When President Trump arrives this week at the posh Swiss ski resort of Davos he will come face to face with the very people he ran against in his unlikely presidential campaign. There, at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, he will find the masters of multilateralism, the fathers of free trade, and the guardians of globalism.
There, in his audience, will be those who two years ago at Davos reassured themselves that a populist reality TV star could not win the election; who one year ago betrayed anxiety and fear about what his “America First” program could mean; who today are still trying to figure out what his policies mean for the world economic system; and who warned just this week about the rise of “charismatic strongman politics” in the world.
Ever since the January announcement that Trump would be only the second president to attend the forum, there has been great speculation both at home and abroad about what he’ll have to say. The White House repeatedly has insisted his message will not differ from that of his populist campaign, which his chief strategist at the time called a victory over “the party of Davos.” Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders assured reporters that Trump’s message will be “very much the same here as it will be there” and will not stray from his “America First” orthodoxy.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin even denied the basic makeup of the audience the president will face, saying, “I don’t think it’s a hangout for globalists.” But Mnuchin said nothing to counter the view that Trump is flying 4,200 miles to claim his triumph over the elites who gather every year at Davos. The point of the trip, said Mnuchin, is to “go over and talk about the America First economic strategy.”
If that is his message, “it’s not going to go over very well,” said William Reinsch, the former longtime president of the National Foreign Trade Council in Washington and now an expert on trade at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They view it as an opportunity to take on the lion in its den, go right to the source of what he believes to be a lot of global problems, what he views as the trade elite.”
The audience is “not going to throw tomatoes or eggs,” he said. “But I don’t think he will be received very well because he has kind of poisoned the well for a long time by criticizing virtually everybody in the world, most recently Africa and Haiti.”
The president’s comments on Africa are certain to come up when he meets on Friday with the president of Rwanda.
Douglas Rediker represented the United States on the International Monetary Fund for two years and is a veteran of Davos, currently serving as a member of the World Economic Forum’s Geo-economic Global Agenda Council. He looks for consistency in Trump’s speech. “He has been about disrupting the global multilateralism system,” Rediker said. “For him to go to Davos, to expect him to give a different message is not realistic.”
Rediker does hope that Trump will have some nuance in his remarks, though. “There is no upside for the president to go to Davos and affirmatively thumb his nose at the global community,” he said. “I don’t see the diplomatic effort of going and giving an outright antagonistic speech. I suspect it will be one of more nuance than ‘America First and the rest of you go to hell.’”
On that note, Gary Cohn, director of Trump’s National Economic Council, said Tuesday that the president is actually for “America first—not America alone.”
The stakes for Trump’s appearance have been raised by an increasingly ambitious Chinese effort to move into the void Trump has created atop the international economic system. Where Trump is pulling the United States out of trade agreements and multilateral institutions, China is trying to move in. That was signaled in Davos last year when Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a major address defending globalism, championing free trade, and decrying protectionism. In a clear shot at Trump, Xi said, “Pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room. … No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war.”
Rediker called that speech “a triumph of Xi Jinping diplomacy and messaging” and “a real decision by China to assert a role in the world that had been occupied by the U.S.” Reinsch said the conflicting messages from Xi and Trump left everything “backwards.” It was, he said, “an odd reversal of roles where we’ve become this great protectionist power and they’re the great free trade power.”
That makes it critical, he said, that Trump use his time at Davos to correct the record. “The whole Chinese record is the opposite of what he was articulating. But it was a very smart thing for him to say. The Americans, at least rhetorically, are leaving a leadership vacuum on trade and multilateralism.” Casting Trump’s Davos speech as a “warm-up” for next week’s State of the Union Address, Reinsch said Trump can try to rally the rest of the world to support any trade measures he takes against China.
“If you want to take on the Chinese on anything, it is best to do it with multilateral support,” he said. “If you try to fight China on your own, it is very easy for the Chinese to dismiss it as part of the great American plot to encircle and destroy them. But if you get everybody else together, the Chinese don’t like to be outliers. If he can get the EU, Japan, Korea, Australia, Southeast Asia all saying the same thing … it produces more of an interest on the Chinese side to address the problems.”
That, he said, is Trump’s main challenge at Davos. “Countries have to get over their basic antipathy to him, and he has to deliver a speech that is rational and dispassionate,” he said, adding, “That bar may be too high. But if you want to succeed with China, you really do have to get everybody else singing from the same hymnbook.”