Not since former president Bill Clinton had gone to Davos in 2000 has an American president participated in the annual gathering of the world’s plutocrats at the World Economic Forum, a yearly encounter that brings together statesmen and world business leaders to discuss and debate the state of the world from the perspective of globalists and free traders. President Trump, a few days before his much-expected first State of the Union address, Tuesday 29 January, made the journey to the Swiss Alps to present to the mighty CEOs of multinationals his vision on the major questions of today’s world — in particular, free trade and multilateralism.
On the campaign trail, and in his first year at the White House, Trump spoke of “America First”, withdrew from some important multilateral agreements — for instance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accord — and promised to renegotiate the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico. These decisions and trends raised alarm bells around the industrialised nations and question the very essence of globalisation.
Last year, China’s President Xi Jinping was warmly received by the Davos crowd and revealed himself as an ardent supporter and defender of the age of globalisation. His speech had come a few days after Trump had been sworn into office, on 20 January 2017, and the warm welcome and applause given to the Chinese president an implicit rejection of Trump’s positions concerning multilateralism, free trade and the world order of today. So, this time around, the US president wanted to reassure the club of plutocrats at Davos that the United States under his watch remains part of this world order. However, it wants a more balanced approach to free trade, and that “America First does not mean America alone” — a line adopted earlier by Trump’s Chief Economic Adviser Gary Cohen.
In his remarks delivered 26 January, President Trump wanted to send a message that the United States was not against free trade, and he even said that he would be willing to re-join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). However, he reiterated that he wants free trade to be fair and balanced by insisting that “it needs to be reciprocal.”
He added that there has never been “a better time to hire, to build, to invest and to grow in the United States. America is open for business and we are competitive once again” — words that are meant to reassure that the United States still believes in multilateralism. He further reaffirmed that Washington is “committed to building a better world”, without providing concrete proposals to this effect.
On his way back to Washington, President Trump tweeted, 26 January, “Heading back from a very exciting two days in Davos… Speech on America’s economic revival was well-received. Many of the people I met will be investing in the USA.”
Others had a different point of view on Trump’s performance at Davos. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, told a press gaggle that, “Every president and prime minister when they come [to Davos] tries to sell their country. The sad news is that if you grade them, I think France’s president and the Indian prime minister wind up at the top, and unfortunately America’s winds up at the bottom.” French President Emmanuel Macron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had already given their respective remarks before the arrival of the US president. Both defended globalisation and criticised protectionism and populism.
According to The Washington Post — not a very friendly American daily towards the Trump administration — the speech of the US president at Davos was an “anti-climax” preceded by what it described as a “lavish lunch” with the Saudis. From a strictly Arab perspective, this should not be a surprise. Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have never been warmer, save in the 1960s when their common enemy had been Nasser’s Egypt. Today, their common adversary is Iran and pro-Iranian forces in the Levant, the Gulf and the Arab Peninsula in Yemen.
On the other hand, John Negroponte, a former US diplomat, told the Washington Post that there were “few surprises, if any,” in what President Trump told his audience at Davos, adding that there are “two Trumps: the Twitter Trump and the teleprompter Trump. This was definitely the latter.” He could be right.
It was not lost on those who heard the US president that back home he is facing strong political winds, and that US mid-term elections in November could bring Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. Let alone the Mueller investigations on Russian meddling in the US presidential campaign in 2016. Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor in this thorny and explosive affair, is scheduled to question the Trump himself, who said that he would give his testimony under oath.
The world heard good and reassuring words from Trump at the World Economic Forum. However, there is still a long way to go before the Trump administration translates the promises the US president made at Davos into action. The statement by the US Treasury secretary that the administration is not against a weak dollar was not well-received, either by the International Monetary Fund, governments of the developing world, and emerging markets. If the world wanted predictability from Washington at the World Economic Forum, it didn’t get it.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly