Just as the art of listening to music is all about paying attention to the silence between the notes, the meaning of Davos can generally be found in its absences.
Donald Trump is, of course, the biggest absence. Two months after he was elected in the most seismic event in modern democratic history, the official Davos program has exactly one mention of Trump: a “forecasting workshop” held in a site called The Loft, which is set apart from the main conference center.
With the Forum still ahead of us, of course, it’s still possible that individual delegates will use their bully pulpits to delineate an explicitly anti-Trump agenda. Possible, but, well, unlikely.
What’s not possible is that this message will come from the high-level heads of state who have made Davos what it is today.
Consider last year’s curtain-raiser press release, with the headline “Who’s coming to Davos 2016?” It begins:
Over 40 heads of state and government, as well as 2,500 leaders from business and society will convene at the 46th World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.
In that, it’s eerily similar to the previous year’s curtain-raiser press release (“Who’s coming to Davos 2015?”):
Over 40 heads of state and government, as well as 2,500 other leaders from business and society will convene at the 45th World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.
This year, by contrast, there is no such press release. And the list of high-profile world leaders has completely disappeared, because it would be embarrassingly short. There’s one big get—Chinese President Xi Jinping—and that’s about it. There were lots of dropped hints that big names like Merkel, Putin, Abe, Netanyahu, and Trudeau might be coming; the entire conference was even moved a day up to make it less of a clash with the U.S. inauguration and possibly even attract Obama. But it was not to be. After President Xi, the next-biggest name is Theresa May, a UK prime minister who supported the losing side in the Brexit referendum and who has never won a national election.
It’s certain that neither Xi nor May will come out against Trump, and in general the message from the world’s biggest governments is clear. In a world revolting against elites, very few leaders want to risk being seen as out of touch, hobnobbing over canapés at the most elite conference of them all. Hence the no-shows from the likes of Merkel and Trudeau, who canceled Davos in favor of a nationwide listening tour.
At the same time, however, in a world of authoritarian caprice, it behooves large corporations more than ever to spend whatever it takes to get into the good graces of government. Thus are we greeted by this unedifying spectacle: Corporations such as Boeing, Chevron, Bank of America, UPS, and AT&T are all spending six- or seven-figure sums on Trump’s inauguration, in an attempt to cozy up as much as possible to the new administration.
In other words, it’s entirely possible that the corporate-government nexus will be stronger in DC this week than it will be in Davos. Which is yet another sign that the entire Davos project has failed.