Parag Kanna has a fascinating thesis on what the Davos conference is. Davos, for the unfamiliar, “where each January the planet’s most influential heads of state, CEOs, mayors, religious leaders, NGO heads, university presidents, celebrities and artists flock for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), an event that over the past four decades has established itself as what “60 Minutes” last year dubbed “the most important meeting on Earth.”” But more than a meeting, Davos represents a new paradigm for diplomacy, taking place outside of the conventional structure of Nation-States dating back to the treaty of Westphalia. And it’s not just a new paradigm, it’s a better one.
Compared to the modern inter-state diplomatic system, Davos represents anti-diplomacy—and yet it actually reflects the true parameters of global diplomacy today better than the United Nations. The reason is that in our ever more complex diplomatic eco-system, relations among governments represent only one slice of the total picture. Beyond the traditional “public-public” relations of embassies and multilateraism, there are also the “public-private” partnerships sprouting across sectors and issues. Qatar’s natural gas fortunes hinge on its arrangement with Exxon, India’s ability to attract foreign investment is contingent on support from the business magnates who make up the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), and the alliance of the Gates Foundation, pharmaceutical company Merck, and the government of Botswana saved the country’s population from being wiped out by AIDS, to name just a few of the now literally countless such arrangements flourishing today. The third and often neglected dimension of the new diplomacy is “private-private” interactions which circumvent the state altogether. Think of the Environmental Defense Fund dealing directly with Wal-Mart to cut the company’s overall emissions by 20 million metric tons and install solar panels at 30 new locations. The diplomats at Cancun could only dream of such concrete measures.
All three of these combinations of negotiating partners thrive at Davos and in all WEF activities, which range from mini-Davos-style regional conferences to year-round multi-stakeholder initiatives in public health, climate change, anti-corruption and other areas. The WEF does what no U.N. agency would ever do: allow “coalitions of the willing” to organically “grow and go”—incubating them but also quickly spinning them off into self-sustaining entities; but importantly also letting projects die that fail to attain sufficient support from participants. In this sense the WEF is both a space for convening but also a driver of new agendas.
Absolutely fascinating, the idea that an alliance of the super-wealthy, and professional activists could make a difference on the world more effectively than traditional governments. The end of the nation-state is something that we’ve seen before, along with the rise of a new global elite, but Ranna puts an interesting spin on it, hearkening back to the Middle Ages when a variety of actors could influence global diplomacy, not just people bearing the seals of powerful nations. This is more than anarchy or oligarchy, this is the return of an ancient and resilient system of governance. We can only hope that they have some way of implementing wise decisions, and not just imposing choices for personal benefit from the top down.
John Robb is far less sanguine, and in typically vituperative fashion,
“[Davos] is a collection of elites generated by the antiquated, hierarchical systems of the 20th Century — akin to a collection of corrupted inebriated noblemen from depleted, inbred bloodlines discussing the future of war, peace, and prosperity during the post fox-hunt feast.”
Well, yes, and it’s certainly not democratic nor accountable. But if Davos is where the action really is, then we need to be paying attention. And this new ruling class is a minimum, more egalitarian and less concerned with holding power forever than the ones that have come before.
Kanna does make one critical point, and I’ll leave it in his words:
Global governance is not a thing, not a collection of formal institutions, not even a set of treaties. It is a process involving a far wider range of actors than have ever been party to global negotiations before. The sooner we look for new meta-scripts for regulating transnational activities and harnessing global resources to tackle local problems the better. Davos continues to be a good place to start.
Amen. Global governance starts with all of us.