At Davos, war, climate and 'de-globalisation' take centre stage

The world's political and business elites will gather for the annual Davos summit next week to promote "cooperation in a fragmented world", with war in Ukraine, the climate crisis and global trade tensions high on the agenda.

For half a century, the World Economic Forum in the Swiss Alps has brought together executives and policymakers to sing the praises of globalisation, but that process is seen as unwinding as new fault lines harden around the world.

The Covid-19 pandemic, growing US-China hostility and Russia's invasion of Ukraine have led some politicians and experts to even speculate about "an end to the era of globalisation", which began in earnest in the decade after the first Davos meeting in 1971.

The agenda for this year's meeting in the snow-deficient Alps, starting next Monday, reflects this gloomy reality.

"There's no doubt that our 53rd annual meeting in Davos will happen against the most complex geopolitical and geoeconomic backdrop in decades. So much is at stake," said Borge Brende, a former Norwegian foreign minister who is now president of the meeting.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and UN chief Antonio Guterres are among the most prominent figures attending the forum, alongside nearly 400 government ministers and policymakers, 600 CEOs and a smattering of celebrities, including actor Idris Elba.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will appear by video link on Wednesday for a live interview.

Other sessions will discuss whether we are living through "de-globalisation or re-globalisation", the impact of trade tensions and supply-chain disruptions, the cost-of-living crisis and the planet's heating climate.

Russia is expected to miss out on the event for a second consecutive time, underlining the sea change since 2021, when President Vladimir Putin addressed delegates via video link, or 2009 when he attended in person.

China has not yet announced its presence.

Karen Harris, an economist at the consulting firm Bain & Company, said that hopes had faded that "we would go back to the old normal, this sort of globalised world."

"I think there's an acknowledgement now that that era is ending."

- Ukrainian lobbying -

The conflict in Ukraine and its cascading effects on global energy and defence policies will be prominent throughout the five-day meeting, whose theme is "cooperation in a fragmented world".

It is expected to dominate the opening day on Tuesday as well as Wednesday, when NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg takes the stage with Polish President Andrzej Duda.

Several Ukrainian ministers, military leaders and soldiers will be among a large delegation that is expected to lobby for more weapons and financial support from the West.

Climate change has also been announced as a top topic, with organisers keen for discussion to help prepare the next round of global talks, COP28, that will take place in the oil-producing United Arab Emirates from November 30.

Greenpeace called the meeting a "distasteful masterclass in hypocrisy" on Friday as it published research showing the use of private jets by attendees of last year's gathering.

Activists are also planning to use the meeting to remind rich countries and energy companies of the need to finance the energy transition of developing nations and pay for the damage caused by climate-induced natural disasters.

A demonstration has been called in Davos on Sunday by a left-wing Swiss youth group calling for a wealth tax for billionaires and debt relief for developing countries.

- 'Absurdity' -

Like every year, much of the most significant activity in Davos will take place behind closed doors in five-star hotels where CEOs and investors seize the opportunity for face-to-face deal-making and networking.

Critics of the meeting see the open sessions tackling global affairs as mere window-dressing for this backroom corporate speed-dating.

"In four days in a private suite they can do more business than they could do in several months of flying around the world," said Peter S. Goodman, author of the recent book "Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World".

He said the most important contribution Davos could make would be to push for global tax reform in an effort to reduce economic inequalities.

"The idea that these people, who are the ultimate beneficiaries of the status quo, are committed to improving the state of their world just looks like a greater absurdity than ever," he said.

"And it's always looked like an absurdity."

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