This year’s premier gathering of world elites, the 2022 Davos World Economic Forum, concluded May 26. Topics of discussion included the climate crisis, global epidemic concerns, continued efforts to grow the prominence of ESG investing, and looming food shortages. One issue, however, far and away dominated the entire conference: the Russo-Ukrainian war and its centrality to the future of the international system.
“This war is really a turning point of history, and it will reshape our political and our economic landscape in the coming years,” stated WEF Founder Klaus Schwab.
“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants a return to a world order in which strength dictates what is right—in which freedom, determination and sovereignty are not for everyone,” German leader Olaf Scholz told Davos attendees. “We cannot allow Putin to win this war.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call for “maximum sanctions,” a stipend for Kyiv of at least $5 billion per month, and the total expulsion of all Russian forces from Ukrainian territory brought the crowd to its feet.
Favorite target of conservative ire George Soros issued a call to arms for the champions of an international “open society.” In order to save civilization, the world community must “mobilize all our resources” in order to “defeat Putin as soon as possible.” Even climate change would have to take a back seat to the fight against Russia.
The ongoing war in Ukraine is undoubtedly horrific, and everyone of goodwill wants to see an end to the bloodshed as soon as possible. The committed focus on defeating Putin by those at Davos, however, is about more than virtue-signaling or moral posturing. It is even about more than leveraging the crisis to accelerate their goal of usurping power from national governments in isolated fields, like energy.
Rather, the real issue at stake in Ukraine is whether the future of international relations will involve a continued expansion and consolidation of a transatlantic one-world government, or complete its transition back to a system predicated on an international balance of power. War in Ukraine presents the international community with its most significant inflection point of the post-Cold War era. In this instance, Schwab’s analysis is entirely correct. Putin’s invasion of his neighbor has threatened to affirm not only that the national interest still dictates world affairs, but that it can also still be secured by force.
For the West, accepting that a peace settlement will require certain land concessions and security guarantees would equate to an admission that the balance of power is once again the central operating principle of international relations. It would also be definitive confirmation that the “multi-polar” order dreaded by globalists has definitively arrived. Conversely, however, Russia could fail to secure its gains in Ukraine due to regime change or escalated Western intervention. The ability to destroy the Putin administration through economic strangulation, militarily supplying its enemies, and fomenting civil unrest would subsequently establish the opposite principle: the concept of a sphere of influence would show itself defunct. An individual nation-state actor, despite being a hindrance, will have been proven incapable of permanently forestalling the continued expansion and consolidation of a transatlantic-based one-world governance system.
Short of major Western escalation, which would likely precipitate large-scale war, the latter will not happen. Putin will achieve his goals: at least part, if not the majority, of the Donbas region will remain autonomous, and will potentially even join the Russian federation; Crimea will continue to be controlled by Moscow; and Ukraine will not be a member of the E.U. anytime soon, let alone NATO. That caveat about Western escalation should not be easily dismissed, however. The hostile language ubiquitous at the WEF would require Western involvement significantly beyond its current level, and can’t be discounted as mere rhetoric.
Davos is the most accurate physical representation of the phrase “the powers that be” in our current age. What its high-powered attendees say is indicative of more than just their personal beliefs; often, as their beliefs go, so goes international policy. Such is the nature of having control over a civilization’s institutions, national resources, and financial capital.
Despite all evidence that Putin is a rational actor, the Ukraine crisis is exclusively filtered through a simplistic moral prism of good vs. evil. Countenancing the Russian president as a pragmatic international actor would be another inherent admission that the world has returned to a balance-of-power system. Instead, Putin has become in the elite imagination a caricature of opposition to one-world unity, the Voldemort to our Harry Potter. As a result, the path to escalation has been paved in the hearts and minds of Western audiences.
That is not to say that the sympathy of any particular individual for the suffering of Ukrainians is inauthentic, or that those individuals do not actually want a speedy resolution to the conflict. It is only to say that these elites see the emergence of their envisioned better world as threatened. The ways proposed at the WEF may often be misguided, but the goals are not necessarily malicious. And therein lies their danger.
The Davos mindset is not only dangerous because its proponents want to centralize power in their own hands and create a one-world technocracy of rule-by-expert; it is dangerous because they genuinely believe that all of that is for your own good, and that they know better than you what is in your best interest. Subsequently, they are also willing to make sacrifices for their goals on your behalf, whether you agree or not.
At the same time, the Davos set aggregates the negative externalities of a given operation or policy into borderless, boundless phenomena like climate change or “equity.” The inevitable blurring of the line between “social” and “science” that takes place when viewing externalities at such a scale makes it difficult to concretely measure an operation’s impact on any particular community, or even to define the community in question.
This has been the story of the post-Cold War globalist order. It was built on the belief that society would eventually come to judge all policy anywhere by its repercussions on all peoples everywhere. Transatlantic victory over the Soviet Union promised the unfettered spread of economic and cultural globalization, absolute free trade, and liberal democracy, all enabled by the military might of the United States (in some cases, exclusively enabled by the military might of the United States). It was supposed that any limiting factors to cooperation, including borders, would slowly disappear into the ether, and national differences and interstate tensions along with them.
The balance-of-power system that had ensured relative peace throughout the Cold War was now understood to be obsolete. But a definition of community that broad, however noble its intentions, is not practically viable. You cannot focus solely on the general without sacrificing the particular, or vice versa. Leaders in government, academia, and the business world—the type of people who go to Davos—like to judge success or failure according to GDP numbers, poverty rates, carbon emissions, and demographic percentages. Up is progress and down is regression, or the reverse. Looking at statistical trends may help in evaluating one specific aspect of a given policy, but it is impossible to ascertain the whole picture of a society’s health from mere numbers.
Who can point to the real people helped by enforcing climate emission standards that aggrandize large multinational conglomerates while forcing smaller enterprises out of the market? What measurable benefit does a more diverse (another vague term) board of directors in an industry have on the social cohesion of an actual community, or even a nation? Even less clear issue is the timeframe according to which these ostensibly positive developments will occur. The practical and local are inevitably subsumed by the theoretical and transnational. As the Davos crowd is notoriously devoid of the former two, they can only interpret prospective problems through the lens of the latter.
The Russo-Ukraine war provides global elites with an opportunity to reclaim the lost momentum of the once-burgeoning one-world unipolar order of the 1990s. It is important to understand that to the people at Davos, looking down from their supranational perch in the Swiss Alps, everyone below naturally appears as “a party with a stake”. Hubris-inspired fantasies of building one’s own Tower of Babel are as old as the story itself, so it should not be particularly surprising that post-Cold War unipolarity was eventually going to come crashing down. Despite the realities, the sentiment is, however, never fully relinquished.
Western audiences need to grasp the fact that there are regular discussions in Russian leadership about which developments will invoke escalatory actions, including nuclear strikes. At the same time, no one should doubt that the world elite are willing to risk such a response on your behalf if the alternative is sacrificing their illusions of grandeur. Many of the patterns exhibited in similar historical contexts are already noticeable.
Had he lived in this era, Woodrow Wilson would have undoubtedly been a recurrent WEF attendee. Much like the Davos crowd and Ukraine, Wilson saw an opportunity in the Great War to build a new system that would preempt nation-state conflict and make considerations of national-interest obsolete. Germany and the Kaiser became caricatures of an evil old order, the opponents of a peaceful international existence defined by expert administrative rule. The rhetoric is often indistinguishable from our own technocratic class.
The demonization of all things German to increase support for U.S. involvement and the subsequent war effort bears striking parallels with the Russophobia that has become mandatory in our current media environment, as if we are already at war. Among many other anti-German initiatives introduced at the time included the film The Kaiser, The Beast Of Berlin, which was released in 1918, the banning of symphonies by German composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach or Ludwig van Beethoven, and the American Protective League’s campaign slogan of “Hate the Hun.” The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 were also passed, the latter prohibiting publication and dissemination of material that the government deemed injurious to the war effort. It is not difficult to see the similarities with the regular calls for banning those expressing contrarian viewpoints towards the war in Ukraine.
Similarly, Germany’s tactics in the lead-up to U.S. involvement were often presented as “warfare against mankind,” and intervention was eventually deemed necessary, since “the world must be made safe for democracy”—language eerily similar to the widespread presentation of the war in Ukraine as a fight for democracy in general. “Ukrainians are fighting for our freedoms as well,” as former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch puzzlingly stated.
The unipolar system envisioned in Wilson’s League of Nations proved a failure at securing international peace. Some will say that its weaknesses were rectified in the successor United Nations, and the rise of the multilateral institutions like the E.U. and NATO, which currently dictate so much of international affairs. The reality is that peace was maintained solely because of a stable balance of forces between the United States and the Soviet Union.
It has become evident that the relative peace enjoyed after the end of the Cold War did not signify the obsolescence of the balance-of-power principle, but rather a brief interlude before its reemergence in another form. Now, 30 years later, the inability for world elites such as those in attendance at Davos to accept practical reality over their ideological illusions once again brings us to the precipice of large-scale interstate war.
Dominick Sansone writes on Russian geopolitics in Eastern Europe. His work on the subject has been published at the National Interest, the Euromaidan Press, and Modern Diplomacy.