BY PRABASI NEPALI
As a New York real estate billionaire tycoon, Donald Trump was never invited to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos in the Swiss Alps, but as the president of the most powerful state and leading economy of the world, he was, of course, very welcome. Last Friday, he reached out to the global business elite, intellectuals, top media leaders and foreign governments with a sales pitch extolling America’s economic appeal, showing a side of his character as the ‘salesman-in-chief’. In a 15-minute speech at the climax of his debut appearance at the high class international economic forum, the world’s most prominent populist offered “America’s friendship and partnership” in both trade and security, and said: “ ‘America First ‘ does not mean American alone.” He was determined to be the story of Davos 2018.
The apostle of “America First” continued: “The world is experiencing the resurgence of a strong and prosperous America [of course under his guidance and management] America is open for business and we are competitive once again” [as if it had been in a downward spiral]. Trump kept to an orthodox political script and measured tone in his delivery, (not diverting to make snide remarks), during which he praised his well-heeled audience of 1,500 people as comprising some of the world’s most “remarkable citizens”. In measured tones, he added that the United States supports free trade, “but it needs to be fair and it needs to be reciprocal”, taking to task “predatory behavior” such as theft of intellectual property, industrial subsidies and state-led economic planning.
The president’s speech came at the end of a week that saw his administration target China and South Korea with new import tariffs (on solar panels and washing machines respectively), and experience turmoil in currency markets caused by his Treasury secretary (finance minister) apparently tolerating a weaker dollar.
Trump’s remarks on trade were met in silence by the Davos audience, after he took office on an “America First” platform following years of US job losses to cheaper countries. Typically, unlike the leaders of France and Germany, Trump did not receive a standing ovation. According to Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “A World in Disarray”, Trump is after all “the veritable Antichrist for much of what they hold sacred. He rejects free trade, opposes immigration, turns back refugees, denies climate change, denounces the Iran nuclear deal, attacks the media and courts, embraces autocrats, demeans women and speaks in a coded language that resonates with racists and ultranationalists.”The ideological divide between Trump and the globalists is thus simply too great to bridge over.
However, in some things Trump may be right for the wrong reasons. Trump is concerned only about America (and there also mainly about his political base and racial ‘whites’), but there are many people around the world who rightly fear globalization and modernity with the anxiety of being left behind. Trump himself – without weighing the pros and cons – mistakenly considers globalization as harmful for domestic prosperity and security and an unmitigated threat to US sovereignty. His administration’s statements and actions in the last year signify that it considers the costs of US leadership in the world at large to outbalance the benefits by far.But his surrender of US leadership is fraught with incalculable hazards, but also for the world order.
The US president showed his true colours once again during a brief question session after the speech when he just couldn’t control himself with an attack on the “nasty”, “mean”, “vicious” and “fake” press. For this he was booed by the audience. His presence in Switzerland has been dogged by protests and stunts by activists. True to form, Trump claimed that there was “a tremendous crowd” to meet him at the summit – raising memories of the controversy a year ago when he boasted record numbers had attended his presidential inauguration in the face of all evidence. “It’s a crowd like they’ve never had before at Davos,” said Trump, who everyone knew has never before attended the gathering.
Trump’s time in Davos did not have an auspicious beginning und put him in a foul mood since he awoke to a “New York Times” story that he had ordered the firing of Russia investigation special prosecuter Robert Mueller last year, but had to back off when his White House lawyer threatened to resign. This would be tantamount to ‘obstruction of justice’ and possibly grounds for an impeachment process. As he arrived at the forum, Trump briskly told reporters: “Fake news. Typical New York Times. Fake stories.” Coming
Tuesday, Trump has a golden opportunity to reset the image of his administration in the annual ‘State of the Union’ address to the nation. However, as the Associated Press has written, Trump is (usually) unable to transcend his broader problems of not being able to drive a coherent agenda or generate support for himself beyond his core supporters.
In another area, Trump’s reputation has taken a nasty fall. The charge that he is racist earned a new traction this month with his reported slur against “shithole” countries in Africa, and El Salvador and Haiti – with their unwelcome immigrants. Business chiefs and activists from Africa had said that they planned to boycott Trump’s speech. Oxfam executive director Winnie Byanyima of Uganda said pointedly: “Trump is just one of a kind. A member of the elite who has chosen to serve the interests of a few at the top, at the expense of ordinary people.”
A year ago, the Davos spotlight was claimed by China’s communist leader Xi Jinping, who had taken up the torch of global trade captivating the economic elite then anxious about Trump’s impending inauguration that week. There was, therefore, low expectation among the many assembled at Davos after he had berated the rest of the world at the UN General Assembly last September. Thus, Singapore’s former head of mission to the UN and noted academic Kishore Mahbubani (one of Asia’s leading thinkers and author of the eloquent and visionary road map to our twenty-first century world: “The Great Convergence. Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World, 2013) said Trump’s speech was “a middle-of-the-road, unexciting, rational speech.”
It has become increasingly clear that the global elite, including the ‘Davos men and women’, must realize sooner than later the imperative to act meaningfully to repair the international system and restore a modicum of world order. Unfortunately, at the present juncture, because of internal constraints and the unnatural and unnecessary hostility of the United States, the United Nations has a limited role to play. There is urgent need to confront the revival of great power rivalry and the emergence of dangerous regional states, sub-national entities and terrorist organizations. The so-called “international community” is most prominent by its virtual absence. As Richard Haas has written, it can only be hoped that Trump has returned home from Davos recognizing that “making America great again” requires that the world order does not fall apart. For this to be realized, America must partner with friends and allies. Currently, the US has the capacity, but lacks the vision. The European Union goaded on by French President Emmanuel Macron could generate the vision, but will need to develop its capability manifold to take on a meaningful leadership role in the near future.
World Economic Forum & the Plight of the Global Order
BY PRABASI NEPALI