Every January, the world’s attention turns to the small Swiss town of Davos, as societal elites gather for the World Economic Forum (WEF). This meeting of world leaders, top business executives and leading academics has played a significant role in global economics and international affairs since it was founded in 1971 by Professor Klaus Schwab. Most famously, in 1988, a potential war between Greece and Turkey was averted when their two leaders held lengthy discussions at the WEF and signed a peace agreement.(1) The forum has also signaled major turning points in modern history. At the 1992 WEF, Nelson Mandela met with then South African President FW de Klerk for the first time outside of South Africa, and they reaffirmed their commitment to ending decades of apartheid.(2) More recently, President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, in their first speeches at Davos, presented very different visions for what their respective country’s role should be on the world stage. During his 2018 speech, President Trump struck an isolationist tone by emphasizing his intention to reconsider free trade agreements and participation in multinational agreements.(3) One year earlier, President Xi espoused his commitment to globalisation, international cooperation and free trade, signaling a larger role China in global geopolitics.(4) During his presidency, Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Iran Nuclear Deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. In contrast, even though it has a more restrictive economy and political system, China has sought to raise its global influence. Among many other initiatives, it has emerged as a leader in fighting climate change and recently signed the largest trade deal ever with 14 other nations.(5) Perhaps, a future speech by President-Elect Joe Biden at the WEF will shed light on the future of U.S. foreign policy and the power dynamics between the world’s two largest economies.
While commitments and speeches by world leaders capture most of the media’s attention, the WEF is more than a platform for politicians to share their vision. At its core, it is meant to be a place for leaders and decision makers to discuss potential solutions to social, political and economic issues. Recently, it has expanded beyond an annual meeting and now actively publishes research that highlights these issues. An idea that the WEF and Professor Schwab has continually championed and popularized is stakeholder capitalism, which pushes companies to help all stakeholders, including employees and society as a whole, rather than being solely profit driven. Stakeholder capitalism continually features in WEF reports and the annual meeting agenda. Each year at Davos, CEOs share and discuss lofty environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) targets that their company aims to achieve. The WEF points to these growing commitments and initiatives as evidence that stakeholder capitalism is becoming a widely accepted paradigm for business leaders.(6) Socially responsible corporations may soon become the norm rather than the exception.
The upcoming 2021 WEF is a reminder that even elites cannot escape the consequence of COVID-19. Davos will not host the forum for the first time ever. Instead it will take place virtually this year from January 25 - 29 with an additional in-person meeting in Singapore from May 18 - 21.(7) During the January meeting, all invited dignitaries will give speeches and participate in panel discussions from the comfort of their homes. As expected, the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic will be a focus of discussion. Fighting climate change, increasing international cooperation and rebuilding sustainable economic systems are also on the agenda.(8) All speeches and panels will be available on the WEF website, so everyone can participate.