Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 August 2019

Geopolitical prospects take the limelight in Switzerland

US-China trade war and uncertainty on the world stage sideline economic concerns as Davos 2019 opens

The combined effects of the US-China trade war and the high levels of uncertainty on the world stage dominated the first day of the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum.

Economic concerns – and the impact of a global financial slowdown –are top of the agenda in Davos this week, yet the geopolitical outlook took centre stage. With the search on how a new “architecture” can be set for a globalised world as the main headline for this year’s meeting, the search for political solutions will dominate the week. The likelihood for finding them remains slim.

From a discussion with newly sworn-in President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro to a televised address from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the rise of protectionism, right-wing nationalism and breaking down of multilateral systems are of concern. Of course, the champions of multilateralism are present too – many of them from private sector multinational companies.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres will be addressing the Forum, with an expected call for multilateral co-operation and a need to live up to the promise of the Sustainability Development Goals. With only 10 years left to meet the UN goals, co-operation on key issues such as global health, tackling climate change and promoting gender parity, is needed across public and private sectors.

In discussion with the President of the World Economic Forum, Borge Brende, Mr Pompeo said his country was committed to “beautiful coalitions”, yet did not refer to the effect of US President Donald Trump’s strained relations with key allies and decision to withdraw American troops from Syria without prior co-ordination with allies on the ground.

In a session on reconciliation efforts, Dutch Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Sigrid Kaag said part of the problem facing the world order is that unresolved issues that allow for conflict remain. Referring to the lack of inclusion, marginalisation and the militarisation of internal conflicts, Ms Kaag said that “we over-promise and under-deliver to people in conflict areas”.

Algerian Foreign Minister AbdelKader Messahel said for reconciliation to work a long-term strategy is required, with “a will to change, on behalf of leadership and people, with a real legal basis and popular support”. Those elements are needed not only for reconciliation in internal conflicts such as the one Algeria suffered in the 1990s, but for the current set-up on the world stage.

Despite Mr Trump’s decision not to attend the Forum, he was present in the majority of sessions and discussions.

Dean of Tsinghua University in China, Yan Xuetong, said that the geopolitical outlook today is dominated by uncertainty, largely because of the incumbent in the White House. He said: “With Trump’s uncertainty, people are fearful. If you strike a deal with Trump, how long will it last? One week, two weeks? As long as Trump is in in office, uncertainty continues. No one knows what he will do.”

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KIshore Mahbubani, professor in the practice of policy at the National University of Singapore, echoed those sentiments. “The trade war is real. In East Asia there is a real concern ... the uncertainty is killing all of us. What exactly is the US strategy in this trade war?”

As questions abound about the US administration’s strategy and long term-impact, problems continue with institutions like the UN that are in need of reform. The global outlook does not look good for collective action on the government stage. So in the coming days at Davos, the emphasis will continue to be on developing collaborations between the public and private sector to make up for the world’s political uncertainty.

Updated: January 23, 2019 08:40 AM

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