Trump Goes to Davos: Irony Abounds
January 22, 2018
Today’s column is about irony and Davos, and I must say it certainly is a target-rich environment. Last year the meeting at Davos featured Chinese leader Xi Jinping extolling the virtues of open trade and a multilateral rules-based trading system, an overt attempt to fill the shoes the United States was in the process of leaving at the door. Nobody believed him then, largely because his words are belied by China’s actions.
This year, the American president, Donald Trump, will be there to lay out his vision of an America First trade policy. The irony here is not that nobody will believe him—his views on trade have been consistent for a long time. It is that the United States, which really created the postwar trading system and the multilateral institutions that support it and has been an apostle for open rules-based trade for 60 years is suddenly an advocate of a very different approach and an opponent of the things we have been advocating for so long.
Looking at both events together yields yet another irony—the United States is now, in effect, telling people to act like China, while China is telling people to act like the United States. Times have certainly changed.
This could lead one to ask why in the world is the president going to Davos? It’s unusual. Bill Clinton was the last one to go, and he did it only once. Second, it’s not exactly a sympathetic audience. Walking into the lion’s den is an apt metaphor. The Davos conference, run by the World Economic Forum, has historically been a gathering place for the global elite, the very people that the president campaigned against and whose views he has rejected. Yet, such a move is understandable.
First, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate that he’s not reluctant to take on adversaries, including other world leaders. Second, it’s an opportunity for him to articulate a coherent, cogent trade philosophy. Trade is not rocket science, but neither is it kindergarten, and making a convincing case requires more than making policy by tweet. It demands laying out a framework for U.S. policy that explains what he intends to do and why. The Davos meeting is particularly timely because it appears we are approaching an inflection point where last year’s bark is going to turn into this year’s bite, at least with respect to China.
Third, one of the fundamental rules for dealing with China is that moving them is best done through multilateral pressure rather than unilateral. The Chinese are good historians, and they have not forgotten the long period of enmity between our two governments after 1949. It is easy for them to dismiss U.S. pressure as part of the great American plot to encircle and destroy them (for which there is no evidence, but facts don’t matter all that much in China either). It is much harder for them to dismiss a collective message from the United States, the European Union, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and as many others as we can assemble. No one likes to be an outlier, and China is no exception. The Davos meeting is a golden opportunity to start assembling a broader coalition to address the systemic problem of China caused by both its size and its behavior.
That, of course, leads to another irony since developing a multilateral coalition runs counter to the president’s views about sovereignty and multilateralism. He has rejected multilateral trade agreements in favor of bilaterals (although we have yet to see any of those) and has expressed a clear lack of enthusiasm for the World Trade Organization, not to mention the United Nations and other international institutions. Yet the weight of evidence suggests working multilaterally is precisely the best way to address our concerns about China. (I will have more to say next week about what the United States might do unilaterally with respect to China.)
So, the bottom line is that going to Davos is a smart thing to do because it represents a good opportunity to advance his policies, both rhetorically and substantively. Will he seize the opportunity and try to bring others along on his crusade? I think some of them are receptive because the China problem is systemic and not unique to the United States. Will he try to both charm and persuade them to make common cause, or will they be treated to a series of cranky, offensive tweets? As with much in this presidency, we don’t know, and he may not know either until he actually gets there and either opens his mouth or his phone.
(Note: thanks to George Condon of the National Journal for inspiring this topic.)
William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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