President Donald Trump made the right choice to attend the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. In fact, given the centrality of U.S. political and economic power, it’s striking that former President Bill Clinton was the last sitting chief executive to attend the annual gathering of global political and business leaders.
Clinton’s successors perhaps thought that the optics of addressing elite leaders of nations and multinational firms might make them appear out of touch. But the opposite was true: The WEF — just like globalism itself — will spin on with or without American engagement, and it’s better to try to influence international economic and geopolitical dynamics directly instead of ignoring or criticizing from the sidelines of Washington.
American absence allows other leaders — including some who act antithetically to U.S. values and interests — to fill the leadership void. Just last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered a vigorous defense of global trade and its governance system — however authoritarian — as a model for emerging nations just as Trump’s nascent nationalist political and economic polices were being rolled out.
And this year, 11 other Pacific Rim nations forged ahead without the U.S. on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was painstakingly negotiated to adhere to U.S. labor, environmental, intellectual-property and other standards. Meanwhile, Trump inched toward a trade war with punitive tariffs on solar cells and washing machines.
The TPP isn’t the only international agreement that Trump has scuttled or threatened. Pulling out of the Paris climate accord leaves America isolated on the issue. Abrogating the Iran nuclear deal would trigger an abrupt rupture among European allies. And Trump’s threat to scrap NAFTA would cause economic disruption throughout North America and hit Minnesota farmers particularly hard.
While Trump deserves credit for meeting this week with the very globalists he demonized in his campaign, what he does with his visit will matter most. If he rails against the global trading system while crowing about the U.S. economy that benefits from it, he will further alienate himself from ally and adversary alike.
Conversely, if Trump puts his “America First” foreign policy in context while reaching for common ground with world leaders, it may help mend frayed ties with allies and alleviate the worst assumptions of other leaders more hostile to the U.S.
Globalism is a force that’s here to stay. But it needs to be more of a force for good for more citizens worldwide, not just the economically advantaged. Trump is not wrong to point out how trade disruptions over recent decades have hurt some while still raising living standards worldwide. But he would be wrong to simply criticize the globally connected economy without offering global solutions.