Clouds of hubris are gathering over the annual meeting of the world's most important people in Davos. Susan Greenberg says the organisers are so fearful of offending the participants that real debate has been stifledby Susan Greenberg / February 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
It is that time of year again, when “Davos Man” migrates to the Swiss ski resort. The meeting, organised by the World Economic Forum and held in Davos every January, is an opportunity for business and political leaders to do deals on neutral ground. It is useful for journalists too: getting stories from Davos, with its hermetic population of newsworthy people, is like shooting fish in a barrel. There is therefore a general reluctance to bite the hand that feeds you.
Caution is not misplaced: the Forum is an organisation with high self-regard and low tolerance for criticism. When the Financial Times ran a mildly pointed feature about it in January 1994, piles of the newspaper left out for Davos participants were hastily removed. This is a pity, because criticism ought to be taken as a compliment. If you are influential, not everyone will like you.
And the Davos meeting is influential-to the point of becoming a form of political shorthand. Samuel Huntington identified the species “Davos Man” in his book The Clash of Civilisations. He argued that with the end of the cold war, the west assumed that the whole world was modernising in its image, when in fact many nations were asserting themselves with different, even hostile values. Davos Man believes in market economics and democracy, but he is in danger of thinking that the whole world is like him.
The Davos phenomenon comes in for other kinds of criticism. The left, for example, questions its benign view of globalisation and its narrow view of the market-only a few pet Keynesians and trade unionists are invited to put forward the other side.
But the real problem is not that the Forum is too pro-business. The problem is that it is too politically self-important.
When Huntington’s book came out, The Economist defended Davos Man as the lesser of two evils. At least he had displaced Britain’s “Chatham House Man,” a creature whose uncommercial Foreign Office approach focused on security rather…