In a polarized world, Davos displays the weakness of western leaders
London: It’s been a decade since western bankers commanded the deference in Davos they enjoyed before the financial crisis. That blight appears to be spreading to politicians.
The so-called masters of the universe headed to this year’s annual gathering of the global elite are looking less than magisterial. From the US, to the UK, to Italy and beyond, an unusual number of leaders due to address the World Economic Forum (WEF) are arriving in the Swiss Alps either politically damaged, unpopular or close to expiry.
With the US in “America First” mode under Donald Trump, Britain consumed by Brexit and Germany struggling to even form a government, this year’s Davos reflects a growing sense of disarray among advanced democracies. Their weakness is all the more striking in contrast to other major powers.
A supremely confident President Xi Jinping of China used the event last year to lead the charge for free trade and globalization, a role previously played by the US.
This year, it’s the turn of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He warned against protectionism and isolation in a speech at Davos on Tuesday, just a day after the US announced new tariffs on imports of solar panels and washing machines.
The relative weakness of some leaders reflects the recent fragmentation of electoral support on which democratic leaders rely, unlike in more authoritarian systems. But it also exposes how liberal democratic institutions are themselves withering, amid what Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer calls a geopolitical depression. Those challenges were accumulating long before US President Donald Trump’s election to the White House, he said.
“It’s no one individual’s fault,” said Bremmer, founder and president of the New York-based political risk consultancy. It’s “astonishing” that the strongest leaders of advanced democracies in 2018 should be from hitherto stagnant France and geopolitically reticent Japan, he said. And as many western powers turn inward, China in particular is filling the vacuum. “They have a strategy,” said Bremmer. “We don’t.”
Trump, 71, will be the first US president to speak at Davos since Bill Clinton in 2000. Yet his power to herd others behind American priorities is less certain.
A chaotic leadership style has compounded the difficulties that any new White House occupant faces in getting campaign promises enacted. He could have arrived in the Swiss ski resort trumpeting cuts in corporate and individual taxes, a centrepiece of his economic agenda.
Instead he’s been fending off a US government shutdown as lawmakers on Capitol Hill struggle to secure an agreement on a budget.
Trump’s average approval ratings at home are the lowest for any first-year US president since the Gallup polling agency began its surveys 72 years ago. Worldwide, approval for US leadership has fallen by a record 18%, to 30%, since 2016.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May, 61, is arguably weaker still. An early election she called last year to cement her authority in negotiations over Britain’s exit from the European Union backfired. Her parliamentary majority evaporated and she now depends for political survival on the support of a small party in Northern Ireland.
Italy’s Paolo Gentiloni, meanwhile, could well lose his job in elections in March as the populist Five Star Movement leads opinion polls.Bloomberg