Clash of major powers a top concern of 2018

WEF report cites other risks such as extreme weather, inequality

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Representatives of the World Economic Forum have welcomed the opportunity for dialogue with US President Trump, who’s attending the annual meet-up of global political and business leaders next week.

BERLIN • The risk of political and economic confrontation between major powers, including outright military conflicts, has risen sharply, according to a survey released by the World Economic Forum (WEF) yesterday, days before its annual gathering in Davos.

The Global Risks Report highlighted several top risks for this year, including environmental threats from extreme weather and temperatures, economic inequalities and cyber attacks.

But most remarkable was the surge in geopolitical concerns after a year of escalating rhetoric between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that has arguably brought the world closer to a nuclear conflict than it has been in decades.

The survey of nearly 1,000 experts from government, business, academia and non-governmental organisations showed 93 per cent expect a worsening of political or economic confrontations between major powers this year, including 40 per cent who believe those risks have increased significantly. Some 79 per cent see a heightened risk of state-on-state military conflict. In addition to the threat of a conflict on the Korean peninsula, the report pointed to the risk of new military confrontations in the Middle East.

It cited a rise in "charismatic strongman politics" across the world and said political, economic and environmental risks were being exacerbated by a decline in support for rules-based multilateralism.

The report pointed to Mr Trump's decisions to withdraw from the Paris climate accord and the TPP trade agreement and his threat to pull out of a deal between Western powers and Iran designed to curb its nuclear programme.

"The risks we are trying to grapple with here require multilateral solutions, but we are moving in the other direction," said Mr John Drzik, president of global risk and digital at the consultancy Marsh, which helped compile the report.

  • 93% Those who expect a worsening of political or economic confrontations between major powers in 2018, in a survey of nearly 1,000 experts.

    79% Those who see a heightened risk of state-on-state military conflict.

While geopolitical worries rose sharply, the environment topped the list of concerns, with extreme weather events seen as the single most prominent risk this year after a year of unusually frequent Atlantic storms, including Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico.

Weapons of mass destruction retained their place as the most destructive risk, but their use was judged the least likely to occur. After extreme weather events, the next most likely risks were cyber attacks and mass data fraud or theft.

With global growth recovering, concerns about the economy were down sharply. Still, the report described income inequality as a "corrosive problem" in many countries and warned against complacency over the economic environment given high debt levels, low savings rates and inadequate pension provisions.

"A widening economic recovery presents us with an opportunity that we cannot afford to squander, to tackle the fractures that we have allowed to weaken the world's institutions, societies and environment," said Mr Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the WEF. "We must take seriously the risk of a global systems breakdown."

The report will provide the backbone for the talks in Davos, whose theme this year is Creating A Shared Future In A Fractured World.

Mr Trump's appearance at the Davos meeting - the first for a sitting US president since Mr Bill Clinton in 2000 - is sure to dominate proceedings, as well as ruffle feathers.

He is due to give a speech on the closing day of the WEF, an annual event in the Swiss Alps which runs from Jan 23 to 26 and will attract 70 heads of state and government, as well as celebrities, CEOs and top bankers.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2018, with the headline Clash of major powers a top concern of 2018. Subscribe