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OPINION | All aboard the crazy train

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DAVOS, Switzerland — For half a century the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum has brought a mix of business leaders, politicians, pundits, academics, activists, “social entrepreneurs” and celebrities to this small village high in the Swiss Alps.

For the year-round inhabitants, the conference is a mixed blessing. Security barriers and heavy traffic turn the narrow streets into a nightmare. With well-situated one-bedroom apartments renting for as much as $5,000 a night, however, many a Davos-dweller can escape the madness and pocket a nice profit. The resort’s hotels also make out well; with corporations and governments competing to reserve ballrooms and salons for their events, local hoteliers can clear more in a week than they likely could make during the whole ski season in the old pre-WEF days.

There is something inescapably ridiculous about a gathering this self-important; certainly Marie Antoinette and her friends dressing up as shepherdesses to celebrate the simple life has nothing on the more than 100 billionaires descending, often by private jet, on an exclusive Swiss ski resort for four days of ostentatious hand-wringing about the problems of the poor and the dangers of climate change. This year an earnest young aide at registration told me that, to reduce the event’s carbon footprint, no paper maps of the town were being distributed; one could almost feel the waves of relief from the nearby Alpine glaciers at this sign of green progress.

Yet smirk as one may, and sometimes as one must, this year’s WEF arrived at a difficult time for the Davoisie — those who are at home in the thin air of this global gathering. Leaders the world over are now having to come to grips with a new age of populism, nationalism and protectionism.

For the Davoisie the rise of populism is a huge problem. A world increasingly separating into rival blocs as supply chains begin to decouple isn’t a hospitable environment for global governance, Third Way capitalist reform and their many other hopes and projects.

This is particularly true of the cause that dominates the agenda here: climate change. The conventional Davoisie wisdom says that climate change can be handled only by international agreements and global institutions like those envisioned in the Paris Agreement. The goal is to get the nations of the Earth to limit their use of fossil fuels and make the enormous changes required to reach “net zero” emissions in time to avoid the most devastating consequences. The solution requires a massive shift of power from national governments to global institutions.

Yet the rise of geopolitical competition among the U.S., China and Russia has bled power from transnational institutions as national governments prioritize their own interests. China has no intention of allowing a superstitious reverence for the Law of the Sea Treaty to limit its territorial claims in the South China Sea; President Trump has deliberately blocked new judges at the World Trade Organization to paralyze its appeals process; Russia isn’t going to give Crimea back to Ukraine because some international lawyers have written a compelling legal brief. And if some of the most powerful countries in the world flaunt international rules, why should others follow them?

Populism makes global governance even harder. Politicians from Mr. Trump to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi won over their electorate in part by promising to protect the unique cultural heritage of the nations they rule from dilution by the outside world. A jealous regard for national sovereignty and a suspicious and skeptical attitude toward global institutions and their laws come very naturally to these leaders — and garners applause from their supporters.

None of this augurs well for the Davoisie. If the WEF has a single guiding vision, it is the belief that technocratic competence plus a modicum of goodwill can find win-win solutions to the increasingly complex problems of our time. This has been true for many disputes between nations; it has been true for disputes between business and civil society. Over the decades, the WEF has sought with some success to be a place where these conversations take place.

But does that logic still hold? All the panels in the world can’t stitch up the rift between the U.S. and China, integrate Mr. Putin’s Russia into the West, or even deter Turkey from acting on its neo-Ottoman aspirations.

As the millionaires, billionaires and Greta Thunberg assemble in Davos this week to debate the future of the world, they face a crisis of relevance. What if, with all of their competence, experience, cosmopolitan vision and, yes, goodwill, the Davoisie are merely passengers, comfortably ensconced in first-class seats, on a train whose route they do not know and cannot control?

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