President Donald Trump’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the premier confab of the global elite, was highly anticipated in the political press. Here was an American president who had railed against free trade and immigration speaking to the world’s most fervent believers in globalization. How could there be anything but fireworks?
Well, the speech happened on Friday morning. And … there were no fireworks. It felt like the closest thing Trump had ever given to a conciliatory speech: an attempt to try to kiss up to the global elite rather than telling them to kiss off.
Much of the speech was Trump taking (dubious) credit for strong economic performance in the United States in the past year or so. Another large chunk was discussing his cuts to regulation and taxes, something the crowd at Davos could definitely get behind.
But when he got to the points of contention between him and the audience — his America First approach to globalization and foreign policy — he sounded remarkably subdued. Instead of attacking “the false song of globalism,” as he had on the campaign trail, he sold himself as a kind of moderate globalist.
“We are all stronger when free, sovereign nations cooperate towards shared goals and they cooperate toward shared dreams,” Trump said, praising “the international trade system” for producing “broadly shared prosperity” around the globe.
His criticism of free trade was cast not in the crude terms he’s used in the past — “we can’t continue to allow China to rape our country” — but as a sort of tinkering at the edges designed to make free trade work for everyone. “We support free trade,” he said, “but it needs to be fair and it needs to be reciprocal because in the end, unfair trade undermines us all.”
Trump even signaled openness to rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an East Asian trade agreement that he withdrew the US from in one of his first acts as president. “We would consider negotiating with [TPP countries], either individually or perhaps as a group, if it is in the interests of all,” he said.
Now, this is unlikely to happen. The US rejoining the agreement is a “nonstarter,” writes Dan Drezner, a scholar of international trade at Tufts University, because Trump is imposing “a set of conditions the other TPP countries will not satisfy.”
But even signaling openness to this agreement, which he once called “an attack on America’s business,” shows how far Trump has come from his anti-globalist roots. “The one new thing I heard on trade in Trump’s speech was his openness to negotiating with TPP members ‘as a group,’” writes Shawn Donnan, the editor for world trade at the UK’s Financial Times. “Let’s be clear: You’d have been declared crazy and naïve if you’d predicted that 48 hours ago.”
Even in the unscripted Q&A afterward, Trump didn’t veer off message. The most contentious thing he said was a seemingly obligatory shot at the media — “how nasty, how mean, and how fake” — met with boos from some of the attendees. But the attacks on China or immigrants that typify Trump’s improvisational comments on globalization simply didn’t show up.
This morning was a clear victory for the conventional members of the Trump administration — National Economic Council Chair Gary Cohn, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster — who have long been pushing Trump in this direction. With Steve Bannon out of the administration and marginalized, the highest-level policy advisers in the Trump administration generally do not share the president’s instinctive hostility toward the global order — and today, it showed.
Will this stick? That’s impossible to say with a president this mercurial. Just a few days before this speech, Trump slapped punishing tariffs on imported solar panels — which expert analyses suggest will reduce the number of US homes powered by solar by 1.2 million. Hostility to free trade is still very much present in the White House.
But today, the pro-globalization side won. When the president said, “America First does not mean America alone,” it almost sounded like he meant it.