President Donald Trump, who warned as a candidate about “the false song of globalism,” is marching straight into the maw of the global beast this week – and he is singing his own tune.
Trump is attending the global economic conclave in Davos, Switzerland, not because he has come around to the views broadly shared by the sort of international financial elite, government figures and academics who gather annually in a Swiss ski town.
He is going because he wants to say, “I told you so.”
After a year in office, “America first,” the nativist cry that helped propel Trump to the presidency, is the backbone of a Trump economic and foreign policy Trump is expected to argue has benefited the United States exactly the way he said it would.
As he does at home, Trump will crow about a soaring stock market, low unemployment, the return of some jobs from overseas and the passage of his tax cut package.
Among the plutocrats at the World Economic Forum, Trump will also try to turn on the salesman’s charm.
“President Trump will reiterate that a prosperous America benefits the world. When the United States grows, so does the world,” White House economic adviser Gary Cohn told reporters ahead of the trip.
“The president is going to Davos to speak to world leaders about investing in the United States, moving businesses to the United States, hiring American workers, changing the direction of our economy to be one of the biggest and best and most efficient economies in the world.”
Trump – a self-proclaimed billionaire who has few qualms about hobnobbing with the wealthy – is the first U.S. president to attend since Bill Clinton swept through in 2000, his last year in office. George W. Bush and Barack Obama both sent delegations but skipped to avoid publicly rubbing shoulders with the richest of the rich.
Trump is hosting a dinner at Davos on Thursday for the heads of several European companies to encourage investment and expansion in the United States. He is also being feted at a reception with other world leaders attending the four-day session.
Trump’s speech, scheduled for Friday afternoon, is the capstone of the event. If his presence has a skunk-at-the-party quality, some economists suggested, it also makes sense at this point in Trump’s tenure.
“It’s an opportunity to demonstrate that he’s not reluctant to take on adversaries, including other world leaders,” trade specialist William Reinsch wrote in an essay for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Second, it’s an opportunity for him to articulate a coherent, cogent trade philosophy. Trade is not rocket science, but neither is it kindergarten, and making a convincing case requires more than making policy by tweet.”
Last year’s headliner was Chinese President Xi Jinping, who spoke about global engagement and responsibility just days before Trump’s dark and inward-looking inaugural address.
Xi was celebrated at Davos for being what pundits called the “global grown-up” stepping into the void left by looming U.S. protectionism under Trump.
As a candidate, Trump had accused other nations of taking advantage of the United States and “laughing at” the trade terms Washington had been willing to accept. With Xi’s embrace of globalization still making headlines, Trump made one of his first acts as president the fulfillment of a campaign promise to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership multilateral trade deal negotiated under Obama. China is widely seen as the biggest beneficiary of that withdrawal.
In the year since, however, Trump’s rhetoric has been more protectionist and populist than his record. Exhibit A: The lopsided benefits for the very rich in his tax cut package.
At Davos this year, Trump will stress “America First” is not “America Alone,” Cohn said Tuesday, while insisting on evenhanded trade relationships. It is a somewhat softer version of economic nationalism than Trump sometimes projects on the campaign stump and one designed to entice investors.
At the same time, Trump has hardly gone over to what his former chief strategist Stephen Bannon once dismissively called “the party of Davos.” The president approved new tariffs this week on foreign-made washing machines and solar panels. The actions Monday amounted to the largest trade move he has made since his first days as president.
Nonetheless, Cohn argued, Trump’s message is inclusive.
“The president believes we can have truly win-win agreements,” Cohn said. “He’s going to talk to world leaders about making sure we all respect each other, we all abide by the laws, we all have free, fair, open, and reciprocal trade. And if we live in a world where there are not artificial barriers, we will all grow, and we will all help each other grow.”
Trump’s selling points – a strengthening U.S. economy and an offer of renegotiated trade arrangements – may not go as far as he thinks, said former Obama special adviser David Axelrod.
Multilateralism “helped pull the world out of the morass” of the global financial crisis a decade ago, Axelrod said.
“Secondly, it won’t be lost on the people there, a fairly sophisticated audience, that the rest of the world is doing at least as well,” as the United States. “So I’m not sure they’re going to be that impressed with his approach.”
The U.S. president will hold sit-down meetings with at least four world leaders, including British Prime Minister Theresa May and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while mingling with others at the reception Thursday.
“I’m going to Davos right now to get people to invest in the United States,” Trump said Wednesday. “I’m going to say: ‘Come into the United States. You have plenty of money.’ ”
Such international investment is already happening “at a very fast clip,” Trump added.
As outlined by national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Trump’s calendar does not include separate meetings with many of the other notable leaders attending, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron or Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In her address Wednesday, Merkel warned of the dangers of protectionism. Macron spoke of a “shared framework” and shared responsibilities.
McMaster said Trump will see Rwandan leader and African Union chairman Paul Kagame. The meeting comes some two weeks after Trump’s vulgar dismissal of African nations during an Oval Office meeting on immigration.
He will also see the Swiss president and the original “Davos man,” World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab.
“In all of his meetings, the president hopes to increase economic opportunities for the American people, to build partnership to address common security goals, and to find new ways of reforming international and regional organizations to make them more effective and more accountable,” McMaster said.