HomeScience & EnvironmentWar Is on the Agenda in Davos, but the Focus Is Elsewhere

War Is on the Agenda in Davos, but the Focus Is Elsewhere

Each day this week has brought a new and fleeting reminder to the executives and politicians at the annual World Economic Forum meeting of the two wars threatening global security and clouding the economy. Ukraine’s president spoke on Tuesday. Israel’s spoke on Thursday.

Neither was able to hold the collective attention of a gathering that this year has focused overwhelmingly on artificial intelligence and populist politics.

Gaza and Ukraine have made daily appearances on the public agenda in Davos, along with climate change and economic inequality. But in the warm halls and slushy streets around town, conversations almost inevitably turn to the two accelerating trends that are destabilizing business models and democracies.

Everyone wants to talk about how A.I. and this year’s elections, especially in the United States, could shake up the world. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel led by Hamas or the ensuing Israeli bombing of Gaza? Drowned out in comparison.

“No one is talking about Israel,” said Rachel Goldberg, who came to Davos to urge action to free the more than 100 hostages who were taken on Oct. 7 and continue to be held by Hamas, including her 23-year-old son, Hersh.

In an interview on Wednesday, Ms. Goldberg said she was not surprised the war had taken a back seat here. “I think it’s complicated,” she said. “And I think it’s very polarizing.”

Davos is many things layered on top of one another. It is a font of wealthy idealism, where the phrase “committed to improving the state of the world” frequently adorns the walls of the main meeting center.

The forum is a networking event where chief executives, world leaders, celebrities, philanthropists and journalists speed-date through half-hour coffee meetings. It is a trade show for big ideas, with overlapping panel discussions on topics including gender equity, media misinformation and the transition to green energy.

It is also a venue for top government officials to speak on grave issues, including war. That is where much of the Gaza and Ukraine discussion played out this week.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine called for international aid — but not more weapons — in a packed-house address on Tuesday to hundreds of people. He also took questions from reporters afterward.

Without more assistance from the United States and others, Mr. Zelensky said, “a huge crisis will happen.” He added: “We have a war now, and we will have a huge crisis — a crisis for the whole of Europe.”

Several leaders spoke about Gaza and the broader conflict it has spawned in the Middle East, though typically to smaller crowds. In a room of about 60 attendees on Wednesday, Mohammad Mustafa, the chairman of Palestine Investment Fund and the former deputy prime minister of Palestine, called for additional international aid for the people in Gaza and for an end to the war.

“The military action has got to stop very quickly,” Mr. Mustafa said. “There is no need for anyone to build their political careers at the expense of more Palestinian people.”

Hossein Amir Abdollahian, the foreign minister of Iran, blamed Israel for raising tensions in the Middle East in the past several months. “If the genocide in Gaza stops, then it will lead to the end of the other crises and attacks in the region,” he said.

In his Thursday speech, President Isaac Herzog of Israel called Iran the center of an “empire of evil” destabilizing the Middle East and displayed a photograph of Kfir Bibas, a 1-year-old hostage being held in Gaza. “We have a very cruel, sadistic enemy who has taken a decision to try to torture the Israeli national psyche as well as the hostages themselves,” Mr. Herzog said.

But those speeches rarely dominated the conversations on the sidelines of the event, at the nightly private dinners after the day’s agenda concluded or in most of the storefronts that large corporations paid to transform into branded event spaces along the main promenade in town.

One possible explanation: Attendees and leaders here do not view either war as a significant threat at the moment to the global economy. Neither Gaza nor Ukraine cracked the Top 10 near-term concerns in the Global Risk Report — a survey of 1,500 global leaders — that the forum released on the eve of the gathering. A World Economic Forum chief economists’ report released this week suggested that growth forecasts for the Middle East had “slightly weakened” amid uncertainties about the war between Israel and Hamas. It did not mention Ukraine.

In private conversations around Davos this week, corporate leaders acknowledged the wars in Gaza and Ukraine as one of many concerns. But they grew much more animated about other topics that they said they expected to affect their businesses in the near term — potentially enormously, for good or ill.

A.I. topped that list. In interviews, executives expounded, usually with significant enthusiasm, on the benefits and drawbacks of the technology. They also talked politics, exhaustively. Over dinner, they and other attendees debated whether former President Donald J. Trump would win back the White House in November — and how his populist, protectionist policy could roil markets and upend their business models.

Some executives explicitly ranked Gaza and Ukraine lower than the American elections on their list of geopolitical concerns.

Many attendees lamented that there was not more energy behind war discussions, or recognition of the risks the wars pose to the economy and global security. Last year, concerns about Ukraine shared the spotlight at the gathering, along with a surge of A.I. interest.

This year, “everyone is focusing on other subjects,” Pascal Cagni, France’s ambassador for international exports, said in an interview. Economically and politically, he added, Ukraine is “a critical issue.”

There were a few exceptions. Supporters of Ukraine opened their own storefront space on the main promenade and staged several events each day to draw attention to the conflict. The technology company Palantir and its chief executive, Alex Karp, hosted Ms. Goldberg and other parents of hostages for events and interviews.

Several governments sent leaders to Davos in an attempt to quietly advance back-channel diplomacy in Ukraine or Gaza. That was true of the Biden administration, which sent Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Jake Sullivan, the White House’s national security adviser, to Davos for a flurry of meetings centered on Gaza.

In an interview on Wednesday, Ms. Goldberg said she was grateful for all efforts to bring her son and the other hostages home. She wore “103” taped to her sweater, which represented the number of days since her son had been taken.

In Davos, Ms. Goldberg was sharing a house with other parents of hostages. “I walked out this morning and here, you know, you have these, like, gorgeous views and beautiful mountains,” she said. She said she had turned to another mother and said: “It’s so beautiful. It’s perverse.”

But, she added a moment later: “I’m very grateful that I’m here. Because I am having access to people that I would never have access to. And the goal is to save Hersh’s life, and everyone who is there, their lives. I can only do that if we have access to people who have power. And that’s people who are here.”

Reporting was contributed by Jordyn Holman, Michael J. de la Merced, Marc Lacey and Matthew Mpoke Bigg.

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