A key reason for this year’s Davos theme is that, some three decades on from the promises of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which saw the collapse of Soviet communism, many expectations about how the post-Cold War world might look have been dashed, including around international cooperation. The WEF itself came into being in 1987, rebranding from the European Management Forum to provide a global platform for such dialogue.
Early WEF successes in bolstering international cooperation included the Davos Declaration signed in 1988 by Greece and Turkey, which saw the two turn back from the brink of war. In 1989, North and South Korea held their first ministerial-level meetings at the WEF in Switzerland, while East German Prime Minister Hans Modrow and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl also met there to discuss German reunification.
Yet, three decades on, the idealistic future vision of a universal order of liberal, capitalist, democratic states living in peace and contentment has been undermined. As 30 years ago, the United States remains the world’s most powerful country, certainly in a military sense. And it can still project and deploy overwhelming force relative to any probable enemy.
Yet there are now multiple challenges confronting the US-led order that have helped drive the geostrategic fractures that the WEF will discuss. For instance, more than a decade-and-a-half after 9/11, international terrorism remains a key concern and Washington is still significantly engaged in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, US relations with Moscow are now more strained than at any time since the Cold War, despite Donald Trump’s professed desire to try to improve relations. And the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has collapsed again, while Washington and Pyongyang remain locked in a dangerous nuclear stand-off on the Korean peninsula.
Three decades after the World Economic Forum came into being, the idealistic future vision of a universal order of liberal, capitalist, democratic states living in peace and contentment has been undermined.
On the positive side of the ledger, however, the world today continues to contain multiple positive opportunities for international cooperation, if the political will is there to seize them. Take the example of the landmark global climate change deal agreed in Paris in 2015, which represents a welcome shot in the arm for attempts to tackle global warming, having crucially put in place a new post-Kyoto framework.
The deal was one of the most complex and painstaking international agreements ever and has now been signed by virtually every country. Moreover, the once-every-five-years review framework means that countries can toughen their response to climate change in the future, especially if the political and public will to tackle the problem increases with time.
Over the last three decades, the rise of China — which has now surpassed the US as the world’s largest economy on purchasing power parity terms — has been one of the biggest game-changers in global affairs. This has the potential to be either a growing source of tension with Washington, or it could develop into a fruitful partnership spurring international cooperation with others too in years to come.
Growing bilateral and multilateral cooperation is likely if the two powers can increasingly cooperate on softer issues like climate change, while finding effective ways of resolving harder power disagreements between them, including over territorial claims in the South China Sea. By contrast, bilateral rivalry is possible if the US administration continues on its present unilateral course, and Beijing’s military power continues to grow rapidly and it embraces a more assertive foreign policy stance toward its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region.
Taken overall, success in managing the complexity of global affairs will also increasingly depend upon US cooperation with others, both competitors and allies, including in the increasingly strategically important Asia-Pacific. A key uncertainty here is the direction of America’s bilateral relationship with a rising China, which could be a force for much deeper, collaborative strategic cooperation and partnerships, or greater global instability and tension.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics