History haunts global elites in Davos, amid Russia’s war in Ukraine

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DAVOS, Switzerland — The World Economic Forum is known for its forward-looking optimism. But this year’s annual gathering of global political and financial elites has been dominated by dark invocations of the past.

In his virtual address to delegates, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky summoned the legacies of Sarajevo in 1914 and Munich in 1938: The assumption behind the first reference was that actions in a seemingly distant location – such as the assassination of Archduke Austro-Hungarian by a Serbian Nationalist – can trigger a far wider, spiraling calamity, as we are seeing now with the global disruptions and price spikes following the Russian invasions. The invocation of the latter was a warning not to appease the hegemonic designs of Russia.

The allusions follow one another. With an elaborate literary metaphor delivered in what was the last major speech of the meeting on Thursday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz summoned the “thunderbolt” of the start of the First World War and declared that February 24 – the date to which Russia invaded Ukraine – was its own “love at first sight”. .” He also said that Russia was taking the world back to the 18th and 19th centuries with its war of “aggression” and “imperialism”.

Why Russia is struggling in eastern Ukraine, on the maps

On Wednesday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba briefed reporters in Davos on recent Russian advances in eastern Ukraine. “The Battle of Donbass is very similar to the battles of World War II,” he said. “Some villages and towns, they no longer exist.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has fumed over Russia’s apparent militarization of food supplies and blockade of Ukrainian ports, as well as the capture of vast Ukrainian grain reserves. She said it amounted to a resurrection of “a dark past – the days of Soviet crop seizures and the devastating famine of the 1930s”.

Calls grow for Russia to free Ukrainian ports for grain exports

This year’s gathering had been billed as a moment to heed history at a turning point. The world (and especially the whole of Davos, which wields such influence over it) has faced a series of cascading crises – the war in Ukraine, the turbulent end of the pandemic and soaring food prices. and fuel that destabilize societies and governments on all continents.

Instead, the discussions revealed wide gaps between participants. Analysts and policymakers in regions outside the West wondered who the story was really about. Some rolled their eyes at the emotional reaction of Europeans to events in Ukraine and pointed to the double standard in their neglect of ruinous conflicts elsewhere and their contempt for earlier waves of refugees.

“For us, superpower rivalry has always been on our doorstep – it was the Soviet Union and the United States, now it’s China in the United States,” the Malaysian health minister told me. , Khairy Jamaluddin. “So for us, [the Ukraine war] is really just a blip, not really a turning point.

Jamaluddin lamented that “the ‘colour of your skin’ argument” still seemed relevant. Now that state violence and terror are “affecting someone who looks like you” – i.e. a white Westerner – “suddenly there’s this moral outrage from Washington to Davos,” he said. he declares.

The war in Ukraine brings an unusual moral advantage to Davos

Moral outrage is accompanied by deepening fault lines in world politics. Alexander Stubb, former Prime Minister of Finland and director of the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute, described the moment to me as “a kind of 1989 inverted”, where rather than an iron curtain collapsing , new ramparts between rival powers rise.

“We are seeing the hardening of geopolitical competition along ideological lines,” said Lynn Kuok, Singapore-based senior fellow for the International Institute for Strategic Studies. No matter the pearl in Davos on Russia’s violations of international law, “Asia has already seen its own erosion of the rules-based order” in the form of various coercive measures taken by China in recent years, Kuok added.

But Southeast Asian countries remain “uncomfortable”, she said, with the “democracy versus autocracy” framework that many in the US and Europe seem to want to place around contemporary challenges. .

“There’s a Manichean, Western urge to see the world in binaries,” Samir Saran, president of the Observer Research Foundation, an influential New Delhi-based think tank, told me. “We work in shades of gray.”

The absence of prominent Russian and Chinese voices this week in Davos – an unusual development for a forum that prides itself on bringing together diverse participants – speaks volumes.

“What do liberal values ​​really mean? said Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistani Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. “They mean that other opinions can coexist.” Khar added that she viewed the prevailing moment as a “really dangerous” moment, with antipathies growing and dialogue fading.

Zelensky denounces a “state of war criminals” and the makeover of the “House of Russia” in Davos

This is all the more regrettable at a time when the main “structures of global governance” are failing.as Adam Tooze, an economic historian at Columbia University and Davos regular, told me.

The war in Ukraine has undermined the ability of the Group of 20 nations – a bloc to which all the United States, major European economies and Russia belong – to be an effective platform for global cooperation at a time of impending economic crisis. . Ongoing trade wars and rising protectionism have undermined the effectiveness of the World Trade Organization, while many countries in the South remain furious with the West over its hoarding of coronavirus vaccine doses during the pandemic. pandemic and its slowness in distributing injections to the rest of the world.

“The sense of anxiety that comes from these converging crises,” Tooze explained, is partly related to the fact that “the organizations that we have are not only inadequate to the task, but that there is in fact an antagonism warrior” in them.

In the shadow of war, there is no “business as usual” in Davos

To be fair, many Western politicians present at the Davos events seemed aware of the challenges ahead. “We really do a disservice to our potential role in the world by projecting a lack of humility about the limits of our role in the world,” said Senator Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a prominent member of the Senate for Foreign Affairs. Relations Committee, told Today’s WorldView.

Coons stressed the importance of recognizing the different perspectives of democracies in Asia and Africa, given the pressures of rising food prices around the world and the continued toll of the pandemic. Western unity in support of Ukraine marks “an important moment”, he said, “but we have to see it in context”.

The question facing policy makers in Davos and elsewhere, suggested the German Scholz, is a difficult one: “How can we create an order in which very different centers of power can interact for the benefit of all?

The response, said the German Chancellor, has no precedent in history.

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