Five key themes of a week in Davos

January 27, 2018 10:10 am
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Davos was on high security alert during the event, which drew the world’s political and business elite © AFP / FABRICE COFFRINI

, Davos, Switzerland, Jan 26 – It began with blinding snowfall, warmed up as France’s president auditioned for “leader of the free world”, and ended in another chill with US President Donald Trump drawing boos and hisses.

Here AFP recaps five key themes that emerged over a week of meetings at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the Swiss Alpine village of Davos, which closed on Friday:

– The Trump Show –

Every year, the WEF features hundreds of panels and thousands of delegates debating everything from the benefits of meditation to how to avert the next pandemic.

But Trump grabbed the headlines before, during and after the event as he became the first US president to attend Davos since Bill Clinton in 2000.

US President Donald Trump complained about the media being “nasty” and “fake”, before jetting out of the posh ski resort in Davos © AFP / Nicholas Kamm

It shaped up to be a story of stark contrasts given the chasm between Trump’s protectionist rhetoric and the Davos elite’s commitment to open borders and a liberal world order.

Trump struck some “America First” notes in a 15-minute speech ending the forum, while also assuring the world’s corporate movers and shakers that “‘America First’ does not mean America alone”.

The 1,500-strong audience, primed for a much more severe tongue-lashing, seemed content to leave it at that. But Trump then complained to WEF chairman Klaus Schwab of “how nasty, how mean, how vicious and how fake the press can be”. Cue the booing from some in the hall.

– Currency chaos –

If Trump meant to find some kind of balance between his domestic gallery and a sceptical foreign audience, his finance minister upended decades of consensus underpinning the gargantuan flows of money that grease world trade.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin sent the dollar spiralling to three-year lows against the euro by telling reporters in Davos that a weaker greenback was good for US trade.

Trump insisted that Mnuchin had been misquoted, and the treasury chief tried to walk back the comment.

But the damage was done, as European governments rebuked the violation of US commitments made in various economic fora, suspecting another attempt by the Trump administration to bend world trade to its advantage.

– Darling of Davos –

If some of the noises from Team Trump were jarring for the Davos crowd, the “Merkron” harmony was music to their ears.

Separate speeches at the WEF by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were acclaimed as defending a rules-based order and stepping into a global leadership void created by Trump’s election and Britain’s Brexit vote.

French President Emmanuel Macron (R) was hailed as the “darling of Davos” © AFP / Fabrice COFFRINI

If Merkel has been hampered by protracted coalition talks following an election setback, Macron is walking tall on the international stage and was hailed as the week’s standout star, the “darling of Davos”.

For The New York Times, Macron in particular “laid claim to the mantle of leader of the free world” with his hour-long speech on Wednesday, which mixed English and French as he called for a reboot to globalisation to stave off populism.

– Tech loses its shine –

“Davos is a good place to announce that their days are numbered,” billionaire investor George Soros said, describing tech giants such as Facebook and Google as monopolies that could be manipulated by authoritarian regimes to subvert democracy.

Every year Silicon Valley decamps en masse to the Swiss Alps, and its visionary leaders are usually guaranteed a warm reception from politicians keen to harness their companies’ potential to transform productivity and shake up old business models.

Experts at Davos warned that intelligent robots threaten to drag humanity into a nightmare of mind control and unemployment © AFP / Kazuhiro NOGI

But the anti-tech backlash has begun and was on brutal display this time, with Davos audiences warned of the dangers to free societies of fake news on social media, and threats to a free press from Google and Facebook gobbling up advertising revenue.

More broadly, experts said that intelligent robots and all-knowing online networks threaten to drag humanity into a nightmare of mind control and mass unemployment.

“This will be decided by the people who own the data. They control not just the future of humanity, but the future of life itself,” said Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli author of bestselling books about technology and anthropology.

– Business and blizzards –

The Davos crowd are used to snow and icy paths — the Swiss prefer not to grit the roads, to avoid environmental damage. Every year, there are lengthy queues at the conference cloak-rooms as delegates shed layers of clothing and switch from hiking boots to smart shoes and high heels.

The snowfall at the start of the week was the region’s heaviest in two decades © AFP / Fabrice COFFRINI

But the snowfall at the start of the week was the region’s heaviest in two decades, after a winter that has already seen tourists trapped in some of Switzerland’s ski resorts.

The snow disrupted road and rail traffic from Zurich, the nearest city to Davos, and affected flights of VIP helicopters. Within the village, attendees trudged on foot rather than risk getting snarled up in long lines of shuttle buses and limousines.

More snow was forecast for Friday night and Saturday. But Trump had already left, choppered away to Zurich and the waiting Air Force One after a series of meetings where his delegation blew a storm through the usual bonhomie.

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