“Compromise” – this was the leading premise under which the World Economic Forum in Davos was conducted between 22-25 January 2019. In her address towards global political leaders, financiers, and academics, German chancellor Angela Merkel outlined the ability to compromise as indispensable to global governance, and emphasized the fact that multilateral solutions to global problems require shared institutions, which will only work when guided by the above-stated principle.
This seemingly simple and logical statement highlights a puzzling paradox – we live in a world that is more globalized than ever; where a climate of inextricable interdependencies between national economies has been established, and they are impossible to detangle without causing major disturbances. Simultaneously, our world leaders are unable to overcome political fragmentation and escape the constraints of very narrow and specific national interests.
The international stage is currently dominated by political issues, which share a common underlying premise – fragmentation. These are most notably the UK’s decision to leave the European Union on March 29th, the persistent shock of Trump’s presidency, the unresolved trade war between the United States and China, and the populist Five Star Movement in Italy. On the surface the four seem incredibly detached from each other – both geographically and thematically, however upon analysis of their underlying causes, considerable similarities emerge to the forefront. All are fundamentally grounded in the global electorate’s aggressive backlash against globalisation and integration.
This backlash is most acute in the context of the European Union, due to people’s understandable frustration with both the European Parliament and their national governments. In the span of a decade, Europe has gone through the devastating effects of the Global Financial Crisis, the subsequent Eurozone crisis, and most recently the migrant crisis. During moments, or rather prolonged periods in this instance, of crisis the average voter seeks decisive intervention on the part of their government, aimed at saving their wellbeing. It is therefore understandable that an irrationally conducted referendum in the UK resulted in 51% of the population voting to leave the EU, and that Italians are turning to the far-right Lega Nord for salvation. Although reasonable from voters’ point of view, these decisions have led to almost no improvement in prognoses for the future, and instead they lay the foundations for insecurity in the principles of the Union.
There is a contradiction in the world today: global challenges are interlinked, but our response is fragmented. We need more integrated global action to repair broken trust and uphold dignity for all. My intervention at #WEF19 with @borgebrende: https://t.co/1n8s9FB1do pic.twitter.com/Q3Xo79XJOm
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) January 24, 2019
The instability and vacuum of power could not have come about at a worse time, for we are faced with the existential threat of environmental degradation, and the novelty of “data [being] the raw material of the 21st century” (Angela Merkel). Merkel maintained her role as a central proponent of multilateralism and urged leaders to adapt their understanding of the national interest in a manner that allows for the creation of win-win scenarios.
The contradiction between the chancellor’s position and that of Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, is apparent. Due to a shutdown of the US government, President Trump cancelled his attendance at Davos, and his presence was replaced by a video link of Pompeo’s statement, which included the following: “Nations matter. No international body can stand up for people like a nation can.” He conveyed the American position on the issue of fragmentation and de-globalization by stating that the current disruption of the old global order is a positive development. This veiled dialogue between the two nations’ representatives at the Forum solidified the division between the United States and the rest of the world, for the majority of those participating in Davos this year stood firmly behind the chancellor.
Closer to home, polarization on a European level is no less of a worry in the eyes of Merkel. Her commitment to unity within the continent clashed with the harsh position of Mark Rutte and Mateusz Morawiecki, the Dutch and Polish prime ministers respectively, who appeared hesitant to exhibit commitment to common European-level environmental and foreign policies.
It is now apparent that the current climate necessitates an adaptation to policymaking and a renewed trust in our shared institutions. As the UN Secretary-General noted, the world’s problems are “more and more integrated”, but our response to them is increasingly “fragmented” and “dysfunctional”. If these are not reversed, Guterres warned, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Analysis by: Joanna Zada