World Economic Forum Warns: ‘Charismatic Strongman Politics’ Make War More Likely

FILE: A WEF logo sits on the stage as panelists talk ahead of a panel session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. President Donald Trump will dominate the Davos forum as no U.S. leader has before: a provocateur-in-chief practiced at tweaking the …
Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The annual World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting – widely referred to as simply “Davos” after its traditional venue in Davos-Kosters, Switzerland – is scheduled to begin on January 23.

A week ahead of the meeting, the WEF has released its 2018 Global Risks Report, warning that the chance of a major war breaking out is increasing. Also cited were concerns about weapons of mass destruction, cyberwar, and a rising tide of populist nationalism.

The Global Risks Report is compiled by surveying a thousand experts from a variety of government and non-governmental organizations. Ninety-three percent of them expect relations between major world powers to deteriorate further in 2018, while 79 percent said there was an increased risk of military conflict between state powers, particularly on the Korean Peninsula and in the Middle East.

The WEF sees economies around the world “finally getting back on track” ten years after the 2008 financial crisis, although it still worries about “unsustainable asset prices, with the world now eight years into a bull run; elevated indebtedness, particularly in China, and continuing strains in the global financial system.”

The report also worries about the economic effects of increasing automation, the digital economy, and a rising tide of “nationalist and populist politics” with economic implications, which is a rather heavy load of pessimism for the relatively optimistic section of the risk report.

The report’s authors express surprise at how quickly large-scale economic risks seem to have declined and then worry about whether this outbreak of optimism is actually due to “complacency and a developing blind spot around economic risks,” or if “income inequality” has become less of an obsession because the lower brackets have seen their quality of life increase as inequality gets worse.

The major concerns spotlighted in the report are environmentalism, including climate change, and the high degree of digital interconnectedness that leaves the world vulnerable to ransomware, denial of service attacks, Internet disinformation campaigns, and other forms of cyber mischief.

A theme repeated throughout the risk report is dismay at the rise of nationalism and the corresponding decline of “multilateral rules-based approaches.”

“Charismatic strongman politics is on the rise across the world,” the report warns. “In addition to the ‘America First’ platform of President Trump, variations on this theme can be seen in numerous countries from China to Japan, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and elsewhere.”

President Trump is planning to attend the Davos gathering this year and talk about his “America First” policy. Someone should probably tell him the World Economic Forum lumps him in with the communist dictatorship of Xi Jinping and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s nascent Islamist caliphate in Turkey as a charismatic strongman who threatens world peace by reducing public confidence in multilateral institutions. Iran is only mentioned as a global security risk in the context of Trump threatening to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump is the undisputed superstar of the 2018 Global Risks Report, and not in a good way; he is the unilateralist boogeyman lurking on almost every page, castigated for everything from insulting globalism and clashing with Kim Jong-un to withdrawing from the Paris climate accords. The World Economic Forum’s analysts are none too happy about Brexit, either.

The report spends little time dwelling on whether populism might be on the rise because people have legitimate gripes with transnational arrangements, especially those who are the designated losers in grand global designs. Instead, populism and nationalism are constantly conflated with “identity politics,” which seems suspiciously like a high-toned way of dismissing national sovereignty enthusiasts as racists.

The section of the risk report dealing with cybersecurity is interesting in that it spotlights the destruction and chaos caused by freelance hackers and cybercriminals, with several references to the WannaCry ransomware attack, which has actually been attributed to the North Korean government by the United States. The implication is that open cyberwar between nation-states would be tantamount to a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) exchange, with enormous implications for just about every nation of the world, whether it was involved in the conflict or not.

The Internet is one of the most powerful tools mankind has ever developed, but it has also become a weapon of mass destruction. We have only had a few small tastes of what all-out cyberwar would be like, but it is enough to predict that global commerce would suffer incredible damage, quite possibly sufficient to trigger a doomsday cascade in the other fragile economic systems the WEF is concerned about.

Nestled among the headline-grabbing passages about weapons of mass destruction, cyber warfare, and military conflict is a brief but fascinating observation about the relationship between work and social stability:

Norms relating to work are an important part of the implicit contract that holds societies together. If many people’s hopes and expectations relating to employment are fraying, we should not be surprised if this has wider political and social effects. The idea that “the system is rigged” has gained electoral traction in recent years, and research suggests that concerns about inequality rest on more fundamental worries about societal fairness.

The Global Risks Report segues from this into a discussion of “gender parity” and the sexual harassment meltdown, but that is a limited focus for an enormous idea about the importance of work, rather than simply providing the necessities of life through government assistance or private charity, as a vital component of social stability.

To be sure, the loss of faith in elite institutions at both the national and global level is about much more than people who can’t get a good job feeling like the system is rigged against them, but that feeling is probably a core element of the general feeling of despair that manifests itself in everything from street protests to drug addiction.

The great question before the Davos forum is whether “multilateralist” solutions can be found for these problems, or if the new wave of populists, nationalists, et cetera have a point about decentralization and sovereignty being superior to one-size-fits-all global solutions. The WEF will find it perpetually difficult to convince the designated losers in vast systems designed far above and beyond their political horizons that they don’t live in a “rigged system.”

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