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Opinion

Opinion: Leaders in search of leadership

The World Economic Forum in Davos is a gathering of the global elite. This year's meeting has shown very clearly just how much the leaders present were longing for leadership themselves, says DW's Andreas Becker.

The word "leader" is one of the most-used terms in publications from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Leaders from the fields of politics, the economy and other sectors have come here since 1971, among them the "Young Global Leaders." This year, the motto of the gathering was "Responsive and responsible leadership."

That's honoring all those getting an invite and all those attending as guests. Big companies pay up to 500,000 euros ($530,000) to help shape the Davos forum. Many participants are in charge of companies, international organizations or head up governments. They use the Davos meeting to get involved in debates, do some networking, do business or exchange information.

But this year it was so obvious that the leaders attending were in search of leadership themselves. They were looking for direction, for something to cling to or something to rely on, but none of that seems available right now.

Where's the world heading?

When the Soviet Union collapsed, it seemed there was just one superpower left, the United States. And it seemed the future path would be economic globalization and competition, free trade and open borders wherever possible, at least free movement of labor and capital. Those used to be the core messages coming from Davos.

But since 2016 at the latest, that path has increasingly been called into question by an unhappy middle class in industrialized nations, populist parties and in the wake of the successes of pro-Brexit campaigners in the UK and Donald Trump in the US. Since then, it's completely uncertain where the world is heading to.

Becker Andreas Kommentarbild App

DW's Andreas Becker

Is the European Union falling apart? Is the US drifting toward full-blown protectionism? Is the end of free trade nigh? All those questions were debated at Davos, including the question of how globalization could proceed without letting large parts of the world's population fall by the wayside.

From the perspective of the poor and all those left behind, it may seem cynical that questions like these are only being asked now that mainstream politicians in industrialized nations are afraid of losing their power. Even the International Monetary Fund - which is by no means a charity - warned against growing inequality a long time ago, but its basically went unheard for years.

China the savior?

The fact that the Chinese president was hailed as a capitalist savior at this year's forum at Davos adds to signs to what extent the global elite has been beset by uncertainty. WEF founder Klaus Schwab called Xi Jinping's speech "historic" and a good example of "responsive and responsible leadership."

Yes, Xi did come out in favor of free trade, climate protection and international cooperation. But then his country has for decades pursued a protectionist policy. The Chinese leadership has been wise enough to open the economy only slowly, step by step, to international competition. It is still shutting out competitors from some key sectors.

Whether Donald Trump has the same policy in mind for his country is yet to be seen. But the world's largest economy can no longer pursue a "same-procedure-as-every-year" policy, that's for sure.

We face an increasingly multipolar world, with power almost evenly spread among them. That was also part of the discussions at Davos. But what it means for the "global elite" gathering there every year is that the times of interpretational sovereignty and cure-alls are over.

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