World Economic Forum: Corporate club 'shapes global agenda'

Issue 

BY SEAN HEALY

When top political and business leaders gather at Melbourne's Crown Casino for the September 11-13 World Economic Forum's Asia Pacific Economic Summit, they will do more than slap each other's backs and compare notes on corporate boxes at the Sydney Olympics. They will also plan strategies to deal with the worldwide groundswell against their power.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meetings in the Swiss ski resort town of Davos, and its regional summits, have become the premier venue for the global corporate elite and its henchmen to "shape the global agenda", harmonise sales pitches and forge international ruling class solidarity.

The WEF's 30th annual meeting in January, for example, was where an elite consensus was sought to respond to the mass protests in Seattle, which derailed the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) planned "Millennium Round" of trade liberalisation talks and sent corporate leaders into a panic.

CEO club

The WEF, founded in 1971 by Swiss professor of business administration Klaus Schwab, boasts that its annual summit "defines the political, economic and business agenda for the year" and counts as among its finest achievements the impetus for the Uruguay Round of trade talks, from which came the WTO in 1995.

Its January Davos annual meeting attracted 1200 business executives, 250 political leaders, 250 academic "experts" and 250 media figures, 90% of them male. They all paid a US$20,000 registration fee. Featured keynote speakers were US President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Microsoft' owner Bill Gates.

The WEF's 968 member organisations, nearly all transnational corporations with annual turnovers of billions of dollars, include the dominant forces in the world's largest industries: banking (Citibank, Chase Manhattan), automobiles (Ford, General Motors), petrochemicals (Exxon, Shell), agribusiness (Monsanto, Cargill), communications and information technology (Microsoft, AT&T), clothing and sportswear (Nike), media (AOL-Time Warner, Viacom), pharmaceuticals (Pfizer, DuPont), cigarettes (Philip Morris, British American Tobacco), and the list goes on.

Samuel Huntington, a political scientist and member of the neo-liberal Trilateral Commission think tank, boasts that "Davos people control virtually all international institutions, many of the world's governments and the bulk of the world's economic and military capabilities".

WEF annual meetings and regional summits are as cosy as possible: "In order to reinforce the club character of its networks, the foundation limits its activities to members and to their special guests only", its official history states.

Media attendees at Davos are closely controlled and vetted by Schwab's staff. Only the most high profile columnists and editorial writers from ruling-class mouthpieces, like CNN and the Wall Street Journal, are given free access to all sessions.

According to the Media Channel's Danny Schechter, the "working press" are kept in the "dungeon-like basement of the high-tech Congress Centre", banging out copy "based on reams of handouts, session summaries and the snatches of the proceedings watched on live, closed-circuit TV". Those who write articles that are critical are rarely invited back; the left and alternative media is kept out altogether.

To give the facade of "dialogue", the WEF does invite the occasional, closely monitored critic. At the 2000 meeting, it allowed six representatives from non-government organisations.

The WEF offers an array of specific meetings and networks: the "Club of Media Leaders", the "Informal Gathering of Trade Ministers", the "Informal Gathering of Editorialists and Commentators", the "Forum Fellows" for academics and "experts", and the "Global Leaders of Tomorrow".

"Governors' meetings" of the key companies in specific industries at Davos allow "personal, direct, high-level interactions and informal exchanges". The "Food and Beverage Governors", which include the world's largest genetic engineering companies, affirmed as part of their "responsibility to contribute to global health" support for the Codex Alimentarius, a committee they already thoroughly dominate, which decides what is "safe" in food.

In January, the Informal Gathering of World Economic Leaders — the 80 most senior political leaders at the annual meeting, including heads of state and government, directors of the international organisations such as the World Bank and WTO, and selected business leaders — reached "consensus toward free trade and the need for better preparation and better leadership before the resumption of the round of trade talks" disrupted by the Seattle protests.

The WEF also funds a range of research projects, most notably the annual World Competitiveness Report, which ranks governments for business-friendly policies. In 1999, it launched an Environmental Sustainability Index, recommended to participants at Davos in 2000 by the meeting's co-chair and chief executive of chemical giant DuPont, Charles Holliday Jr, as "a big step forward ... to measure the

efforts we are already making".

'Shared vision'

The forum's primary purpose is ideological. It is a ruling-class caucus. As the popular resistance to corporate-run "globalisation" has become louder, the WEF's Davos meetings and regional summits have become more important.

Davos 2000, which began with an air of post-Seattle crisis, was the most important of all. According to Paul Krugman, a neo-liberal economist and WEF veteran, "Davos Man" has "an image problem, one that threatens the very process of the globalisation for which they stand". The meeting's task was to sort out this "image problem" by winning, as Textron CEO Lewis Campbell described in one of the summit's few honest moments, the "propaganda war".

The heavyweights were mobilised. The star of the show was Clinton, the first serving US president to attend the meeting. US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and US Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers accompanied him.

Clinton's message was that globalisation will, and must, march on, but in future "don't leave the little guy out". Globalisation, the US president argued, "is about more than markets alone"; it "means interdependence, which means none of us who are fortunate can any longer help ourselves unless we are prepared to help our neighbours". He called for "a more unifying, more inclusive vision".

The new more inclusive vision was, in Blair's words, of "an open world, an open economy and an open global society with unprecedented opportunities ... Supporting wealth creation. Tackling vested interests. Using market mechanisms. But staying true to clear values — social justice, democracy, cooperation."

What was particularly stressed was governments' and corporations' need to devote more time to coopting and disarming the critics by "building coalitions with civil society". "It's imperative that we engage our traditional 'enemies' and we're doing that", Ford Motor Company chief Bill Ford told the WEF's in-house World Link magazine. "It's a great process — I'm enjoying it thoroughly."

Few actual changes in economic or social orthodoxy were canvassed; none were seriously considered.

Thus fortified, the world's corporate rulers left Davos feeling much better about themselves and their mission. "Collectively, you can change the world", Clinton told them in conclusion. "When good people, with great energy, have shared vision, all the rest works out."

Regional preoccupations

The WEF's Eurasia Economic Summit, held in Kazakhstan from April 26-28, sought to "render intelligible the sheer complexity of the region in order to expand business opportunities" in central Asia and the Caucasus. The Mercosur Economic Summit in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, from May 7-9 "allowed a timely and unique opportunity for business leaders and foreign investors to discuss the economic programmes and reform plans of the new administrations" in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

The WEF meeting in Washington, D.C., from May 23-24, allowed the ruling-class movers and shakers, "together with the key players in the multilateral trade regime", to examine "what it will take to get them back to the negotiating table" after the "Seattle debacle".

A Southern Africa Economic Summit, in Durban, South Africa, from June 21-23, will focus on what government policies will be needed to attract foreign investment to the region. The Central and Eastern European Economic Summit, in Salzburg, Austria, from June 28-30, will seek to "redirect strategies in view of changing economic and political circumstances", in particular "increasingly informed and demanding constituents, no longer prepared to wait for the promised benefits of the market economy".

The Australian government hopes that it can play a similar role at the Asia Pacific Economic Summit in Melbourne as that played by the US delegation in Davos: setting the agenda, boasting about its economy and lecturing all and sundry.

It plans to send a bevy of senior ministers, including PM John Howard, treasurer Peter Costello, trade minister Mark Vaile, communications minister Richard Alston and finance minister John Fahey. The US government will send assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs Stanley Roth. Singapore, New Zealand and Japan will send senior ministers.

They will be joined by prominent representatives of transnational capital — including Gates, Kenneth Courtis of Wall Street investment firm Goldman Sachs, Jean-Marie Messier of the giant water company Vivendi, Michael Garrett of Nestle — and local brothers, among them BHP managing director Paul Anderson, National Australia Bank CEO Frank Cicutto and Telstra chief Ziggy Switkowsi.

The Melbourne summit, with the theme "Asia Pacific in the 21st Century: Leveraging the New Drivers of Growth", will share the ideological and political preoccupations of the Davos meetings and the regional summits.

Its central focus will be to cement business and government consensus on the policies to be followed as east Asian economies emerge from the economic devastation of 1997-'98: liberalising trade and investment regimes and opening up these economies to Western finance capital, policies which caused the crisis in the first place and which have plunged millions of the region's people into deeper poverty.

No doubt, the summit's elite participants will attempt to pass off escalating, enforced misery as "staying true to clear values" — dollar values, that is.

[The S11 Alliance is planning massive demonstrations and actions against the WEF's Melbourne summit, September 11-13. For more information, visit <http://www.s11.org> or contact your nearest Resistance Centre (phone numbers on page 2).]