World Business & Government Elites Meet in Davos

Davos_town

By Axel Krause
Paris, January 22, 2018

Even before Mr. Trump addresses several thousand political and business leaders plus celebrities from around the globe gathering today for the annual five-day gathering of elites in Davos, Switzerland, much speculation has focused on what exactly he will say, notably regarding this year’s theme : « creating a shared future in a fractured world. «

« It is in our hands to change the state of the world, » Klaus Schwab, the German founder of the organizing World Economic Forum, told reporters . He spearheaded the delicate, long, behind-the-scenes maneuvering to get the US president, along with some sixty other heads of state, government and international bodies, from, for example, Britain, France, Canada, Israel, India, plus the IMF, the OECD and the European Commission.

« It is absolutely essential to have President Trump with us, » Mr. Schwab told reporters last week. If Mr. Trump turns up, he will be the first sitting president to attend since Bill Clinton did in 2000.

Yet, as a recent New York Times stage-setting article mused : « Whether he (Mr. Trump) is seeking reconciliation or pitching for strongman status, his mere presence is a rebuke to the elites who got him badly wrong. » This year’s theme « seems to mitigate Mr. Trump’s influence. »

Indeed, the several thousand businessmen, bankers, consultants and non-media analysts who each have paid many thousands of dollars just to attend the gathering at this scenic ski resort in the Swiss Alps, may not, by any stretch of the imagination, jump to their feet applauding the president’s speech scheduled for delivery on Friday.

After all, they and their many predecessors, including Mr. Schwab, were, according to Mr. Trump’s team dictating to working-class men and women all that’s wrong with the world, along with the Democratic Party, dubbed by then-insider Steve Bannon as « the party of Davos. »

Providing some hint regarding his planned message, the White House’s Sarah Sanders recently told reporters in a statement that the president’s participation will be used to « advance his America First agenda with world leaders » meaning « promoting his policies to strengthen American businesses, American industries and American workers. » In blunter language, market analyst John Raines told CNBC that he expected the president to « trumpet his achievements…(saying) Hey listen, follow me, I have a recipe for success and you guys need to follow me. »

Added Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin during a recent White House briefing, and who will lead a high-level US delegation to the meeting, including top executives of Microsoft, Facebook and IBM, as well as cabinet members, such as Special Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who in years past proved a helpful source to me covering the meeting for the International Herald Tribune as a key member of the law firm Skadden Arps’ delegation.

« I don’t think it’s (Davos) a hangout for globalists…if you look at the list, there’s an awful lot of world leaders…an awful lot of finance chairs a an awful lot of business people, » Mr. Mnuchein added. Maybe so.

Yet as CNN recently reported, many of those in the audience when the president speaks on Friday, are skeptical about a positive, statesman-like message, while supporting free trade, multilateralism and the world economic order established at the end of the second World War.

In sharp contrast, the network’s reporting team listed the following examples of what they think the Davos paying crowd would acually like to hear : downplaying threat of war with North Korea, backing away from a trade war with China, Mexico or Canada ; willingness to rethink cooperatively the Paris climate accord and multilateral trade accords ; sticking with the earlier Iran nuclear agreement ; standing up to Russia and specifically to President Vladimir Putin.

However, the chances are strong that he may well deliver what Politico Europe described as a « gassy stink bomb. » The opposite of what those in the audience are hoping for.

Citing West Wing advisers involved in planning the presidential trip, arguments were made that Davos would be « the perfect venue for Trump to unleash an especially gassy stink bomb aimed at ideas – free trade deals, a more integrated global regulatory system and all manner of liberal pieties cherished by global elites – he deplores. »

Summing up in cartoon form the president’s global stance as perceived by the rest of the world, France’s lefitist-leaning daily Libération on Friday front-paged a hand with its US flag and Trump-bedecked middle finger pointing staight upwards.

For the vast majority of those business and governmental leaders attending the Davos meetings for hefty fees, one might ask : is it all worth it ? Even if President Trump – embroiled in the federal government shutdown – declines to attend, and, once like Ronald Reagan before him, addresses the meeting via a satellite link from Washington.

The answer is overwhelmingly yes. As a veteran of roughly a dozen Davos’ covering the event along with hundreds of colleagues from around the world (entry fees waived) I would summarize the reasons for paying to attend as a combination of the opportunity to make deals discreetly, high-level networking and relaxing and even tanning in one of Europe’s most posh winter ski resorts, while having a front seat at a world-class gathering, obviously impossible at, for example, G7 or G20 summits. And the chance to bring a spouse or partner along. The cost ?

The organizing Geneva-based World Economic Forum, a supposedly non-profit entity, with an estimated turnover of some $185 million offers several levels of membership in what I once wrote resembles a very high-level, ultra-costly, select club with entry fees charged only for those with respectable credentials and very deep pockets.

The lowest cost for entry for one is some $52,000 ; a strategic partnership for up to five is some $527,000 that also provides special conference rooms, easy access for chauffer-driven cars amid very high security everywhere in and around town.

Hosting the many cocktail parties, fancy dinners and other forms of entertainment in the town’s luxury hotels are extra, as is popular private jet service to and from Zurich. The fees also provide access to the foundation’s satellite forums around the world serviced by its offices in New York, San Francisco, Beijing and Tokyo.

Back in the early 1970s and for some years later, after Mr. Schwab launched the event,it was fun and easy seeing and interviewing corporate and governnmental officials, with easily half the number of those several thousand attending this week.

During the early 1980s, my newspaper sent me regularly for the access and articles we produced, which became increasingly difficult over the years as attendance surged. The event has become what a participant told Bloomberg Television involved « chasing people who want to be seen with other successul people. That’s the game. » Quipped another businessman : deals, deals deals…those here are the main subjects of talk. »

Complaining of today’s costs and crowds, another corporate executive who stopped attending, quipped that Davos is also « foolish, self-righteous, show-biz baloney. »

Yet in many interviews, most paying corporate participants repeatedly told me how, after all, relatively cheap it was to attend. That the behind-the-scenes access to others attending Davos – influential government leaders, competitors, potential clients – avoided even more costs to see them in their home countries. Even today, they argue, in Davos one can handily meet contacts in just a few days that would require at least a week or more of more-costly travel around the globe.

That includes the media without which the gathering would not exist as it does year after year. Editors anxiously want the coverage for hard news, color and exclusive interviews that are easily arranged ; but while most meetings are open to journalists – after accreditation following careful screening – many are not ; then it’s every journalist for him or her self to arrange one-on-one meetings. Representing an influential, respected newspaper like mine at the time makes this relatively easy.

But I recall how some years ago one of our colleagues, a Dutch correspondent of a left-leaning newspaper was denied accreditation because of his previous, biting criticism of the gathering and what he termed the World Economic Forum’s biased, pro-business elitist, male-dominated ideology. His editors decided to send him anyway, ‘though he operated mainly from his hotel room and local cafés, fed by some of us at the end of each day. « My editors, believe our readers simply want the coverage, » he said.

Axel Krause is the Paris-based contributing editor of TransAtlantic Magazine, and has covered Davos and Europe for decades as correspondent, bureau chief and editor for Business Week, and the Internationalo Herald Tribune in Paris, Moscow and Washington. He is a governor of the Ditchley Foundation in England and the author of Inside the New Europe.

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