As a child growing up in Germany during the war, Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, witnessed the consequences of all-out conflict, and the stark contrast between war and peace.
“My father was working for a Swiss company, so he could cross the border. As a small child, it was always difficult to understand why there was an imaginary line, the border. On one side of the line was war and on the other side, it was peace,” Schwab said in a recent interview with The Japan Times in Tokyo.
That experience left a deep impression on the young Schwab, turning him into a devoted advocate for peace through dialogue later in life. Eventually his beliefs led him to establish the WEF, a nongovernmental organization known for its Davos conference, which brings together leaders from various industries, governments, academia and the media at the Swiss mountain resort to discuss global problems and their solutions every January.
“I felt the future should not be based on animosity and controversy. It should be based on reconciliation,” said Schwab. “In 1971, I published a book on multistakeholders, which means problems should always be solved through dialogues among the stakeholders, among all those people who are interested in the problems. So I created a platform for multistakeholders to come together.”
Since its foundation, many Japanese leaders have supported such initiatives by Schwab and the WEF, he said.
“Over the past 40 years, many Japanese leaders have become friends of mine, like Mr. (Akio) Morita,” said Schwab, referring to the co-founder of Sony Corp. “He was one of the first supporters who supported the forum and came to Davos.”
Last week, Schwab received the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun along with other foreign recipients of this year’s autumn decorations for his contribution to connecting Japanese leaders to leading figures in the world and enhancing mutual understanding among them.
Japan’s regular participants at Davos are Sadako Ogata, former U.N. high commissioner for refugees; Yasuchika Hasegawa, president of Takeda Pharmacetical Co.; former economy minister Heizo Takenaka; and James Kondo, head of Twitter Japan, to name a few.
“I feel very honored because I have a special affinity to Japan,” said the 75-year-old German, who visits Japan twice a year.
He said Japan has become much more outward-looking compared to some 40 years ago when there were not many Japanese who could speak English.
“Today, a majority of business leaders and even government leaders speak English very well, which shows that Japan has opened up very much to the world,” he said.
He stressed that he wanted to have WEF offices in four big global economic centers: the Tokyo office joins others in New York, Beijing and the Geneva headquarters.
Schwab, who holds two doctoral degrees, one in mechanical engineering and the other in economics and social sciences, said Japan has played a key leadership role in addressing some of the world’s most pressing issues, such as climate change, development assistance and human security, but there are other areas in which Japan can take the initiative.
More than any other developed country, Japan is facing the challenges of a rapidly aging population as well as increased competition from emerging economies, the former professor at the University of Geneva said.
“Mature countries will be able to learn from Japan. I feel in this respect, ‘Abenomics’ is not only important for Japan, but it’s important for the world to show that with the right policy, you can turn stagnation into a new revitalized growth situation,” Schwab said.
Though a cross-section of society attends the forum meetings, including representatives of governments, businesses, NGOs, trade unions, religious groups, young people and academics, he said it is also important not to ignore culture and sports.
“In this respect, I’m particularly delighted to know Japan will be the host of the Olympics in 2020. This will be a big chance and opportunity for Japan to show the world not only the success of ‘Abenomics,’ but to also show the world that Japan has integrated a holistic approach,” he said. “Culture and sports are really important elements to create inner satisfaction of people and happiness.”
Yet, the world in the 21st century still faces many global challenges, such as fighting hunger, striving for peace and stimulating economic growth. Schwab believes that to achieve those goals, governments, business enterprises and nongovernmental organizations must all pull together.
“My biggest concern at the moment is that despite globalization, countries become again more nationalistic, more egoistic in defending their national interests. Global issues can only be solved through real cooperation,” he said.
Asked what he wants to do next, Schwab, still full of energy and a regular participant in the 42-km Engadin cross-country ski marathon, said he hopes to be actively involved in the changing world.
“This world is so interesting and fascinating because so many revolutions are going on in technologies, genetics and information technologies and so on,” he said. “My hope is that I can still be an actor and positive force in this transformation process for many years to come.”