This past week, President Trump surprised the world’s economic and political elite by joining them in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum. Every year leading figures in business, politics, and science gather to discuss the challenges facing the global economy. This year’s theme was “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.”
Many of the leaders thought President Trump and his America First policies were helping create some of the fractures. You might have thought that President Trump, a strong advocate of American first and a critic of globalization, was like Daniel entering the lion’s den.
President Trump emphasized the growth of the American economy, the record-setting stock markets, and the lowest unemployment rate in 17 years. He pointed to the first major tax cut since 1986, and an aggressive approach to deregulation. America, he said, was open for business. He invited businesses from around the world to take advantage of his pro-business policies, the best universities in the world, and the best workers in the world. You could almost hear a more elegant version of President Coolidge’s now famous saying that “America’s business is business.”
He repeated the by now familiar line that he is putting America first just as other countries should put their own citizens first. But he stressed that America first does not mean America alone. Beyond the recent success against ISIS in Syria and about his concern about rogue regimes (North Korea and Iran), he did not dwell on foreign policy.
His remarks on international trade are important and, in part, surprising. Just a few days prior, President Trump had imposed tariffs on imported solar panels and washing machines. Many in the business world feared that this was the harbinger of a possible trade war. Instead, he stated his commitment to free trade but also stated it must be fair trade. He called for reciprocal treatment rather than policies that put America at a disadvantage. He would, he said, no longer tolerate practices that include the theft of intellectual property, subsidized exports, and state-directed industrial policy.
China was not mentioned by name. But his statements had to be intended for Chinese ears.
He went on say that he was ready to negotiate beneficial trade agreements with all countries, including the countries that are part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations. He even went so far as to say that he could negotiate with the entire group “if it is in the interests of all.” He would, he said, expect a substantially better deal. At a separate session, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said there could still be negotiations on the U.S.-EU (known as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) trade pact. Opening a series of Asian markets that include Japan could be good for American farmers and ranchers.
Trump also challenged the assembled business leaders to work for a globalization that works for everyone. He called on them to recognize that it is their workers and customers that stand at the center of their success. Leaving too many behind, he said, would endanger globalization.
Financial and business commentators on Bloomberg and CNBC were positive about the speech, noting that he was clear but not confrontational. They thought the speech would be welcomed by global business leaders, just the group he hoped would invest in America. At the end of his remarks, Trump received a rousing round of applause.
Other commentators may have noticed that there was no new vision or memorable phrase in his speech. Long-term political observers (and sometime participants like myself) would have welcomed a Wilsonian call to “make the world safe for democracy” or President Kennedy’s promise to “support every friend and oppose every foe” or Ronald Reagan’s invocation of America leading by being an example for the rest of the world.
President Trump’s message was closer to the ground. America is back, America is open for business. A growing America is good for America and the world. He called on the Davos participants to eliminate unfair trade practices and to make a global economy that works for all.
Kent Hughes is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. He is a 1958 graduate of Pendleton.