The President in Davos: What Trump’s Visit Means for American Economic Interests

Matthew Dotzler, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

Trump at Davos
President Trump speaks at the World Economic Forum (WEF), known as Davos.

The Global Elites

The World Economic Forum (WEF), known as Davos, began in 1971. Founded by Professor Klaus Schwab, the forum aimed to redefine how Europe looked at commerce by gathering business leaders from all over the world. According to the WEF, Professor Schwab intended the annual meetings in Davos, Switzerland to drive European firms to mirror U.S. business practices, as well as to promote new ideas that coupled business and government as partners in bettering their countries and the world. Since its conception, the WEF has done much to draw applause from the global community. Most notably, the forum saw Greek and Turkish reconciliation in 1988, the attendance of Nelson Mandela in his 1992 fight to end apartheid, and the Israeli and Palestinian 1994 agreement on Jericho and Gaza. However, these successes may not be enough to preserve Davos’ reputation. Many have come to see Davos as a collection of global elite who forget marginalized groups; the average person does not feel they share the wealth WEF’s ideas have brought to globalists.

While most are excluded from Davos’ programming, it remains an open forum for nations and businesses alike to attract investors and grow global partnership. Davos combines business and government, something that appeals to the Trump administration. Historically, the visit of an American President abroad helps to promote U.S. interests and rally other nations to our cause. Davos served as an opportunity for President Trump to make his mark and use the power and prestige of the Presidency to sell America’s brand.

“America First” in its Second Visit

Bill Clinton became the first sitting president to attend the WEF in Davos in 2000. Though neither President Bush nor President Obama followed in his footsteps, they did send representatives from their administrations. This fact is one of the reasons that President Trump’s decision to attend the WEF this year was big news. The Forum presented an opportunity for the President and his administration to pitch American interests and trade to the world after a year that put the U.S. at odds with its global allies. The President wasted little time making it clear that he would put America first, just as he believes other leaders put their countries first. However, President Trump stressed that “America First does not mean America alone.” The President outlined a strategy to make America more business and investment friendly and ready to engage with global partners in what he described as “fair and reciprocal” free markets.

While the President gave his speech to the crowd gathered in Davos, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Manuchin and Director of the U.S. National Economic Council Gary Cohn were working behind the scenes and in front of the cameras to bolster American interests and assure the world that the U.S. is not pursuing a protectionist agenda. After a few stumbling blocks, Secretary Manuchin discussed the issue of a weaker U.S. dollar and his belief that it will continue to grow in the coming year. He went on to explain that a weak dollar benefited the U.S. in terms of balancing the U.S. trade deficit, however his optimism about the dollar was met with skepticism. Both members of the Trump administration performed arguably well on the global stage, but it was apparent during their interviews that the global community lacked the confidence of Secretary Manuchin and Director Cohn when it came to the future of the U.S. economy.

President Donald J. Trump arrives at Zurich Airport
A U.S. helicopter flies over the mountains of Davos, Switzerland.

An Icy Response

Although the WEF this year boasted the attendance of world leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and IMF Director Christine Lagarde, the presence of the American President drew the most attention. Tensions remained high following claims that the President called certain nations a slur. This was apparent during a meeting between the President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and President Trump. In Switzerland, citizens gathered to protest the arrival of President Trump and Davos itself. The protestors numbered in the thousands and carried signs reading “No Trump, no coal, no gas, no fossil fuels.” Additionally, the President was booed during his speech at the WEF when he criticized media as ‘fake.’ To many abroad, and especially in Europe, such attacks echo of days a troubled past and the rising threat of ultra-nationalism in Europe.  

Mission Accomplished?

At Davos, the U.S. was present, but not wholly included in the conversation. This was apparent in the way other world leaders spoke. Markedly, Merkel and Macron discussed global unity and fighting polarization. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau touted the importance of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the new Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is continuing without the U.S. after President Trump withdrew last January.  Additionally, Prime Minister Modi’s speech against protectionism stood in contrast to President Trump’s earlier address. Trump may have called for a fairer global market and better trade, but his rallying cry of “America First” seems to have been received in a very negative light. The long term impact of President Trump’s visit to the WEF in Davos is uncertain, as the U.S. economy remains a topic of conversation amongst foreign investors and fears that the market drop continue to grow. This year’s WEF has experts worried that American economic and political influence is waning. Individual countries’ messaging may get in the way of WEF’s intent to unite the world economically, as President Trump’s emphasis on the American economy exemplified. Time will tell if this trip was a success for the President and the U.S. economy, but as U.S. foreign policy continues to promote isolationist behavior, the future remains uncertain.

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