January 22, 2018 / 11:06 AM / 9 months ago

Breakingviews - Cox: Klaus Schwab remakes Davos as The Apprentice

DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters Breakingviews) - The fourth season of The Celebrity Apprentice is chockablock with historic highlights of the American reality television genre. There’s the catty exchange where Omarosa Manigault, who recently departed as director of communications for the White House Office of Public Liaison, schools La Toya Jackson, sister of the King of Pop, on the art of management: “Being disrespectful is not good leadership – look it up, take notes.”

World Economic Forum (WEF) founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab arrives to a news conference in Cologny, near Geneva, Switzerland January 16, 2018. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

For true drama, though, nothing quite matches the denouement of that season, first broadcast in 2011, when Meat Loaf violently explodes at Gary Busey, the “Predator 2” actor, for allegedly stealing his paints. The “Bat Out Of Hell” rocker’s outburst is the last straw for Donald Trump, who fires Meat Loaf before the season’s finale, where the New York real estate developer chooses a winner on live television.

Klaus Schwab, the mastermind of the World Economic Forum, doesn’t seem like the sort who watches lots of reality programming. Yet to ensure intrigue when some 60 world leaders and thousands of business chieftains are locked in a Swiss mountain resort for much of this week, Schwab is employing many of the TV contrivances that made Trump a star and propelled him to the U.S. presidency.

This year’s Davos gathering - call it Geopolitical Celebrity Apprentice - may not throw up a performance as thrilling as Meat Loaf’s. But it could rival the business show for ratings-boosting excitement because it’s risky - and because the stakes are much higher.

The theatrical tension became apparent as soon as the White House announced that President Trump would make an appearance, the first by an Oval Office occupant since Bill Clinton in 2000. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president was excited to promote “his policies to strengthen American businesses, American industries, and American workers.” That puts his “America First” agenda on a collision course with the internationally cooperative spirit that, at least rhetorically, has guided Davos. Further adding to the drama, there’s a chance Trump may pull out, as the budget standoff that has shut down the U.S. government may yet force him to cancel.

The clash of visions has also guaranteed – in reality TV fashion – to create a competitive dynamic like never before among the week’s headliners. Trump’s pitch will come after Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers a Tuesday keynote on India’s many charms to the business community. Invest India, the government group advocating for financial support, has taken out a towering billboard of Modi’s likeness in central Davos touting the country’s improved rankings in the World Bank’s “Doing Business” report.

French President Emmanuel Macron is similarly expected to advance his “Choose France” initiative when he takes the stage on Wednesday evening. He already preempted the Davos rush by inviting 140 leaders from companies including Facebook and JPMorgan to the Palace of Versailles on their way to Switzerland on Monday. The executives are set to announce “concrete” investment decisions, Elysee sources told Reuters.

The next day is British Prime Minister Theresa May’s chance to face the camera, and like one of the candidates vying to take the prize at the end of an Apprentice series, set out her vision for a British exit from the European Union. Look for her to enumerate the many benefits a newly divorced Britain will have for British businesses, which are rightly spooked by the uncertainties of Brexit, and for the same multinationals Macron is trying to lure to France.

At the end of it all, as if to maximize the suspense, Trump’s stage appearance is scheduled for Friday afternoon, usually the lightest day of the confab, when many participants head home or carve a few turns on the slopes. Having Trump effectively close the festivities extends the life of the forum – another trick from the reality TV playbook.

That may be a savvy commercial choice. But it’s not without risk. In the Celebrity Apprentice version of reality, the finale always leads to the selection of a winner. And there is only ever one – the rest are, to use the Trump vernacular, losers. That sums up the president’s world view. For someone to win, everyone else must lose, whether in business, trade, diplomacy or security. This is what drives Trump’s “America First” thinking.

For all its many faults, that has never been the vision of the WEF and its fabled Davos men (and, now, women). Look no further than the title of this year’s shindig: “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” As the WEF warns in the preamble of the 2018 program, “citizens yearn for responsive leadership; yet, a collective purpose remains elusive.”

The premise of the Apprentice is that business, or indeed life, is a sort of zero-sum game. It explains why Meat Loaf exploded with rage at Gary Busey: he stole his paints. At the end of each show, Trump could send Meat Loaf or La Toya packing with a terse “you’re fired.”

At Davos there is no single body to adjudicate. Choosing a winner will be a collective decision by the globalist participants: politicians, executives and, yes, many billionaires long on lip service but still too short on action about fairness and equality. They can roll with, or co-opt a version of Trump’s inward, isolationist gaze. Or they can resist, and embrace policies that lift all boats and do not beggar their neighbors. They can promote free and fair trade and foster multilateral institutions encouraging best practices, competition and innovation.

Just because Trump is set to get the last word at Davos - if he shows up - doesn’t make his views ascendant. Indeed, one of the standard plot lines of reality television is the emergence of a tendentious bully who galvanizes the other competitors, forcing them to work together. If that is the outcome from this year’s elite gathering, perhaps the European Union, World Trade Organization and NATO will have reason to thank Klaus Schwab for treating world leaders like, well, Meat Loaf.

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