Davos is more relevant than ever this year, precisely because it was so wrong about last year

Time for Davos to clean up its act.
Time for Davos to clean up its act.
Image: AP Photo/Michel Euler
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The World Economic Forum begins next week in Davos, where politicians, CEOs, celebrities meet to establish the conventional wisdom over fondue, cocktails, and high-minded debates.

The conventional wisdom at Davos this time last year was that Donald Trump wouldn’t win the Republican presidential nomination, let alone the presidency; the British would bottle out of voting for Brexit; globalization was good; the tides of free trade lifted all boats; politicians should tell at least a semblance of the truth; and diplomacy was an erudite and tactful endeavor. Justin Trudeau’s starry-eyed optimism set the tone.

It has always been easy to mock Davos for its out-of-touch elitism, with delegates swooping in on private helicopters to address big issues like climate change, income inequality, and the gender gap. The Davos consensus is rarely spot on. But its rejection in 2016 was epic and comprehensive. Brexit is on and Trump is in; globalization is on the retreat; nationalism is on the rise; and the soon-to-be-leader of the free world conducts diplomacy and policy on the fly via Twitter. This year at Davos, Xi Jinping and Theresa May will rub elbows with Matt Damon and Shakira, but Trudeau isn’t going.

Strange to say it, this state of affairs might make Davos more relevant, not less. In the contest between liberals and populists, it’s clear where most delegates at the Alpine gathering stand. Rather than getting together every year to confirm each others’ collective vision of the world, the assembled bigwigs, so used to winning, must now come to grips with the unfamiliar feeling of losing, and figure out what to do about it.

So will the globe-trotting glitterati react with humility or hostility? Or will they simply shrug their shoulders, hit the slopes, and hope for the best? That question will define this year’s gathering.

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