and nationalism that in the past decade led to the rise of Donald Trump, Brexit, and new authoritarians around the world have gone into overdrive. Global institutions such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization are fading into irrelevance, and no one is stepping in. Leadership is badly lacking: U.S. President Joe Biden has sought to reassert it from Washington, but his efforts have been undercut by his quasi-protectionist approach to trade—or Trump’s “America First in sheep’s clothing,” as trade experts Jennifer Hillman and Nicolas Lamp agreed recently at a Council on Foreign Relations event. New trade blocs are being formed, cross-border flows of capital and investment have slowed, and there is “fragmentation across goods, technology and labour markets,” as a new World Economic Forum white paper concludes. How to prevent further global disintegration is the most pressing topic—at Davos and elsewhere.

“[W]e have a choice: Surrender to the forces of geoeconomic fragmentation that will make our world poorer and more dangerous. Or reshape how we cooperate,” International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva wrote this week in an assessment with Gita Gopinath and Ceyla Pazarbasioglu.

Many are groping, sometimes awkwardly and hyperbolically, to lay out the stakes. In a keynote speech to the World Economic Forum on Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that “freedom is more important than free trade” and the “protection of our values is more important than profit.” The grim economics of war may soon create even more upheaval. Doubling down on his invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin is now blocking grain exports from Ukraine, a major exporter, and threatening a global food crisis, warned Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, also in a speech at Davos. But that appears to be payback for what von der Leyen said will be an expected European Union embargo of Russian oil in the coming days.

Yes, granted, Davosians contributed to some of these problems, not least by misreading so many of these global trends in recent decades. But in an all-out war, one enlists all the allies one can get, even the unpleasant ones. This is an escalating global war for integration over autarky. And if nothing else, Davos is an enduring if flawed emblem of integration. In a more practical sense, it is where global-minded citizens can freely discuss critical issues often forbidden to them by populist politics at home.

There are also fresh, dissenting voices at Davos, such as Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-winning progressive economist, who says the forum’s original, quixotic goal of stakeholder capitalism is still within reach. At Davos in 2011, Stiglitz helped conceive the idea for the New Development Bank (NDB) to deliver funds to sustainable development projects in emerging economies. (Ironically, one of the founders of the bank was Russia under Putin, along with Brazil, India, China, and South Africa, and the NDB has now suspended transactions with Moscow.) Other dissenting groups, such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the Patriotic Millionaires—who call for higher taxes on the rich—have also come out of the Davos meeting. The First Movers Coalition, launched by the World Economic Forum and the United States last year, promotes the purchase of green technologies and has increased its participating companies from more than 30 to 55, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said Wednesday.

And while there may be more billionaires than ever—thanks to rising food and energy crises, the pandemic helped create a new billionaire every 30 hours, and a million people could face extreme poverty at the same rate in 2022, Oxfam International said in a new report—they are now getting overruled, at least to some extent.

Only three years ago, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman went viral after complaining that attending Davos was like being at “a firefighters’ conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water.” He was talking about tax avoidance. Spare us your philanthropy, Bregman told the billionaires: Just pay your fair share.

Now that’s finally on the table, to some degree, at Davos and elsewhere. Governments are starting to get it: Biden and dozens of world leaders are pushing hard for a new global corporate tax that would help blunt the tax-dodging game. Beyond that, Davos Man looks less male, less white, and less Western with each year.

The official themes emanating from Davos often grate on the ears, but this year’s—“Working Together, Restoring Trust”—at least sounds the right, humble note. It’s a nice contrast to such past grandiose titles as “The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models” (2012) and “Globalization 4.0: Shaping a New Global Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution” (2019).

For many observers, though, Davos continues to occupy the same place at the rogues’ table. In what has become almost an annual ritual, as the forum began this week Oxfam released its latest report, “Profiting From Pain,” concluding (accurately) that while the COVID-19 pandemic caused so much harm to ordinary working people, it “has been one of the best times in recorded history for the billionaire class.” And in the latest journalistic diatribe, Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World, Peter S. Goodman recycles most of the familiar criticisms. So withering is Goodman’s contempt that he actually describes Davosians as a separate “species.” Davos Man, Goodman writes in his new book, “is a rare and remarkable creature—a predator who attacks without restraint, perpetually intent on expanding his territory and seizing the nourishment of others, while protecting himself from reprisal by posing as a symbiotic friend to all.”

This is, frankly, over the top. And beyond that, Goodman misses the historical moment. The problems created by preening, self-important billionaires may no longer be our biggest concern. The real predator attacking without restraint today is Putin—helped along by the many countries still doing business with him. Davos has a long way to go in living up to its promises of economic equity, and often it obsesses too much over the crisis du jour. (Right now, that’s Ukraine, but human rights disasters such as Afghanistan and Yemen are getting short shrift.)

But most of the elites gathered at Davos, for all their past myopia, are at least on the right side.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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