The winter meetings in Davos, Switzerland--where Bono ruminates on panels about the great issues of the day with the likes of Bill Gates and Angela Merkel--are at the heart of nearly every current conspiracy theory about the global elite. But, even if you don't buy those wild narratives--and believe that the confab is really just an over-programmed business boondoggle with a tony guest list (which happens to be the truth)--you would still have to concede that the gathering has, for the last several decades, played a pretty influential role in setting the conventional wisdom of the global elite. So why, then, are the folks who plan Davos such an anxious bunch these days?
Their growing problem is that, for a meeting dubbed the "World Economic Forum" (WEF), Davos isn't nearly cosmopolitan enough. The action in the global economy is shifting East, toward China and India. In my recent study of global elites, of the 6,000 or so people who make up the top of the world's power pyramid--loosely defined as the people who can influence the lives of millions across borders on a regular basis--about one-third were from Asia, and that number is increasing on an almost daily basis. But, despite tectonic shifts in world markets and politics, Asian attendance at Davos remains disproportionately low.
So how should the European elites respond to the rise of Asia? Will they be able to assimilate the business and political leaders of these new powers into organizations like the WEF, where trans-Atlantic values dominate? Or will the old Davos crowd find itself increasingly forced to accept new settings, new rules, and a new kind of conventional wisdom deeply influenced by Asian players with Asian values?
Even to global elites accustomed to impressive figures--on the bottom line, in their bank accounts, in the universes over which they have influence--Asia has become the home of real data-bombs. For example: According to one local count, the number of Chinese billionaires grew from 15 to more than 100 between 2006 and 2007. On the Forbes list of billionaires, four of the top ten are Indian. Of the world's 500 largest companies, roughly one-quarter are Asian. Most of the billion-dollar-plus companies rising out of the emerging world can be found in Asia. China would need to build the equivalent of a 1.5-million- person city every month for the next 20 years to accommodate its urban growth. The most engineers, the most consumers, the greatest wealth creation--it's mind- numbing, and it's undeniably game-changing for global society on every level.
You could see how the Western elites who populate places like Davos might assume, or at least hope, that these newcomers will naturally join their ranks-- learning English, for one, but also picking up the unspoken rules and conventions of Western business. But such an outlook assumes, with great self- satisfaction, that the past will be the primary shaper of the future--and, of course, that assumption is proving to be wrong. Quite the contrary: It seems increasingly likely that the lure of Asia's rapidly expanding markets will result in a greater number of Westerners adapting to Asia's growing influence, rather than vice versa.
China is already exhibiting its influence through a global quest for resources, gaining leverage in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere through a massive appetite for raw materials and an ability to lend or invest using its almost $1.5 trillion in reserves. China's $200 billion sovereign wealth fund, CIC, recently demonstrated this clout with multibillion-dollar investments in Blackstone Group and Morgan Stanley. Singapore, through its two sovereign wealth investment arms, Temasek and GIC, is making analogous investments abroad, as is South Korea.
Asian involvement tends to have a particular character, distinct from that of the West. China's dealings worldwide, as evidenced by its oil transactions with Sudan and other African countries, tend to be conducted primarily on the merits of the transaction at hand, without the political baggage that often weighs down U.S. commerce with emerging nations. Reflecting the country's desire to have its internal affairs left alone, China has not to date exerted much pressure on trading or investment partners to address problems at home, problems that Westerners might find untenable. (There are a couple of exceptions, as when China pressures countries that seek its investments to avoid acknowledging or encouraging the government in Taiwan.) China's unwillingness to explicitly tie its purchases of U.S. federal debt to a political agenda is perhaps the most important example of this in geopolitical and geoeconomic terms: The silence speaks volumes both in terms of what it means and in terms of what a change of policy might mean in the future.
While the United States and Europe have surely gone too far in attempting to influence other countries, often in strikingly hypocritical and inconsistent ways (colonialism comes to mind, as do recent attempts to unilaterally impose American will), a more value-neutral tack, as illustrated by the Chinese, is problematic as well. There is, after all, right and wrong in the world, and it is the responsibility of members of the global community to identify and eliminate the wrong when it poses a threat to peace and stability. While it is clearly true that Western jawboning on Darfur has been inadequate, what would be the consequence were the court of high-level international opinion to become more influenced by, for example, Chinese views on the subject? This would imply a shift from jawboning to the even more inexcusable combination of remaining silent and profiting from trade with a callous regime. And Darfur is but a single example. From Chinese equivocation on the Iranian nuclear program to much of Asia's silent tolerance of Burma's brutal and, recently, almost unimaginably insensitive regime, we have seen the consequences of this approach.
Other values could change, too, if Asian trading culture expands its influence further. Since many of the fast-growing groups within the superclass hail from the cowboy economies of the emerging world, corruption could (and, indeed, has) become more tolerated. A less aggressive approach to global warming could be adopted, given the unwillingness of emerging economies to pay for costly technologies and higher environmental standards. As with foreign policy, the West's "do as I say, not as I do (or have done)" attitude could prove counterproductive as it tries to convince restive powers to follow global- warming protocols. And, in any case, it has become crystal clear to Western policymakers that, on issues like global warming, "coalitions of the willing" simply won't work. Leaders in rapidly developing nations like India and China hold vital cards: The decisions they make regarding fuel choices, exploration of alternatives, conservation, urbanization patterns, mileage standards, and other issues will determine, in many respects, whether headway can actually be made.
The raps against places like Davos are familiar--they are undemocratic; they are filled with self-important gasbags. But the problems of the next century-- from nuclear proliferation to global warming, from migration to regulating international markets--are of an unprecedented global character and, like it or not, can't be solved without leaders from both East and West working together. The WEF is scrambling to stay relevant in the new climate, first by expanding operations in Asia to include an event in China called the "Annual Meeting of the New Champions" that brought emerging company leaders from around the world together in the industrial capital of Dalian. In addition, the Forum opened an office in Beijing, and it has sought to build ties with the Chinese government and other leaders elsewhere in the region. But it is far from certain that the WEF will be able to keep up. Soon enough, it appears, Lake Geneva's mandarins may no longer be hosts at the world's best party but merely aspiring guests, hoping that their successors are more welcoming--and more sensitive to their needs and interests--than they were to them.
David Rothkopf is the author of Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They are Making and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
By David Rothkopf