ON WEDNESDAY, the World Economic Forum will begin in Davos, Switzerland. If the meeting sounds like a collection of economists lulling each other to sleep talking about interest rates, think again. What the in-crowd simply calls "Davos" is an assemblage of business leaders, politicians, visionaries and -- more recently -- celebrities at an isolated ski resort for an intense three-day discussion of global issues. Since Swiss business professor Klaus Schwab launched the forum in 1971, it has become the ne plus ultra of elite meetings, eclipsing such challengers as Renaissance Weekend, the British-American Project and the Trilateral Commission.
At least, that's what the rhetoric surrounding Davos suggests. According to the World Economic Forum's website, Davos is "an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging leaders in partnerships to shape global, regional and industry agendas." Political scientist Samuel P. Huntington asserted 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."
Its critics hold a similar view. Anti-globalization protests have targeted the conference, causing its security budget to grow at an alarming rate. To many of them, Davos is the epitome of how globalization is managed by the elite to impoverish the many. One of the few scholarly studies of the Davos experience characterizes the meeting as "a polymorph platform of intermediations on the new frontiers of capitalism." I'm not entirely sure what that means, but it does not sound good.
Some of this criticism is misplaced. Claiming that Davos is the secret cabal that runs the world would be like claiming that playing for the NBA makes people taller -- it confuses correlation with causation. Given that the forum's organizers listed giving "sports leaders a voice" as one of the major achievements of last year's meeting, critics might be exaggerating the power of Davos just a wee bit.
The official rhetoric about solving global problems is overblown as well. The few Davos attendees who have kissed and told suggest that the conference is more about networking opportunities and ego gratification than shaping global agendas. In an online Davos diary from last year, author David Rothkopf observed, "Delegates were all collectors, collecting big names, anecdotes to share with friends, validation."
At this point, Davos appears to serve three purposes. First, it is a useful place for politicians to launch new, grandiose initiatives that never quite live up to their billing. Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan launched the U.N.'s Global Compact there in 1999. The U.S. proposed a Middle East Free Trade Zone in 2003. And British Prime Minister Tony Blair used Davos in 2005 as the platform to launch the G8's climate-change initiative.
Second, Davos serves as a convenient meeting place for negotiators. Because everyone who is anyone is in attendance, political and business leaders can paradoxically reduce their travel by knowing that they will see each other at Davos.
It is now standard practice for trade negotiators to meet at the conference. For many world leaders, Davos is merely another stop on the summit train, like the G8 meetings or the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Third, Davos has become the place where political and business celebrities can meet the only kind of celebrities the rest of the world really cares about. In recent years, Bono, Brangelina and Sharon Stone have shown up. Although this has only intensified media interest, it has also elicited complaints from longtime participants that Davos has become the international equivalent of the Sundance Film Festival. What used to be a small, intimate gathering has metastasized into something bigger -- and slightly more crass.
There are signs that Davos may have jumped the shark. Activists used to demand a voice at the forum. In recent years, however, they have abandoned it altogether. Instead, they attend the rival World Social Forum, which is held at about the same time as Davos.
Even more disconcertingly, Davos sponsored a Gallup poll that found, across the globe, growing distrust of political and business leaders -- the very people who attend Davos.
The World Economic Forum will not go down without a fight. According to Schwab, "our annual meeting will help [leaders] to address the global agenda and hopefully restore much needed confidence in the ability of global leadership to improve the state of the world for all."
Perhaps -- but the polling data could be a harbinger of Davos' irrelevance. This leads to an interesting existential question: What if they threw an elite meeting and no one cared?