President Donald Trump is heading to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week, and it’s going to be one hell of a show.
The annual summit, widely referred to simply as “Davos,” is probably the world’s most iconic display of elite-driven globalization. Thousands of leaders in business, finance, politics, and civic society gather in the snow-covered Alps to schmooze and strike deals intended to break down economic barriers between nations and make the global community more connected. Davos is the ultimate club for establishment elites.
Which is exactly why it was so surprising when the White House announced earlier in January that the president would attend this year. Ideologically speaking, Davos is the antithesis of Trump’s America First worldview, which calls for creating barriers between countries and withdrawing from the international order.
Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon even used the summit as a metaphor for describing the enemies of a nationalist agenda. “The working men and women in the world ... are just tired of being dictated to by what we call the ‘party of Davos,’” Bannon said in a 2014 speech foreshadowing Trump’s campaign.
Even more puzzling is the fact that attending Davos isn’t something US presidents typically do. This will be the first time a sitting US president will attend the Alpine retreat since Bill Clinton did so in 2000. George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama never attended while in office. So this isn’t an instance of Trump fulfilling obligations that grate against his personal instincts — it’s a deliberate, and undeniably politicized, decision.
Some see Trump’s attendance as a sign that with Bannon gone, Trump is no longer the fierce anti-globalization populist he was on the campaign trail and during his first several months in office.
But analysts say there’s another possible explanation for his decision to attend: that Trump wants to confront the elites who despise him on their own turf. “It’s like going into the belly of the beast and laying out his alternative vision of the world,” Michael Froman, who served as US trade representative under Obama and has attended Davos in the past, told me. “I wouldn’t expect him to alter his message or pull his punches when it comes to America First.”
Davos is exactly the kind of event that candidate Trump hated
German economist Klaus Schwab conceived of and oversaw the first Davos conference back in 1971. His idea was to get 450 European business leaders together to discuss the state of the global marketplace and competition between European and American firms. He hoped the mountain air and the spectacular vistas in the Swiss Alps would help relax participants and inspire a spirit of collaboration.
The gathering continued to be held every year but grew tremendously in scope and ambition. Today, Davos is a truly global enterprise, with 3,000 official participants from across the globe who hail from all different sectors. Participants at Davos include CEOs from Fortune 500 companies, heads of state, banking executives, and representatives from intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations.
Technically, the conference is supposed to bring people together for speeches and panel discussions woven together by one overarching theme for that year’s gathering. But the real function of Davos — and the reason it’s so often disdained by the people who would never be invited to it — is that it allows elites to network and collaborate on deals with incredible speed and little public input.
Davos is a unique kind of hell for a nationalist. It’s a place where elites go to hobnob and quietly come up with ways to make the world more tightly economically integrated. Some of the discussions also have a humanitarian dimension (although often more gloss than substance) that doesn’t suit the worldview of advocates for making foreign policy more introverted. Ultimately, it’s one of the purest expressions of a “globalist” worldview, to use the term popularized by the alt-right and nationalist conservatives.
And that’s why the news that Trump was coming to the party was so unexpected.
“I hope it will be a positive surprise,” Schwab told Reuters in an interview on Sunday.
Trump wants to take America First global
The Trump administration says Trump’s decision to go to Davos isn’t a betrayal of his America First values, but rather a sign that he wants to share them with the world.
“I don’t think it’s a hangout for globalists,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told the press earlier in January. “I think the idea is that the economic team will go over and talk about the America First economic strategy.”
And White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters earlier in January that attending Davos wasn’t a sign that Trump’s perspective on the world was changing. “The president’s message is very much the same here as it will be there,” she said.
“The president is still 100 percent focused and committed to promoting policies that promote strength for American businesses and the American worker,” she said.
Analysts say Trump likely views Davos as a critical opportunity to make the case for his style of leadership and to boast about his accomplishments before an audience of skeptics and adversaries.
Monica de Bolle, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told me that in addition to feeding Trump’s appetite for the spotlight, it will also serve as a major opportunity for advertising key Trump initiatives on issues like trying to craft bilateral trade deals.
“It’s an opportunity for Trump and members of his Cabinet to explain to other global leaders and business people what exactly the America First agenda really means,” she said.”
This wouldn’t be the first time that Trump has engaged the international community only to notify them that he wants to break away from them or disrupt their usual way of doing things.
During his speech at the UN General Assembly in September before representatives of the 193 member states, Trump called for the nations of the world to operate purely out of self-interest and view cooperation through a transactional lens. “As president of the United States, I will always put America first. Just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first,” Trump said.
Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping used his address to the Davos crowd to present China as a defender of globalization, capitalizing on the shock to the global order set off by Trump’s election just months earlier. “Whether you like it or not, the global economy is the big ocean that you cannot escape from,” Xi said, all but naming Trump. “We have learned how to swim.”
Trump will undoubtedly steal the show this time around. We don’t know what he’s going to say, but it’s sure to create some fireworks: This year’s theme at Davos is “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” Even if Trump wasn’t going to attend, the conference would’ve been about him anyway.