5 myths about the big­wigs at Davos.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BY MOISES NAIM Moises Naim, a se­nior as­so­ci­ate at the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace, is the for­mer edi­tor of in chief of For­eign Pol­icy mag­a­zine and has been a fea­tured speaker at the­World Eco­nomic Fo­rum ev­ery year since 1990.

Ev­ery year, thou­sands of the world’s most in­flu­en­tial peo­ple de­scend upon Switzer­land in late Jan­uary for five days of de­bat­ing, net­work­ing, fine eat­ing and a lit­tle ski­ing, too. The gath­er­ing, called the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum, has grown enor­mously pop­u­lar over the decades— and has gained a steady cho­rus of de­trac­tors as well. In truth, the meet­ing is nei­ther as ex­clu­sive or con­spir­a­to­rial as its crit­ics claim, nor as world-trans­form­ing as its boost­ers imag­ine. The fol­low­ing myths are just a few of the mis­con­cep­tions that have sprung up around the sin­gu­lar in­sti­tu­tion known the world over sim­ply as “Davos.”

Davos is a con­ven­tion for the world’s plu­to­crats.

1 Not re­ally. While chief ex­ec­u­tives of the world’s top com­pa­nies are the largest sin­gle group at­tend­ing the­World Eco­nomic Fo­rum, over the years they’ve been joined by re­li­gious lead­ers, sci­en­tists, politi­cians, artists, aca­demics, so­cial ac­tivists, jour­nal­ists and heads of non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions from across the globe. These newer par­tic­i­pants ac­count for about half of those who go to Davos. You’re just as likely to run into Um­berto Eco, Bono or Na­dine Gordimer as Bill Gates, Ge­orge Soros or Pep­siCo chief ex­ec­u­tive In­dra Nooyi.

Such di­ver­sity was not al­ways a Davos trait. Founded in 1971 by Ger­man busi­ness pro­fes­sor Klaus Sch­wab, the gath­er­ing was ini­tially dubbed the Euro­pean Man­age­ment Fo­rum and catered to Euro­pean ex­ec­u­tives wor­ried about U.S. com­peti­tors. But over time, Sch­wab broad­ened the scope and par­tic­i­pa­tion, and since the 1990s, pan­els on poverty, cli­mate change and mil­i­tary con­flict have been as com­mon as ones on busi­ness and man­age­ment.

Of course, the dirty lit­tle se­cret of Davos is that the ses­sions in the for­mal pro­gram— with grand names such as “En­gi­neer­ing a Cooler Planet” and “Con­struct­ing the Ephemeral: Light in the Pub­lic Realm”— are not the main draw. It’s all about net­work­ing. Ca­sual hall­way con­ver­sa­tions and in­for­mal cof­fees with in­ter­na­tional big­wigs ac­count for much of the fo­rum’s con­tin­u­ing abil­ity to at­tract ex­tremely busy peo­ple to a cold, in­con­ve­nient spot in the Swiss Alps.

Big, world-chang­ing de­ci­sions are made at Davos.

2 When bil­lion­aires and politi­cians hud­dle in a re­mote lo­ca­tion sur­rounded by armed guards, it’s hardly sur­pris­ing that con­spir­acy the­o­rists imag­ine that this small clique is run­ning the world, pro­tect­ing its priv­i­leges and con­coct­ing de­ci­sions that will trans­form all our lives. And the fo­rum it­self is keen to show that its meet­ings mat­ter; its oft­stated mis­sion, em­bla­zoned on tote bags and brochures, is “com­mit­ted to im­prov­ing the state of the world.”

So, what hap­pens at Davos? Fo­rum boost­ers point to sig­nif­i­cant mo­ments, such as when Turkey and Greece signed a dec­la­ra­tion in 1988 dis­pelling the risk of war; or the un­prece­dented meet­ing a year later of rep­re­sen­ta­tives fromNorth and South Korea; or the en­counter, also in 1989, be­tween East Ger­man Prime Min­is­ter Hans Modrow and West Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Hel­mut Kohl to dis­cuss re­uni­fi­ca­tion. It was also in Davos in 1992 that Nel­son Man­dela and South African Pres­i­dent F.W. de Klerk first ap­peared to­gether at an in­ter­na­tional gath­er­ing.

But, how­ever fun it is to spec­u­late, it is hard to as­sess which crit­i­cal po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions or busi­ness deals emerge from Davos— or how of­ten they would have hap­pened else­where re­gard­less. My im­pres­sion, based on two decades worth of Davos meet­ings, is that heads of state don’t at­tend to ne­go­ti­ate deals. Rather, they use Davos as a plat­form to bur­nish their in­ter­na­tion­al­ist cre­den­tials, to im­press au­di­ences back home— or sim­ply to hang out with their friends.

Davos is the high tem­ple of state­less, free-mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism.

3 The late Har­vard pro­fes­sor Sa­muel Hunt­ing­ton coined the term “Davos Man” in 2004 to crit­i­cize mem­bers of a global elite who “ have lit­tle need for na­tional loy­alty, view na­tional bound­aries as ob­sta­cles that thank­fully are van­ish­ing, and see na­tional gov­ern­ments as residues from the past whose only use­ful func­tion is to fa­cil­i­tate the elite’s global op­er­a­tions.”

Hunt­ing­ton (who of­ten at­tended Davos) was cor­rectly de­scrib­ing a strand of thought com­mon among many busi­ness lead­ers, at Davos and else­where. But the “Davos Man” char­ac­ter­i­za­tion feels dated to­day. Ex­ec­u­tives from In­dia and China— coun­tries where the state plays a more dom­i­nant role in eco­nomic af­fairs— have been go­ing to Davos in in­creas­ing num­bers in re­cent years and might frown on the idea that na­tional loy­al­ties and gov­ern­ments are los­ing im­por­tance. Sim­i­larly, non-busi­ness at­ten­dees take the stage at the fo­rum to of­fer cri­tiques of free mar­kets that are as damn­ing as they are elo­quent. Eco­nomic na­tion­al­ism is alive and well — even in Davos.

Davos tells us where the global econ­omy is headed.

4 The ex­perts con­vened at Davos did not see the com­ing col­lapse of the Sovi­etUnion. They failed to pre­dict the Latin Amer­i­can, Rus­sian and Asian fi­nan­cial crises of the 1990s, or the burst­ing of the tech bub­ble at the end of that decade. They didn’t fore­cast the Great Re­ces­sion. In other words, as far as ex­perts go, they are fairly nor­mal.

Why would we as­sume that if cred­i­trat­ing agen­cies, banks, gov­ern­ments, think tanks, aca­demics, in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, pun­dits and the en­tire eco­nomic fore­cast­ing pro­fes­sion failed to an­tic­i­pate these crashes, the peo­ple meet­ing at Davos would do a bet­ter job of warn­ing the world? Af­ter all, the Davos crowd in­cludes most of these ex­perts. The mood in Davos does not drive the elite con­sen­sus, but merely re­flects it.

Davos is los­ing its ap­peal.

5 Davos has got­ten too large. Too packed with celebri­ties. Too lack­ing in sub­stance. These fre­quent crit­i­cisms are one rea­son that other gath­er­ings for world lead­ers have pro­lif­er­ated. For ex­am­ple, the Clin­ton Global Ini­tia­tive, launched in 2005 by for­mer pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, was re­port­edly born out of his frus­tra­tion at con­fer­ences that were more talk than ac­tion. CGI par­tic­i­pants are ex­pected not just to dis­cuss prob­lems such as pan­demics or Haiti’s earth­quake tragedy but to make con­crete com­mit­ments to ad­dress them. The TED talks— a small con­fer­ence started in 1984 to dis­cuss technology, en­ter­tain­ment and de­sign — have de­vel­oped large in­ter­na­tional au­di­ences that fol­low them live on­line. TheWall Street Jour­nal, At­lantic Monthly and other pub­li­ca­tions have launched sim­i­lar events. And a coali­tion of left-lean­ing ac­tivist or­ga­ni­za­tions, po­lit­i­cal groups and NGOs from around the world have formed an an­nual World So­cial Fo­rum, also sched­uled early in the year and billing it­self as the anti-Davos.

Yet, de­spite the crit­ics and com­peti­tors, there is no ev­i­dence that Davos has lost its al­lure. Like ev­ery other year, in 2010 more than 30 heads of state showed up, as did more than 50 top of­fi­cials of mul­ti­lat­eral agen­cies, chiefs of the world’s most sig­nif­i­cant non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions, editors and columnists for lead­ing pub­li­ca­tions, hun­dreds of ex­perts from academia and think tanks, many No­bel Prize win­ners, and lead­ers in other fields. Plus, of course, the chief ex­ec­u­tives of 1,400 of the planet’s largest com­pa­nies.

I imag­ine that this year, for bet­ter or worse, the num­bers will be sim­i­lar— as will the crit­i­cisms.

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