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At Davos, 'the world' means the West

Philip Bowring

DAVOS The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum is a poor reflection of the world. But it is a useful mirror of the West's received wisdom about the world.
This year the main theme, in conversations as well as in formal sessions, was shock and awe at the economic growth of China and India and their impact on everything from copper prices to the global motor industry to office jobs in North America. A mix of admiration and fear accompanied this vision of two Asian elephants threatening to invade Western pastures.
The likes of Google paraded the obsequious inclinations of Western companies still dreaming of vast profits from the land of a billion people. But this was not accompanied by much willingness to accord the non-Western world more say in the way the world is run, whether at the International Monetary Fund or in determining how to respond to the desires of Iran to assert its rights to nuclear development.
The obsession with China and India was, to this observer at least, rather bizarre. Both have been growing apace - albeit it as different speeds - and gradually integrating into the world economy for more than a decade. Nothing much has happened of late to suggest that a critical mass has just been reached which must cause the West to feel panicky. Both may continue to grow rapidly for two more decades. That will change the balance of economic power in the world. But what's new about that?
Most striking at Davos was the lack of representation of the East Asian countries that have done most to alter that balance of power over the past 40 years - and continue to do so. The economies of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have spawned the companies that have challenged Western domination of almost every industry. These are the companies that account for most of the products being exported from China, be they shoes, toys or laptops.
The low profile at Davos of these East Asian innovators and of their cousins from prospering Southeast Asia, who collectively own of $1.5 trillion in Western debt, stood in sharp contrast to the India/China obsession. So too did the absence of countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Thailand.
Perhaps the representation was skewed because this year Davos - whose dates are decided by the organizers - coincided with the Lunar New Year, when half of East Asia is totally closed and the rest operates at half speed. Perhaps it was because of tight-fisted attitudes on the part of Asian companies and governments that do not regard the World Economic Forum's annual fest as a good investment.
Whatever the cause, the result was unfortunate.
A discussion of the future of the global financial architecture, for example, fielded the established Western luminaries - Jean-Claude Trichet of the European Central Bank, Rodrigo de Rato of the International Monetary Fund, Andrew Crockett, formerly of the Bank for International Settlements and now with JP Morgan, and Timothy Geithner, head of the New York Federal Reserve. But in the absence of any of the Asian owners of most of the world's foreign exchange reserves, debate was minimal. Indeed, without the presence of Noriel Roubini, a sparky academic from New York known for his expertise on the Asian crisis, there would have been no debate at all, just a grudging acceptance that some changes at the margin the way the financial world is run were necessary.
A discussion on Iran involved Americans, Brits and one very open minded Iranian academic. The Westerners took it as read that "the world" was worried about Iran and determined to bring it to heel. The phrase "the international community" - code for received Western opinion - was on parade. That was the sort of position that could only be sustained by not having any Indians or Chinese, let alone Arabs, Africans or Brazilians, on the panel. It is easy to be sure when you think you are the world, even if you simultaneously fear the emergence of new economic powers.
There was what promised to be a very interesting and necessary session drawing attention to the pandemic of chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, which are shortening tens of millions of lives, particularly in the developing world. But with experts and audience alike almost all from the West, the discussion never progressed much beyond marginal issues in North America and Europe such as soft drinks and junk food in schools.
Davos does provide many opportunities to meet, to discuss, to learn, even to initiate. Africa generally gets a slightly better hearing than at most international gatherings. But it badly needs to change its list of panelists if it is to be more than a window on trans-Atlantic thinking.
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