I’m headed to the World Economic Forum next week, where the mood should be somber and hopefully a little humbler, given the amount of strife in the world. This will be my 9th time to Davos, and I don’t remember so much international anxiety.
Here are some the questions and ideas I’m hoping to explore:
- Is the Gaza conflict turning into a regional war?
- Is the U.S. in a fighting mood?
- Who will be the new China?
- Is there a war on democracy?
- Is there a war on truth?
- Will there be a war on AI?
- Are the culture wars ending, or just beginning?
- Is the war on inflation ebbing?
- Are more trade wars coming?
- Can Canada be a peacemaker in a world of war?
Hezbollah was the known risk the moment Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. The Houthi front, in Yemen, is a new wildcard, as is the emerging prospect of American troops (and others) in combat. Lives and regional peace is at stake, of course. So, too, is 15% of global trade which flows through the Red Sea.
As Henry Kissinger was to Richard Nixon, Jake Sullivan is to Joe Biden — and he’ll be in Davos, laying out his vision for American security in a ruptured world. Sullivan’s presence will coincide with the Iowa caucuses back home, as we get the first signal of Donald Trump’s popularity in the Republican Party. The Biden presidency has no shortage of global hotspots to carry into an election season, either as a peacemaker or pugilist.
Xi Jinpeng was the cool kid (by Davos standards) in the mid-teens, as the US went into retreat and China stepped up as the new superpower. But the Chinese have barely made a peep at Davos since the pandemic, and ceded a lot of ground to other emerging powers, especially India and Saudi Arabia. Both countries have made the Forum a strategic priority, with their own pavilions, programs and swagger as they try to influence global thinking.
More than half of the world’s people go to the polls this year, making 2024 a historic moment with a record number of elections in one year (64 countries). But from Argentina to India, the struggle of democracy continues, as it seems to be in the United States. Eurasia Group lists the top risk as “U.S. versus itself.” The biggest name at Davos will be Donald Trump: while he won’t be there, the prospects of his return to the White House has countries in many places gaming their commitment to democratic ideals.
Misinformation is one of the hot topics on this year’s agenda. In fact, the Forum’s annual global risk report cites it as the top perceived risk among its members, ahead of economic and climate concerns.
The number one topic on the Davos agenda is Artificial Intelligence, and its impact on society, jobs, health care, education and on the planet. I’m looking forward to hearing what government leaders and policymakers think, and if the 2023 excitement over ChatGPT is turning into 2024 remorse about its threats.
ESG is nowhere to be seen on the official Davos program, although the perennial themes around environment (climate), social (inclusion) and governance (fairness) issues are cleverly rebranded. Once lampooned as the Olympics of corporate wokism, the Forum has tried to give the stage to populist voices (not much luck) and issues. It’s also dialled down the “change the world for the better” mantra.
Davos draws a lot of big-time investors and money managers, and so it’s a decent place to gauge the yield curve. I’m hoping to get a sense of how dovish the crowd is on interest rates, knowing the Davos crowd is often wrong. The Keynesian part of crowd will be interesting, too, as government debt piles up and perhaps keeps rates from falling more.
The Forum was established in the 1970s as a platform for free traders, to ensure economically liberal voices could be heard around the world. Today it’s crowded with soft protectionists. There’s Europe with its new climate tariffs to keep out products like steel from high-emitting countries, and of course the U.S. which regardless of who’s in power now makes no bones about America First.
Canada’s presence at Davos has diminished since Justin Trudeau used it in 2016 to announce “Canada’s back.” Chrystia Freeland, the deputy prime minister, will be there as a WEF board member and to push for Ukraine, among other issues. She’ll have plenty else to tackle, from Israel to inflation. But a bigger question may be, what role can Canada play in such a fraught world? The archetypical peacemaker may be needed as much as ever, just in very different ways.
You can follow my daily reports from Davos on this social channel and rbc.com/thoughtleadership.
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