23 Jan 2024

Helen Clark: 'The world has some grim realities right now'

From Nights, 9:40 pm on 23 January 2024

Helen Clark calls Nights from the home of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where a who’s-who of government officials from across the globe have gathered to discuss the most pressing issues of the day.

She’s involved with a number of sessions at Davos on climate change, antimicrobial resistance, women’s leadership and surveillance – not all of which are topics immediately associated with economic policy.

“It is called the World Economic Forum, but, of course, the economies don’t function in a vacuum. They’re impacted by everything that’s going on.”

Former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark in Turkey

Former New Zealand prime minister and former UNDP administrator Helen Clark. Photo: AFP / Anadolu Agency

She tells Emile Donovan the world is facing “a syndemic of crises” – before Covid-19 entered the picture, climate disasters and economic inequality were already plaguing nations.

“We know in our own country how damn expensive it is to recover from major events like the tragic flooding and rain events last year in New Zealand, and it’s expensive to put in place the infrastructure which will cope better with that in the future.

“Similarly, the pandemic had a huge impact on economies, including our own. Everyone dug very deep to try and keep their society and economy going through that. So that’s why there is so many topics discussed at Davos, not least of which geopolitics.”

She describes a general mood amongst attendees in Davos that we are navigating times of great volatility.

“At Davos, you pick up a little bit the edginess between the gig economy companies which own nothing but provide platforms, and the real economy who actually make stuff, produce stuff, pick it up, who don’t tend to do as well as the digitised style of economy.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the assembly at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, on January 16, 2024. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the World Economic Forum at Davos January 2024 Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Deescalating conflict was the subject of discussions both formal and informal between member nations at Davos, including the war in Ukraine.

“President Zelensky came here and addressed the conference in the congress hall. He put more of an emphasis on trying to end the war through negotiation now, but we’re still a way off knowing how this is going to play out.”

Several key people involved in the unfolding Middle East crises, including the US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Israeli president Isaac Herzog, were also at the World Economic Forum.

“The general discussion is you have to move toward serious negotiation for a two-state solution – though, of course, at the moment, you have a prime minister in Israel who has absolutely set himself against that. Until that’s unlocked – and that will only be unlocked, one suspects, by significant pressure from the United States – the horror will go on.”

She says the United States appears to be struggling with its role in international disputes as global powers shift.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv on 7 January, 2024.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly rejected US calls for a future Palestinian state. Photo: AFP/ Ronen Zvulun

“I felt, when Barack Obama was US president, that he got it – that we were entering a multipolar world in which the US was obviously still going to be very, very powerful, but not uncontested. I think the US is struggling with the rise of China and how to work around that.

“When you have this kind of environment when new powers are emerging, no one quite knows how it will pan out. I think the US itself is not quite sure what its role is.”

While the US mobilised a significant part of the world’s countries in support of Ukraine over the past two years, Clark says the conflict in Gaza has cast its reputation for “moral high ground” in international disputes into question.

“We lived through close to two years of seeing these terrible news reports from Ukraine of cities just flattened, civilians killed, horrific death toll on militaries all round.

“But then the world is looking at these images from Gaza and saying, hang on – killing is killing, catastrophe is catastrophe. And they see the US doing not that much to stop it. So I think that does create quite a lot of difficulties for the US. No moral high ground there.

“And by the way, we tend to focus on the ones [with the] CNN effect where we see it night after night, right. We're not looking at the ongoing horrors in Somalia or up in the Boko Haram affected area of Nigeria or any of a number of conflict environments at the moment. So the world has some grim realities right now.”

In the future, Clark says New Zealand needs to keep its head politically when it comes to taking positions in increasingly fraught global issues.

“Many of us have long-valued the independent foreign policy positioning New Zealand had, so it is a concern when you see a drift to sort of automatically signing up to statements others have written and you’ve had very little input into.”