Is Davos more than just a lot of hot air?

The slogans plastered along the main promenade at Davos don't help. Indonesia is apparently working hard on "unity in diversity 4.0". Infosys will help you to "navigate your next". And Salesforce channels a Japanese poet in declaring: "Individually we are one drop. Together we are the ocean."

Lots of talk, but how much is achieved?Credit:AP

I mean, what does "unity in diversity" actually mean? And have there really been three earlier iterations of this meaningless paradox? Sounds like gobbledegook 4.0 to me.

Then there are some of the wackier panels taking place around the World Economic Forum. Today Anthony Scaramucci, Trump's spokesman for 11 days, will interview Ehud Barak, the former prime minister of Israel, on the subject of "exporting cannabis innovation". Davos is incredibly easy to lampoon and criticise, which is why so many people do.

This year is no different – in fact, it may be even worse than usual. The chorus of voices bemoaning Davos as nothing more than a talking shop, where a lot of hot air is generated but not much is achieved, is building to a crescendo. Indeed, many point out that far from being the world's saviours, the global elite gathered in the Swiss mountain resort are a big part of the problem.

Far be it from me to go in to bat for Davos. There's plenty about it that is ridiculous and hypocritical. That said, if everyone thinks that Davos is a waste of time, it's probably worth looking at the counter arguments.

Firstly, and cynically, far more happens behind the scenes than in front of the cameras. Many of those who attend Davos never go into the conference centre where the headline grabbing sessions take place. As the already weary-looking chairman of a FTSE 100 company that I bumped into said, the real benefit of Davos for him is that it is efficient: he gets to hold a whole load of meetings with a lot of the people he wants to see in a very short space of time.



But, beyond that, it probably does business leaders good to be confronted with some uncomfortable truths. Amid the platitudes and the increasingly defensive corporate justifications – especially from the big tech companies – there are some real flashes of insight.

On Tuesday, Raghuram Rajan, the former governor of the Bank of India, pointed out to the assembled titans of industry that they bang on about the undoubted benefits of mega-corporations – they help to lower prices and build better products for customers. But nothing is free. It is, he said, the duty of companies to work out who is paying for the lower prices and how. Companies need to be hearing this stuff.

What is more, the liberal international order that is now under threat is younger than we often remember. The British historian Adam Tooze reminded delegates the golden period we nostalgically invoke, as we struggle to understand the modern world, is much shorter that we think and only got going when institutions like the World Economic Forum and the International Monetary Fund got into their stride in the Nineties.

He argued that the liberal international order that we associate with Bretton Woods "came into to existence incrementally, anxiously and driven as much by crisis as anything else". The grand designs for global trade, which were sketched out in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War did not really get off the ground until the late Fifties and, when they did, resulted in huge fiscal and monetary pressures on the US by the Sixties. This resulted in "the first iteration of cynical, populist Republican politics with a nationalist tinge" – president Richard Nixon.

"Really [Donald] Trump has nothing on [Nixon] in terms of his insouciance about the international order," said Tooze. "When it was pointed out to Nixon that the Italians might suffer collateral damage from his policies, the Watergate tapes pick up the immortal line: 'I don't give a "bleep" about the lira.'" Nixon then set about dismantling the Bretton-Woods consensus in the space of just a couple of years in the early Seventies.

Most of the advances in free trade and globalisation kicked off two decades later. And, when they did, it was "in places like this", the University of Columbia professor said. Those same institutions may be needed to help shore up the liberal international order.

And those that criticise Davos need to ask themselves whether they are comfortable with the conclusion to their argument – that the whole thing is disbanded. Yes, Davos may produce more good intentions than concrete results but at least there is a co-ordinated attempt to address some of the world's problems. Would Davos's critics prefer that attendees didn't even bother?

On Tuesday, the veteran broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, who was being interviewed by the Duke of Cambridge on the main stage at Davos, said: "This event is one of the most optimistic things I've seen in a while."

He said that the environmental crisis that the world is facing was caused by mankind's belief that it had to conquer the natural world and live in opposition to it. The truth, he said, is the opposite.

"Events like this show that fundamental, beautiful fact is being realised. [The World Economic Forum] arguably has more power than any other gathering. They recognise that fundamental truth and can do something about it."

So, who is it that calls David Attenborough a liar?

Telegraph, London

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