January 21, 2019 / 8:46 AM / a month ago

Breakingviews - Cox: Davos becomes a liability in the populist era

DAVOS (Reuters Breakingviews) - What do Donald Trump, Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron, Narendra Modi and Theresa May have in common? Besides leading the United States, Canada, France, India and United Kingdom, not much – except that all of them are skipping the World Economic Forum in Davos this week. Each of the leaders came to the Swiss Alps last year to deliver their takes on globalisation - or at least flog their nations as the world’s optimal destinations for capital.

A person passes by a World Economic Forum logo in Davos, Switzerland, January 20, 2019. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Since then, it seems, Davos has become a political liability. Though long-standing heads of state like Japan’s Shinzo Abe and Germany’s Angela Merkel will be present, many politicians propelled more recently to power – especially since Britain’s 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union and the U.S. election later that year - are bogged down at home. Unfair as it may be, the worry is that domestic woes will only be exacerbated by rubbing shoulders with elites in the Alps under the auspices of solving big problems.

While there’s always a chance one or more of the leaders will make a surprise visit, the absence of many big kahunas does not necessarily make the annual shindig any less valuable. Those plenipotentiaries who do make the trip have more opportunity to promote their countries to the assembled executives, financiers and bankers, who might otherwise focus their attentions on the proclamations of Trump or Macron.

This might even be a good thing. Without rich-world rulers hogging the main stage in the Congress Centre, Ethiopia’s newly elected Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed will be better able to extol the virtues of his nation’s 81 million people, who produce just half as much GDP per head as neighbouring Kenya. The WEF reckons countries which produce a quarter of the globe’s economic output will be represented at the meeting.

Business leaders will be out in full force, as usual, along with some representatives of non-profits non-governmental organizations. Throw a salmon canape in any direction and it’s as likely to land on the lapels of a financial titan, like Allianz Chief Executive Oliver Bate, as it is the Zero Waste Academy Japan’s Chairwoman Akira Sakano.

Not cluttering up the Davos Promenade with high-profile politicians and their entourages may even bring the WEF closer to part of its mission statement. Among other pledges, the group founded and led by Klaus Schwab strives “in all its efforts to demonstrate entrepreneurship in the global public interest while upholding the highest standards of governance”.

It’s hard to see how some of last year’s leaders could have credibly lectured others from the podium. Though Trump gave a lucid articulation of his “America First” policies as the forum’s finale last year, his government is entering a historic fifth week of a shutdown over his insistence on obtaining funding for a wall on the border of Mexico. Setting aside the WEF’s desire to build bridges, not barriers, the dysfunctional state of American governance hardly endears itself to the organisation’s mission.

Either way, the optics of fuelling up Air Force One when some 800,000 federal employees – including 24,000 Federal Aviation Administration workers - are trying to make do without a paycheck would have been terrible at home. Trump on Thursday grounded a delegation of cabinet members, which was to have included Steven Mnuchin, the Secretary of the Treasury, whose predecessors have been Davos regulars over the decades, after clipping Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Afghanistan.

Though Trump and Trudeau are chalk and cheese politically, they share a similar optical conundrum. Last year the youthful Canadian premier, delivering his second Davos address since his 2015 electoral victory, took heat at home for the sojourn, which cost at least 678,000 Canadian dollars. “Davos is such a symbol of the super powerful hanging with the super powerful, to no discernible benefit to ordinary people,” an opposition politician told The Globe and Mail last April. Criticism of that sort would not be particularly helpful as Trudeau’s ruling Liberal party prepares to face the electorate later this year.

Other Davos regulars are in similar boats. May last week barely survived a confidence vote after the House of Commons rejected her deal for a divorce from the EU. India’s Modi faces a revived Congress party in the polls this year. And Macron has just kicked off a national debate on taxes, spending and other priorities to head off further civil unrest from the “gilets jaunes”, the yellow-vested protesters whose demonstrations have rocked Paris for ten weekends in a row.

Davos attendees will still get to hear from the grey-hairs of the developed world, including Merkel, who assumed the German chancellery in 2005; and Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister for the past seven years. And at least one of the new crop of disruptive leaders will be navigating the icy sidewalks: Brazil’s newly elected president, Jair Bolsonaro, who will address the well-tailored throng on Tuesday. And Giuseppe Conte will attend his first Davos at Italian prime minister, representing an anti-establishment political coalition.

The no-shows may mean Davos garners fewer big headlines this year. Consequently, the suspense of wondering whether Macron will lecture Trump on globalism, or whether the U.S. president will castigate the assembled Davos men and women for their elitism, will be replaced by something else: relative quiet. If that leaves more time to listen to Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege – the “Doctor Miracle” who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work helping women disfigured by sexual violence – so much the better.

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