Trump, Davos, and the Strongman Dilemma

US President Donald J. Trump waves as he walks up the stairs inside the Congress Centre on the last day of the 48th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, 26 January 2018. (Photo: LAURENT GILLIERON/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump arrived at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland with controversial, if not unsurprising, plans to pitch his nationalist “America First” platform to the sprawling collection of global elites in attendance.


The sentiment, confirmed in a pre-departure tweet promising to “tell the world how great America is and is doing,” comes at a curious time for the American leader, who appears, at this moment, tone-deaf to his nation’s global image and reputation.

The president will be amongst nearly 70 heads of state in Davos, as well as hundreds of globalist-minded corporate scions, leading academics, trending celebrities and political leaders. Since 1971, the forum has served as a premier destination for the world’s elite, where panel discussions, keynote speeches and social events cover a spectrum of topics including the global economy, humanitarian crises, environmental concerns and artificial intelligence. While speeches from India’s Narendra Modi, Canada’s Justin Trudeau and UK Prime Minister Theresa May are planned, the anticipation is mounting around the event’s capstone event—a speech from Donald J. Trump.

Casting a pall over the forum—and the president’s presence—is the recently released annual WEF Global Risks Report. The report, which surveyed nearly 1,000 experts across governments, academia, NGO’s and the corporate world, forecasts several major risks for the year ahead, and reads like a thorny indictment against the platform and presidency of Donald Trump.

US President Donald Trump arrives at the Congress Centre during the 48th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, 25 January 2018. (Photo: GIAN EHRENZELLER/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

How Trump navigates the forum will go a long way in determining if his presidential aims, as well as America’s international reputation can be revived under his leadership. Certainly, the roadway is laden with landmines. Take for example the report’s predominate threat—the anticipated environmental dangers due to anthropogenic climate change.

Davos is a far cry from the White House Rose Garden, where President Trump withdrew America from the Paris Climate Accord last summer to raucous applause. What will his message be now in the company of many of the global leaders—France’s Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, China’s Xi Jinping—who not only criticized the move, but made the public spectacle of reaffirming their commitment to the accord in response to Trump’s decision?

Or what about the prevalent and global threat of cyberattacks cited in the report? President Trump has spent the first year of his administration barely facing the issue—the ill-fated Rudy Giuliani cybersecurity task force comes to mind. Furthermore, when Trump has addressed the impact of cyberattacks on America, it’s only been to actively fight against the intelligence-community conclusions of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Protesters march during the demonstration ‘Trump not welcome!’ against the upcoming visit of US President Donald Trump at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, in the streets of Zurich, Switzerland, 23 January 2018. (Photo: WALTER BIERI/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Also problematic for Trump is the report’s finding that 93 percent of those surveyed expect a worsening of political or economic confrontations between major powers in 2018. Seventy-nine percent anticipate an elevated risk of state-on-state military conflict, with particular concern about conflict in the Middle East and the Korean peninsula.

The report warns of rising “charismatic strongman politics,” citing Trump and his MAGA agenda specifically and highlights the risk of intensifying “nationalist…narratives [that] create risks both domestically and internationally.” Regarding the political brinksmanship between the United States and North Korea, the report states, Trump and Kim Jong-un “has created uncertainty about the strength of the norms created by decades of work to prevent nuclear conflict.”

Criticism and questions face the president at the Davos. What remains unknown is whether the world will experience the Donald Trump we’ve all grown accustomed to—defiant, head-strong, a counter-puncher eager for a scuffle?

Protesters with placards ‘Fight Ignorance not Immigrants’ during the demonstration ‘Trump not welcome!’ against the upcoming visit of US President Donald Trump at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, at the place du Molard in Geneva, Switzerland, 23 January 2018. (Photo: SALVATORE DI NOLFI/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

The first president since Bill Clinton to attend this summit, Trump has approached the World Economic Forum with substantial aspirations. He reportedly traveled to Davos with a sizeable team of economic advisers, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. All signs point to Trump laying the groundwork for the renegotiation of several trade agreements that were bedrock promises of his presidential campaign.

For that to happen, however, diplomacy and tact are needed. The theme can remain “America First,” but it must ring at a softer decibel, without the nativist furor he’s become accustomed to at his rallies and speaking events.

Pundits believe that Trump aims to frame is economic message through the classic axiom of a rising tide lifts all boats—specifically, what benefits the American economy, benefits the global economy. If he can steer clear of his typical bombast and combativeness, many politicos believe Trump has a unique opportunity to not only further his agenda, but mend ties with many government and corporate leaders who have grown lukewarm towards him during the first year of his administration.

Participants taking pictures with mobile devices of US President Donald J. Trump (R) as he walks inside the Congress Centre on the last day of the 48th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, 26 January 2018. (Photo: LAURENT GILLIERON/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

At least for now, the needle is pointing upwards. According to The Washington Post, the president’s first evening at the World Economic Forum, which ended with a lavish dinner amongst global business titans, was overall positive. Many executives in attendance applauded his “economic agenda built around corporate tax cuts and deregulation that…was helping to bring investment and jobs to the United States.” Similarly, many corporate magnates were enthusiastic about the $1.5 trillion tax reform recently passed in Congress and several news outlets noted the warm reception Trump received as he arrived at Davos by helicopter earlier in the day.

“Trump made a Christmas gift to everyone with those tax rebates,” said one consulting firm executive, who was present at the dinner.

“The real message is we want great prosperity and we want great peace,” Trump responded when asked about his overarching message at Davos. “It’s been going really well. A lot of people are coming back to the United States. We are seeing tremendous investment. Today has been a very exciting day.”

Tomorrow, however, comes with new challenges.

US President Donald J. Trump holds up Swiss newspaper Blick as he arrives at the Congress Centre on the last day of the 48th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, 26 January 2018. (Photo: LAURENT GILLIERON/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Trump must wade through the diplomatic uproar stemming from his recent description of several African countries as “shitholes. He plans on meeting Rwanda’s leader and African Union President Paul Kagame, while several continental leaders have already stated their intent to boycott Trump’s keynote speech.

The President will also undoubtedly face criticism of his decision to pull America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and will do so in the shadow of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent effusiveness of the “comprehensive and progressive” trade deal.

Finally, of course, is the nuts-and-bolts of his speech. Will it devolve into vintage Trump—off-topic, off-script, a one-man show of shameless self-aggrandizement? Or will it be in the vein of his United Nations speech last September, a posturing screed written by and meant for the fervently nationalist and anti-globalist minds that fill in much of Trump’s Washington ranks.

The chance to strike a conciliatory tone is available for the president. Tomorrow brings the opportunity for true leadership and diplomacy in the wake of geopolitical instability, international trade uncertainty and a critical Global Risks Report.

The script for success lays clean and clear before President Trump. Whether he follows it or not, well, that’s anyone’s guess.

(Chris Marchesano)

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