May 23, 2022 - 1:21pm

After a Covid-enforced hiatus, the World Economic Forum (WEF) is back in the flesh. The global elites are once again meeting face-to-face in the exclusive Swiss resort of Davos. 

The theme of this year’s conference is “History at a Turning Point” — which is a subtle way of saying “sorry, but we’ve spent the last twenty years leading the world up a blind alley.” Or at least it would be if the WEF did apologies, which it clearly doesn’t. 

With the limits of globalisation now abundantly clear, the question the great-and-the-good should be asking themselves in 2022 is “how did we get it so wrong?”. Instead, we’ll get the usual smug futurology — as if the sort of politicians, business leaders, journalists and academics who go to Davos had adequately prepared us for the current mess we find ourselves in.

Admittedly, there was one Davos speaker who saw what was coming. Speaking at last year’s online event — he drew a parallel between the world today and the 1930s. The global situation could develop in an “unpredictable and uncontrolled manner”, he warned. His name? Vladimir Putin. Of course, the Russian president was privy to inside information — specifically, his own plans to conquer Ukraine — but nevertheless he was spot on. 

This year, the headline speaker is the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy — though, because his country is currently being invaded by last year’s headline speaker, he hasn’t been able to attend in person. Also not attending this year are the Russians — but that’s mainly because, in a major change of WEF policy, they haven’t been invited. 

However, autocrats around the world can be reassured that adherence to democratic norms hasn’t become a general requirement at Davos. For instance, today’s other special address is being given by Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of the State of Qatar. So whether you run your country as an absolute monarchy, a communist dictatorship or a corrupt kleptocracy, you’re still welcome — as long as you don’t disrupt world trade. 

One can argue that, like the UN, Davos exists to facilitate communication. When Klaus Schwab, the executive chairman of the WEF, introduced Vladimir Putin in 2021 he made a point of defending the “long-standing tradition of Russia’s participation in the World Economic Forum.” He argued that “constructive and honest dialogue to address our common challenges is better than isolation and polarisation” — and all the more so in times of tension. 

But is that really true? What did all those years of engagement with the Kremlin do to prepare the West for the current conflict? The record shows we were lulled into a false sense of security — and a dangerous level of dependency on Russian energy supplies.

Of course, it would be too much to expect the World Economic Forum to apologise for its existence. That’s not something that privileged international organisations do. Nevertheless a moment of self-doubt, however fleeting, would be nice.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.