Davos 2014: Can Rising Public Trust Help Leaders Reshape a Changing World?

Two themes formed the backdrop to the World Economic Forum’s 2014 gathering in Davos, Switzerland that ended this week: the return of the global economy to a semblance of stability and the continuing shift of power from West to East. This mixture of economic flux and stability feeds through into our research, with peoples’ views in the institutions that affect their lives, the environment and how they think of certain countries all affected.
One of the messages to emerge from GlobeScan’s 2013 Radar survey was the rise of trust in institutions (see chart below). Though trust in institutions has continued to rise strongly in developing countries as economies and living standards have risen, the developed world’s public perception of institutions plunged during the economic crisis. There was, however, some recovery in 2013, as the developed world’s trust in the private sector rose, albeit from record lows and remaining within negative territory in the case of global business, as GDP, jobs and disposable income began to exhibit signs of a return to health. Trust in government also rose, though at a slower pace amid concerns over public debt.

In addition to rising trust, our research tells us that global concern over the economy has begun to recede and we are once again witnessing rising concern over the environment. Former US Vice-President Al Gore put global warming on the agenda, warning attendees that climate change was now even more of a threat than before the economic crisis that forced it off policymakers’ radar. The chart below suggests that the global public are inclined to agree: concern about various environment-related issues has started to climb back to levels seen historically, before the financial crisis.

However, despite evidence that the improving economic outlook is buoying trust in institutions and concern over the environment, the economic system remains unbalanced, leading to a shift in global power structures. During the Davos summit Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe characterized relations between China and Japan as akin to those between Britain and Germany in the lead up to the First World War.  However, when GlobeScan asked respondents from across Asia what they felt of their neighbours in 2013 it was apparent that Japan enjoys little international sympathy in its territorial disputes with its neighbours. As early as 2012 a significant proportion of South Koreans told us that tensions with Japan over the Liancourt rocks were the biggest issue facing their nation. Public perceptions of Japan have fallen sharply in Australia, South Korea, India, Russia, and South Korea. Chinese views could barely fall further. American views on Japan have hardened too, despite the proportion of Japanese who say their superpower ally has a ‘positive influence’ leaping ten points (to 42%) between 2012 and 2013.
Though Davos was billed as a look forward to a changing world, the changes facing us are in many ways not new. For the first time since 2009 global interest in environmental issues is on the rise, this may force global leaders to heed Vice-President Gore’s call and put green issues firmly back on the agenda, even if this will only return the situation to the same place as in 2009. Meanwhile, comparisons to Europe in 1914 are probably overblown, but there is no doubt that regional antipathy toward Japan will make it harder to ‘de-escalate’ the situation to mutual satisfaction. What may well offer the greatest opportunity  for financial and government institutions to put in place long term solutions to systemic economic problems and tackle that other Davos buzzword  ‘inequality’, is the global public’s increasing willingness to trust those who take decisions on their behalf.
This post was written by former GlobeScan Research Analyst, Alex Lewis.