Davos: Congress of the New Middle Ages

The Wall Street Journal |

By Parag Khanna

The last year or two have witnessed no shortage of silver-bullet rhetoric to deal with the world’s most pressing challenges. A global economic “G-2” of the U.S. and China was proposed to sort out the imbalances between savings and deficit countries; the United Nations General Assembly devoted several days in September to the “Millennium Development Goals” that address hunger, poverty, and other socio-economic ills; grand summits were held in Copenhagen and Cancun to craft a global climate treaty; and experts spoke of a “Grand Bargain” to freeze Iran’s nuclear program.

It should come as no surprise that all of these attempts to solve global problems with the stroke of a pen have proven stillborn. A new “Concert of Powers” à la 19th-century Europe, another “San Francisco moment” recreating the 1945 founding of the United Nations, or even a “new Bretton Woods” financial summit is not going to deliver geopolitical stability and worldwide prosperity.

Such antiquated thinking is a complacent vestige of a Western-led world. Even more fundamentally, it is a legacy of a Westphalian, state-centric world. That too has ended. We have entered a new Middle Ages: an era that most resembles the pre-Westphalian era of nearly 1,000 years ago. That was the period of history when the East was as powerful (if not more so) than the West, cities mattered more than nations, powerful dynasties and trading companies were engines of growth and innovation, private mercenaries fought in all wars, religious crusades shaped inter-cultural relations, and new trade routes over land and sea forged the world’s first (nearly) global economy.

What did diplomacy look like in the Middle Ages? First, it was characterized by complex multi-level relations: the Pope and his emissaries, Germanic duchies and vassal territories, Italian city-states like Milan and Venice, and great universities from Oxford to Bologna. Second, it was informal. For most of history, the chief criteria for diplomatic inclusion have been status and prestige, not legal sovereignty—which only came into being in the 17th century. The formalized, bureaucratized foreign ministry as we know it today is a legacy of French nobleman Cardinal de Richelieu, who as an adviser in the court of King Louis XIII established a Ministry of External Affairs in 1626 and dispatched the most extensive professional diplomatic corps in Europe. As patriotism ascended, freelance diplomacy was curtailed.

But diplomacy, as the professional joke goes, is the second oldest profession. It long pre-dates the state, and will continue to thrive even as new ways of organizing people, territory, resources and ideologies emerge. Because diplomacy takes place amongst anyone who is someone, it is our best window into the changing structure and patterns of relations among the world’s leading authorities.

The best place to view what model of diplomacy lies before us in the New Middle Ages is the Swiss enclave of Davos, where each January the planet’s most influential heads of state, CEOs, mayors, religious leaders, NGO heads, university presidents, celebrities and artists flock for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), an event that over the past four decades has established itself as what “60 Minutes” last year dubbed “the most important meeting on Earth.” What CBS’s flagship program discovered was that this gathering of “capitalists, globalists, and futurists” seems to work precisely because it is neither formal nor official.

Davos has nothing to do with sovereignty and everything to do with authority: it’s peer-to-peer among anybody who’s somebody. Where else do hundreds of Fortune 500 CEOs, American cabinet secretaries, the mayor of London, prime minister of Catalonia, chairman of China’s Export-Import Bank, investor-statesmen like George Soros, rock-star activists like Bono, and billionaire hybrid executive philanthropists like Bill Gates speak directly and honestly, and form new ventures on the spot?

Compared to the modern inter-state diplomatic system, Davos represents anti-diplomacy—and yet it actually reflects the true parameters of global diplomacy today better than the United Nations. The reason is that in our ever more complex diplomatic eco-system, relations among governments represent only one slice of the total picture. Beyond the traditional “public-public” relations of embassies and multilateraism, there are also the “public-private” partnerships sprouting across sectors and issues. Qatar’s natural gas fortunes hinge on its arrangement with Exxon, India’s ability to attract foreign investment is contingent on support from the business magnates who make up the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), and the alliance of the Gates Foundation, pharmaceutical company Merck, and the government of Botswana saved the country’s population from being wiped out by AIDS, to name just a few of the now literally countless such arrangements flourishing today. The third and often neglected dimension of the new diplomacy is “private-private” interactions which circumvent the state altogether. Think of the Environmental Defense Fund dealing directly with Wal-Mart to cut the company’s overall emissions by 20 million metric tons and install solar panels at 30 new locations. The diplomats at Cancun could only dream of such concrete measures.

All three of these combinations of negotiating partners thrive at Davos and in all WEF activities, which range from mini-Davos-style regional conferences to year-round multi-stakeholder initiatives in public health, climate change, anti-corruption and other areas. The WEF does what no U.N. agency would ever do: allow “coalitions of the willing” to organically “grow and go”—incubating them but also quickly spinning them off into self-sustaining entities; but importantly also letting projects die that fail to attain sufficient support from participants. In this sense the WEF is both a space for convening but also a driver of new agendas.

The WEF has long been a practitioner of today’s newest behavioral economic fad: “nudging”. The WEF’s founder, Swiss-German academic turned businessman Klaus Schwab, first declared a “Spirit of Davos” in 1983, claiming that the WEF annual meeting had become “one of those increasingly rare international events where formality can be dispensed with, where personal contacts can be made, where new ideas can be tried out in complete freedom, where people are aware of the responsibilities involved in belonging to an international community, where we have time to look at really important issues rather than everyday pressures.” It is, of course, an explicit homage to the mid-1920s “spirit of Locarno,” which urged the normalization of relations with Germany and its admission to the League of Nations. Like Locarno, Davos is not an institution but a place where agreements can be made in the hope of influencing subsequent decisions and events. The WEF has been ahead of the curve in promoting some of the signature issues of our time—from broadening the understanding of the ingredients of economic competitiveness through its signature reports than began in the 1970s to promoting good corporate citizenship years before anti-globalization protesters stormed Montreal and Seattle—yet rarely does it get any credit.

The credit always goes to the growing ranks of “Davos Man,” and often-misquoted term coined by Samuel Huntington in 1996 to denote an increasingly rootless global elite caste. But not everyone viewed the emergence of “Davos Man” as a bad thing. Contrary to the WEF’s reputation as a host for secret, if glamorous, deal-making, the Economist praised “Davos Man” as the necessary antidote to traditional diplomats who seal themselves behind veils of protocol, instead immersing themselves in the latest innovations, technologies and trends, speaking English as their lingua franca, and reinforcing thinking and debate through engaging with the media. Today the WEF has more followers on Twitter than any international organization, and uses Davos to convene “Global Town Halls” with live online participation to debate global priorities.

Surely Davos does not correct the “democracy deficit” afflicting the world’s power structures, but what it does better than any other is correct the “diplomacy deficit,” giving anyone it invites the right to represent themselves without interference or manipulation. NGOs speaking for the world’s oppressed, social entrepreneurs, and all manner of others seeking attention and funding get unobstructed access to the world’s richest companies, governments and philanthropists. Davos is where money and megaphones come together.

The WEF is an interesting proxy for America’s standing in the world as well. At Davos, American leadership isn’t embodied in feeble cabinet members mouthing pre-fab remarks, but through its modern-day Medicis. The Medici family of medieval Florence led the West into the Renaissance by commissioning artists like Michaelangelo, inventors like Leonardo da Vinci, and backing secular rationalists like Machiavelli. Far from being ignorant, aloof, and depraved, America is home to most of the postmodern Medicis, from Bill Gates to Warren Buffett to George Soros. Mr. Gates tackles global scourges through science, Mr. Buffett backs public works through investment, and Mr. Soros attacks autocrats with technology. What the old and new Medicis have in common is a disregard for antiquated notions of public versus private power and a focus on a new hybrid model that unites the best of both spheres. America’s global footprint is far greater than its declining share of global GDP and its increasingly unpopular president. Davos is where it needs to go in greater numbers to regain global respectability.

Davos is reflexively dismissed as “waste of time” by those either not invited or not interested in making contributions to the world beyond their own bottom line. But with the G-20 far less than the sum of its parts and the U.S.-China “G-2” more a nightmare scenario than solution, Davos represents a fluid yet far more resilient division of labor for the world. Nobody can stop the entropy that is diffusing power in the world. Instead, we need more Davos-like congresses to harness all the new power centers, from presidents to entrepreneurs to activists. Indeed, what matters most of all is not what happens at Davos but who copies it. Its demonstration effect is visible already in events ranging from the Clinton Global Initiative to the Saudi Arabia General Investment Authority “Davos in the Desert” conveniently set for the week prior to Davos.

Global governance is not a thing, not a collection of formal institutions, not even a set of treaties. It is a process involving a far wider range of actors than have ever been party to global negotiations before. The sooner we look for new meta-scripts for regulating transnational activities and harnessing global resources to tackle local problems the better. Davos continues to be a good place to start.

Parag Khanna is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and author of “How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance,” published this month by Random House.


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