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Jan 18, 2024, 11:42pm EST
business

The World Economic Forum edges away from the left

REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
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The Scoop

Leaders of the World Economic Forum, increasingly alarmed at criticism from the right, edged the event away from “stakeholder capitalism,” political engagement, and a corporate focus on climate change and diversity in 2024.

The push has come from a few directions.

  • Dan Schulman, the former CEO of PayPal, and a Davos mainstay who is known in the U.S. for progressive public stances, was among a group of CEOs privately warning WEF Chairman Klaus Schwab that the Forum had shifted too far left. Their goal was to “ensure that the dialogue at Davos and Wef is at the center, and not just on the progressive side,” said one of three people who described the conversations. Schulman and his group brought in the Davos regular and public relations executive Richard Edelman as well Republican Davos allies to fix the Forum’s brand.
  • The Forum’s leaders themselves have quietly sought the counsel of Washington Republicans on winning back friends on the right.
  • The Gulf monarchies, whose oil money flows down the Promenade and helps underwrite the forum, have also grown weary of criticism of fossil fuels and signaled to the Forum that, “we can do this elsewhere,” a prominent WEF participant said.

The Forum responded to this in part by shelving some of the language the American right considers fighting words. The phrase “ESG” appeared twice in the 2022 program, once in 2023, and zero times this year. “Diversity” appeared five times in 2022, four times in 2023, and once this year.

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It also hosted an unusual panel titled, “What can we expect from a possible Republican Administration in 2025 in terms of continuation or deviation from this course?” which was largely framed as a pragmatic discussion of changes to trade and economic policy. Despite the moderator’s best efforts, however, the conversation tilted on its rails when the conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Gerry Baker was unable to help himself from pressing Trump ally Kevin Roberts, who leads the Heritage Foundation.

“Would you accept if [Trump] loses the election that he lost the election?” Baker asked. “If we’re sure there’s election integrity — but I’m not sure that we can be,” Roberts replied, prompting a sigh from Baker.

JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon captured a growing accommodation of a possible Trump presidency: “Take a step back, be honest. He was kind of right about NATO, kind of right on immigration. He grew the economy quite well. Trade tax reform worked. He was right about some of China,” he said on CNBC’s Squawk Box.

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(The WEF didn’t respond to repeated inquiries about the details of this story, and Schulman didn’t respond to an inquiry through a spokesman. I ran into Edelman three times in a row while trying to reach him, and he gnomically declined to comment in person.)

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Ben’s view

The Forum’s shift more or less reflects that of its paying members, big global — and particularly American — business.

The Forum is fundamentally the great trade show of global capitalism, and its progressive veneer grew in response to demonization by the 1990s anti-globalist left. Schwab’s native Switzerland is a deeply politically conservative country, however. And many of the Forum’s other leaders come from straightforwardly conservative backgrounds — its president, Borge Brende, was a leader in Norway’s Conservative Party. Like many other institutions, however, its staff is younger and pulls to the left.

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But it’s hard to imagine that the WEF can ever really ever placate Milei, Roberts, and their friends at Rebel News, the Canadian populist outlet that ambushed attendees as they left the Congress Centre. The populists, more than anyone else, need Davos, which serves as a pillar of the conspiratorial politics of right-wing populism. If Davos didn’t exist, the new right would have to invent it.

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Notable

  • There’s no insider Davos wisdom anymore, writes John Harris, as the elites talked “about the same things you were in that fidgety conversation with some neighbor at your kid’s birthday party; with a colleague on the elevator; or with an old friend who evidently watches a lot of cable at your high school reunion.”
  • The FT offers a defense of Davos: Various organizations and countries have tried to organize alternatives to Davos but never quite achieved the scale or ambition. On a global scale, the curious appeal of a snowy week of networking and partying, of garnering social kudos and hoping for a life-changing chance meeting, remains undimmed. Davos’s achievement is the perpetual motion effect: ongoing attendance is guaranteed in part by the simple fear of missing out.
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