For world leaders, including President Trump, who will attend next week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the agenda will be anything but a walk in the park.
This year’s theme, “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World,” will also present a challenge for some attendees who have deepened global divisions, as well as divisions in their homelands.
“Our world has become fractured by increasing competition between nations and deep divides within societies. Yet the sheer scale of the challenges our world faces makes concerted, collaborative and integrated action more essential than ever,” says Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the Forum. Trump is scheduled to deliver a keynote address at the end of the four-day event.
What’s most startling is the report about potential “future shocks” that will inform discussions at the Forum. The report lists 10 of them. Some are obvious (even if denied). Others less obvious (and rarely discussed).
At the top of the list of global risks, as you might expect, is accelerating climate change, which threaten world food supplies. Extreme weather events such as hurricanes and floods combined with prolonged drought have impacted global food supply chains.
While those impacts have already left parts of the world hungry, a graver risk looms if trade relations break down, political instability cripples cultivation or crop disease spreads. The ensuing food crisis would be bad enough, but could lead to steep price hikes and widespread conflict, which would literally be international food fights.
The report acknowledges fears over how automation will change the complexion of the workforce, but it warns a different scenario may be of greater concern. “As we become more reliant on codes that can write their own code (the crux of Artificial Intelligence), we’ll lose the ability to track and control it. The world relies heavily on the internet; the disruption will be massive.”
The “end of trade as we know it,” according to the report, could lead to a world “grappling with rapidly spreading trade disputes” that “adversely affects economic activity, output and employment.”
Cracks in democracy pose a global risk, the report says. “The polarization of politics could worsen, leaving people even further apart ideologically and with less room for compromise. In the worst-case scenario, political debate could be replaced by the use of force. Those in opposition could then take up arms, a situation particularly worrisome in areas with ready access to weapons or a history of political violence.”
Other threats cited by the report include depletion of ocean fish stocks through use of the unmanned drone fishing boats, another global financial crisis, war fought without rules and the break-up of the internet because of cyber attacks or nationalistic policies.
Two other threats identified in the report are widening inequality throughout the world juxtaposed with rising nationalism and efforts to expel ethnic or religious minorities from regions or entire countries.
Inequality goes beyond the gulf between rich and poor, extending access to critical resources or innovations. The report says bioengineering and cognition-enhancing drugs hold the promise of considerable benefits, but contribute as the same time to a wider gulf between haves and have nots.
Attendees also will be exposed to Forum initiatives, which range from food security to international trade and investment to shaping the future of mobility, energy and the environment. You might call the event a crash course on how the world turns.
For supporters and critics of Trump, the Davos meeting raises intriguing questions. What, for example, is the candidate who campaigned as a populist in support of “America First,” going to say in his keynote address at an event attended by the world’s elite globalists? Critics may hope some of the threats discussed at the event wise up Trump, but worry his rejection of issues such as climate change and open trade could further alienate the United States from world leaders and its longtime allies.
Trump might view his moment on the world stage as a platform to announce something dramatic, such as a pullout by the United States of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Based on the agenda and how things are shaping up in the world, this year’s World Economic Forum may merit more attention than usual, which is virtually assured because Trump is attending.