Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, executive director of The RedLines Project, is a contributor to CNN where his columns won the Deadline Club Award for Best Opinion Writing. Author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today,” and translator of “An Impossible Dream: Reagan Gorbachev and a World Without the Bomb,” he was formerly a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
On Tuesday, the worlds of wealth, privilege and celebrity will converge on Davos, the lush Swiss retreat, where some 3,000 make their annual pilgrimage to congratulate themselves on their accomplishments and paint a vision that, for many, seems increasingly divorced from global reality.
This year, there will be an empty chair, indeed many of them, as Donald Trump has removed himself and the entire American delegation from attendance. So Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, not to mention all their security, will be staying home. It’s the shutdown, don’t you know.
But, in reality, this year’s proclaimed theme for the four-day gathering – Globalization 4.0, “convening 3,000 leaders from all parts of society to shape a new global architecture,” as the organizers have framed it – might have something to do with Trump’s decision to punt. The President’s antipathy to the entire concept of globalization hardly makes it surprising that he will be taking a pass on behalf of his entire administration. In his universe, globalism is out, and nationalism – America First – rules supreme.
But as it happens, and this may be heresy to many of my readers, Trump’s decision in this case is pretty much the right one, even if it’s for the utterly wrong reasons and with little understanding of the principles that should guide his decisions.
Certainly, Trump is prone to avoid virtually any event or assembly where he is not clearly the center of attention. He demonstrated that in his petulant swing through Paris last November for the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, when leaders of much of Europe assembled to pay tribute to this landmark moment of cooperation to defeat tyranny. There, Trump shunned a trip to an American war cemetery and scowled at other world leaders, particularly his host French President Emmanuel Macron, who appealed to forces of globalism. And he’s behaved similarly at a number of international summits of world leaders from the G-7 to the G-20.
The problem is that Trump seems utterly incapable of distinguishing between those groups that deserve to be ignored or shunned and those that must be preserved, with the costs of a bad choice being potentially incalculable.
I’ve long believed that any number of global gatherings are intended more to stroke the egos of their founders and attendees than serve any truly positive use or accomplish any defined goal. Davos certainly must be at the head of this list. And there is a host of other Davos clones, some of which have purloined the name, much to the chagrin of the “real” Davos organizers. “Davos in the Desert” in Riyadh last year was a classic – designed to burnish the image of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and which followed allegations that he played a role in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (allegations which he vehemently denies).
But I’ve been to any number of similar forums. There was an annual get-together in Venice, organized for years by the late head of Fiat-Chrysler, Sergio Marchionni, that introduced me to all sorts of interesting people, but whose takeaway was really quite minimal. Then there’s an annual gathering of hundreds of senior government officials, corporate titans and Nobel Prize winners each year in Kyoto to examine science and technology.
Each promotes an ideal of globalism in one form or another that may be entirely commendable. But, as a simple Google search suggests, few move the needle in terms of visibility or results.
There is an urgent necessity to distinguish between “a beanfeast of pomp and platitude,” as Andrew Gowers of the Sunday Times of London called Davos, and global organizations and gatherings that do produce tangible, actionable results that can protect life on our planet or democracy as a social and political ideal.
Somehow, Trump doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish between them. So, one of the President’s earliest actions was to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. The COP21 pact, reached in Paris in 2015 at a gathering of 195 nations, actually produced a global accord on reduction of greenhouse gases that provides at least a target for every nation.
Trump has also threatened on innumerable occasions to withdraw from NATO, which has guaranteed security of the US and Europe since the end of World War II. And then there is the Iran nuclear accord, an intermediate range missile treaty with Russia and the NAFTA trade pact – all products of intense international gatherings. Each provided real, tangible outcomes of international negotiations and have served their purposes admirably. All Trump has shunned.
So, how should Trump, or any world leader for that matter, distinguish between those gatherings worth endorsing and those worth passing?
The best gatherings produce a plan of action or achievable goal. OPEC gatherings, many of which I’ve covered, have at least produced a degree of certainty, if not sustainable stability, to world oil markets. The annual meetings of the IMF and World Bank provide similar services for global financial markets and development efforts. And there are regional gatherings, including the Asian and African Development Banks. Others, such as NATO or SEATO, respectively the North Atlantic and Southeast Asia Treaty Organizations, provide regional or global security.
Above all, each operates within a framework of globalism and with an absence of self-interest or self-aggrandizement that, at least for the moment, seems to run utterly counter to everything that Trump holds dear.
If the President is unable to conform to the goals or participate in the activities of such organizations, perhaps the world must find a way to soldier on in his absence. As it happens, Davos might serve a real purpose in the end – providing an instructive litmus test.