The World Economic Forum summit in Davos, Switzerland, that wrapped up Friday, had some notable absentees, including U.S. President Donald Trump.
With a backlash against a perceived ruling elite gaining ground in many countries, analysts say some leaders steered clear of a gathering often seen as an inaccessible club for the world’s super-rich. Others argue it is vital they get together to discuss urgent issues like climate change and world trade.
On the surface, though, it was business as usual: On a sealed off, snowbound mountaintop, world leaders rubbed shoulders with global executives, lobbyists and pressure groups. It remains a vital gathering of global decision-makers, said Leslie Vinjamuri, head of the U.S. and the Americas Program at policy group Chatham House.
“They’re there to do business, they’re there to engage in an exchange of ideas. And so I think it’s still tremendously important.”
President Trump stayed away because of the partial U.S. government shutdown, which ended Friday. China’s President Xi Jinping wasn’t there, neither was Britain’s Theresa May, nor France’s President Emmanuel Macron.
“They’re tremendously preoccupied with the troubles they face at home, which isn’t a good sign for globalism. The criticism and the critique that surrounds Davos is extraordinary. People say, ‘You know, it’s where all those people go to have dinner with each other, it has nothing to do with the rest of us.’ And, of course, it’s about a lot more than that, but the optics are tremendously negative at this point in time,” Vinjamuri said.
Behind the heavily guarded security perimeter, delegates were well aware of a growing global backlash beyond.
David Gergen of the Harvard Kennedy School echoed the concerns of many at Davos during a debate at the summit.
“It’s worth remembering we’ve just had the longest bull run in our stock market in history. We’ve had good economic times. Incomes have gone up in a number of countries and yet the discontent is deep and it’s threatening our democracies. And there’s something that’s not working here that we need to figure out,” Gergen told an audience Wednesday.
The absence of many big players means others have stolen the limelight. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali has been widely praised for making peace with Eritrea. Speaking at the forum, he said African countries must deepen their ties.
“We believe integration must be viewed not just as an economic project but also as crucial to securing peace and reconciliation in the Horn of Africa,” Ali said.
Other issues also rose up the Davos agenda, notably climate change. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern urged action.
“This is about being on the right side of history. Do you want to be a leader that you look back in time and say that you were on the wrong side of the argument when the world was crying out for a solution? And it’s as simple as that I think,” Ardern said.
The Davos 2019 will likely be remembered, however, for the lack of global leadership, according to Vinjamuri of Chatham House.
“That space has been vacated and nobody necessarily even wants to take things forward at the level of providing a vision,” Vinjamuri said.
The lack of such a vision at a time of profound global change sent a chill far beyond the confines of this winter resort.