Somehow I had managed more than a quarter of a century in journalism without ever going to Davos. It had become almost a badge of honour, the one gathering of global nabobs I had been able to dodge year after year. But here I am in the mountains of Switzerland, a new boy amid the pilgrims come to worship at the altar of globalisation. I am international by profession and inclination — could a diplomatic correspondent be anything else? — but I can report that this annual meeting of the world’s great and good makes itself easy to lampoon. One friend, also on his first Davos tour, says it is like a party conference for the guilty rich, a chance for elite business-folk to take time out from maximising shareholder value to worry about the world in which they make their profits. So here they are, flying in on thousands of private jets to express their concerns about climate change, agonising about social inequality after a morning on the slopes, fretting about populism before trying to catch a glimpse of Bono at a late-night party. Oh yes, some here do live the caricature.
And yet, you know what? It is actually quite fun and it also kind of works. That is the guilty secret of Davos. There is no host country trying to impose an agenda. There is no laborious communiqué to be crafted and then ignored. There are no votes to be held. So the business leaders and heads of government are free to do what they want: to talk and listen, to network and recruit, to open their eyes and ears to new trends and ideas. One businessman tells me it is the only place where CEOs get to talk face to face without their lawyers, and that makes deals easier. OK, the World Economic Forum — to give this conference its true name — probably does not have to be held in a swish ski resort, and its participants do not have to indulge their guilty globalism in such comfort. But if Davos did not exist, someone would probably have to invent it.