analysis | How do Davos elites handle war in Ukraine?

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War will be on the top of the agenda as the global elite gather for the World Economic Forum’s spring meeting this week at the resort in Davos, Switzerland.

The pandemic has curtailed the annual Jamboree of the great and wealthy. Most of them hang out in “outside Davos” uninvited, but the Russian oligarchs who attend many private chalets and meetings are absent. Now they are sanctioned by the West and under the radar.

That puts an end to the city’s wildest party, but there will be a fictional appearance from the brave Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko will also ask for help in rebuilding the shattered city. Ukrainian billionaire Victor Finchuck invited a forum guest to take a sober look at Russian war crimes.

Sessions will be held on ‘Return to War’, ‘Cold War 2.0’ and ‘Where is Russia heading?’ “Sanctions” and the prospect of an “economic iron curtain” descending between the newly united West and its adversaries.

But is the mind of the business delegation there?

WEF’s Founder and Genius Chairman Klaus Schwab will launch “a groundbreaking initiative to strengthen global cooperation”. It spreads belief in the power of the global economy and sounds more palatable to general gatherings celebrating the wealth it produces. (It is rare to have a meeting where people were asked to say whether to come by commercial flight or private flight.)

Their concerns were revealed in a survey of WEF representatives as a wave of omicrons from the pandemic hit the world ahead of a virtual version of the summit held in January. Priority has shifted from political and economic issues to social and environmental issues and mental health issues.

So, the outbreak in February of Europe’s most outdated territorial conquest since 1945 must have come as a shock.

Davos Man doesn’t always relive the accusation of not anticipating the next big step. Many governments have misunderstood the intentions of the Kremlin. However, it shows a collective internationalist mindset that is uncomfortable with the harsh reality of power politics and nationalism.

Corporate CEOs and political leaders observe the advances in prosperity brought about by globalization, free trade, and peace, but tend to forget that war is also a hallmark of the international system. As in the stock market bubble, so in diplomacy. Those who believe “this time will be different” prove to be wrong in a difficult way.

Five years before World War I, astute economist and journalist Norman Angell wrote The Great Illusion, a masterpiece that celebrates peace. The outcome of war will be very disastrous.” Countries were too interdependent economically through commerce to be able to fight each other. After all, Germany and Britain were each other’s main trading partners.

Germany, Britain, and other great powers went to war in 1914. However, Angell’s best-selling paper was not trusted. In any case, the devastation and ongoing economic damage caused by the conflict proved his point. In modern warfare, everyone loses. Angell was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. A great power led by a fascist and communist dictatorship has caused World War II to be more devastating than the last.

Even in February, Putin still rolled the dice, although the risks of war in Ukraine outweighed the expected gains of conquest. Nationalists are not governed by cost-benefit analysis. The long-term consequences of that decision are immeasurable, but Russia can withstand Western sanctions in the short term. The recent difficulties hardly compare with the economic shocks of the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s, hyperinflation and the devaluation of the ruble.

Even after Putin’s reckless gamble, many business and political leaders in the West still believe that all trade is good and that a market economy will bring democratic change to society. But not necessarily. The transformation of Homo sovietics into a ruthless capitalist oligarch after the fall of communism does not make Russia less dangerous to its neighbors.

As we can now see, dogmatic German entrepreneurs led by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder played a prank by doubling gas imports from Russia for the sake of peace. This was Wandel durch Handel, or “change through trade,” and was an idea straight from the Angell playbook. Instead, Putin was encouraged to become more militant. He calculated that Germany’s dependence on gas would negate resistance to territorial ambitions.

China’s successful introduction of a market economy is also one of the great events of our lives. But this revolution was also accompanied by harsh domestic repression, the rise of the watchdog state, and “wolf warrior” diplomacy abroad.

EH Carr, the great historian of power politics, once said, “English-speaking people are past masters of the art of hiding selfish national interests in the guise of the public good.” Consider how a decade ago, former British Prime Minister David Cameron and Prime Minister George Osborne declared a new “golden era” in relations with China, fueled by stronger trade links and hopes for Beijing’s liberalization.

Today, the two countries are exchanging insults against Hong Kong, and Britain has signed defense agreements with the United States and Australia to contain Chinese naval power in the Pacific.

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech to appease market-hungry capitalists in Davos. At the 2017 WEF, the Communist Party leader spoke about the benefits of global free trade for all countries. In January of this year, he argued that the world “should cast aside ideological prejudice and go together on the path of peaceful coexistence, mutual benefit, and win-win cooperation.”

Xi Jinping deserves to set the best example for his regime, and who can oppose peaceful coexistence? But Beijing’s recent actions have shown that the West may want to stop applauding in the Alps.

At the end of his life, Angell became an ardent advocate of peace and NATO through collective security. Until then, he had been skeptical that mankind would be able to overcome its raging urge to war. In Davos’ “Magic Mountain”, delegates who deal with their Western adversaries must hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP or its owners.

Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. He previously served as editor and chief political commentator for the London Sunday Times.

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