News analysis - World Economic Forum - Davos

At Davos, a clarion call by world leaders, including Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, to defend global order

Biden pulls no punches as he warns against protectionism and Russia's shenanigans

DAVOS (SWITZERLAND) - With the clock ticking down on his last 48 hours in office, US Vice-President Joe Biden delivered a rallying call to government and business leaders here in Davos to keep up their fight to defend the liberal global economic and political order that has come under pressure from populist challengers in recent months.

Leaders in Western countries, led by the United States, had to defend the liberal global order that their forefathers had shown "foresight, audacity and big-heartedness" in building. Institutions and initiatives such as the United Nations, Nato, the European Union, the Marshall Plan and Bretton Woods had helped secure the decades of peace and prosperity that the world has enjoyed, he told his audience at the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Urging leaders not to lose sight of the years of effort it took to build these institutions and foster the community of values that underpinned them, he added that leaders in the West "could not wait for others to write the future they want to see".

They should reject the impulse to "hunker down, shut the gates, build walls, exit at this moment", in the face of challenges thrown up by globalisation, from growing income inequalities to a deepening sense of insecurity among voters that the system would deliver on the promise of better lives for their children, he said.

Mr Biden and Mr Xi meeting on the sidelines of the WEF in Davos. Mr Biden chose to deliver his last official speech in Davos, while Mr Xi was the first president from China to address the forum. Both men gave a robust defence of an open, liberal worl
Mr Biden and Mr Xi meeting on the sidelines of the WEF in Davos. Mr Biden chose to deliver his last official speech in Davos, while Mr Xi was the first president from China to address the forum. Both men gave
a robust defence of an open, liberal world order against the backdrop of a possible hunkering down by the US under a Trump administration. PHOTO: XINHUA

Noting the unease felt around the world following recent events, he addressed the Republican elephant that has been hanging about the WEF's cavernous Congress Hall for the past two days. Although he insisted his remarks were not directed at the incoming Donald Trump administration - mention of which prompted a loud boo from someone in the crowd - he set out in plain terms what he thought the world wanted to see from an American leadership.


As is his style, he did not mince his words. He pointedly called out Russian President Vladimir Putin, who, he said, "has a different vision of the future". He charged that Mr Putin was behind cyber attacks and misinformation to influence electoral outcomes in Western democracies, including the recent US elections. He said the Russian leader also aimed to undermine Western alliances like Nato, seeking instead to build a world divided into spheres of influence where regional players, like Russia, would hold sway. The US, for its part, had stood for an international order where countries were free to decide their own futures and associate with others as they saw fit. "That was our position, is our position, and should be our position," Mr Biden asserted, noting that he had chosen to deliver his last speech in Davos, in much the same vein as he had set out the Obama administration's foreign policy agenda in Europe, in a speech in Munich, soon after taking office eight years ago.


Under President Putin, Russia is working with every tool available to them to whittle away at the edges of the European project, test the fault lines of Western nations and return to a politics defined by spheres of influence... With many countries in Europe slated to hold elections this year, we should expect further attempts by Russia to meddle in the democratic process. It will occur again, I promise you. And again the purpose is clear: to collapse the liberal international order.



There is no point in blaming economic globalisation for the world's problems because that is simply not the case... And that will not help to solve the problems... The history of mankind has shown us that problems are not to be feared. What should concern us is the refusal to face up to the problems.


These were welcome words for the crowd gathered in this Swiss Alpine resort for the annual WEF meeting, who gave him a standing ovation. There was a note of wistfulness about the passing of the baton to a new team in the US whose commitment to the liberal order seems in doubt, following recent remarks by incoming president Trump, who has called Nato "obsolete" and the EU a "vehicle for Germany". Just as disconcertingly for observers in Asia, he has said he was ready to bargain with Beijing over the US' one-China policy, and also seemed headed for a confrontation with China over trade.

Against this backdrop, it was little wonder that, a day earlier, delegates here had clung to the words of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who hit all the right notes in voicing his support for the liberal economic order.

In a speech on Tuesday, Mr Xi rejected protectionism, urged against a "trade war in which there are no winners", and pledged that China would keep its economy open to the world.

It was pointless blaming globalisation for economic challenges, he said, as this was "not the case, and would not solve the problems". He also likened protectionism to shutting oneself in a dark room, which might keep out the wind and the rain but also block out the sunshine.

He went on to outline China's proposals for collaborative projects, from its much vaunted One-Belt-One-Road initiative to foster trade links between Asia and the West, to long overdue structural reforms to "Western- centred" international institutions.

Mr Xi made history by being the first president of China to address the WEF, which rolled out the red carpet for him. He was given top billing for a keynote address on Day One of the week-long conference. He later also witnessed the signing of a "strategic partnership" between China's National Development and Reform Commission and the WEF to deepen their collaboration over the next 10 years.

Responding to Mr Xi, WEF founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab hailed his address as a "very important speech at a historic time". He welcomed China's efforts to support, as well as reform, the present institutional system and be a "driving force in the world for globalisation".

Mr Schwab's sentiments seemed to be shared by delegates, many of whom appeared delighted at the Chinese leader's robust defence of globalisation at a time when some of its usual champions in Washington and the West seem to have lost faith in the project.

There have been, after all, many calls from these quarters for China to pitch in to uphold the rules-based system that has enabled it to make such rapid progress through international trade and economic co-operation.

The irony, however, of the liberal capitalist order being given a much-needed booster shot by the leader of a nominally Communist state, once itself deeply suspicious about signing up to it, was not lost on delegates.

In discussions afterwards, there were some sceptical voices raised about what a "globalisation with Chinese characteristics" might entail for the world.

Which explains why Mr Biden's farewell speech was such a hit with the crowd yesterday.

With a new US leader waiting to be sworn in tomorrow, just as proceedings here will be winding down, many remain deeply unsure if the clock was not also winding down on the globalisation project they have long supported, and benefited from.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2017, with the headline 'A clarion call to defend the liberal global order'. Print Edition | Subscribe