Two pageants held the attention of the media over the last few days. The first was the burial of the Saudi King, which though ceremonially simple attracted presidents and kings, prime ministers and potentates, a testament according to the BBC’s Jonny Dymond, of “Saudi Arabia’s global standing”.
The second was the world economic forum at Davos, which had so many “power” figures that its participants had to be categorized into divisions like the Oscar awards. You can read about the The 2015 Power Women Of Davos, for example. Both spectacles proved Barabara Tuchman was wrong when she wrote, in her account of the run up the Great War, that the age of royalty had ended. The well known passage from her book, the Guns of August, was intended as the epitaph of an era.
“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens – four dowager and three regnant – and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”
Today royalty has risen from the grave. Had Tuchman foreseen the burial of a Saudi King or the gathering of a global elite to which the preferred mode of transportation was the private jet she might have known that royalty never went away, just changed the alias it was living under. But if kings live once again in castles, the brigands for their part still haunt the hinterland. That much has not changed either.
Walter Russell Mead argues it would be a mistake to think that every armed host that arrives without the gates are come to make their obeisance at court. For there are still brigands and they have other uses for knives besides spreading butter.
There are three subjects on which virtually everybody in the Western policy and intellectual establishments agree: think of them as the core values of the Davoisie: The first is that the rise of a liberal capitalist and more or less democratic and law-based international order is both inevitable and irreversible. The second is that the Davos elite—the financiers, politicians, intellectuals, haute journalists and technocrats who mange the great enterprises, institutions and polities of the contemporary world—know what they are doing and are competent to manage the system they represent. The third is that no serious alternative perspective to the Davos perspective really exists; our establishment believes in its gut that even those who contend with the Davos world order know in their hearts that Davos has and always will have both might and right on its side.
But Putin lives and thinks outside of the Davos box. By Davos standards, Putin is a heretic and a renegade. He thinks the whole post-historical Western consensus is a mix of flapdoodle and folderol. It is, from his perspective, a cocktail of ignorance, arrogance, vanity and hypocrisy, and he wants no part of it.