President Trump told the world’s elite business leaders gathered in Davos that “America is open for business” as he tried to balance that message with the “America First” policies that he has put in place over the past year.
“The world is witnessing the resurgence of a strong and prosperous America,” Trump told the audience at the World Economic Forum. “There has never been a better time to hire, to build, to invest, and to grow in the United States.”
Trump, who campaigned for the presidency as a voice opposed to globalization and the global elites, is the first sitting American president to attend Davos since Bill Clinton in 2000. He told the audience that as president he “will always put America first,” but added “America first does not mean America alone. When the U.S grows, so does the world.”
The remarks, which were closely watched by an audience alarmed by what many in the global elite see as a U.S. retreat from the global trading system the country created, is at odds with the policies the Trump administration has enacted after the president took office in January 2017. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a Pacific region free-trade zone that included the region’s largest economies and was viewed as a counterweight to China’s growing influence in the region. Trump hasn’t hidden his disdain for the North American Free-Trade Agreement and has been ambiguous about whether the U.S. will stay in the agreement that also includes Canada and Mexico. Last week, he imposed tariffs on washing machines and solar panels made overseas, an action reminiscent of the trade wars of the 1980s. More such moves are expected.
The president says his actions are aimed solely at helping American workers; that the free-trade deals of the past hurt American workers more than it helped the U.S. economy; and that the tariffs were aimed at the advantage, in his view unfair, that countries like China and South Korea enjoyed in their dealings with the U.S.
“We will enforce our trade laws and restore integrity to the trading system,” Trump said Friday. “Only by insisting on fair and reciprocal trade can we create a system that works not just for the United States but for all nations.”
That might be the case, but the president’s rhetoric on trade and his seeming support for bilateral agreements over multilateral ones has alarmed other world leaders. Davos, which has been a cheerleading club for globalization, has seen much indirect criticism of the U.S. from its allies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week said unilateral solutions “would ultimately promote isolation and protectionism” and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said globalization had “delivered the greatest advances in prosperity we have ever known.”
Earlier this week, Trump said he was open to the U.S. re-entering the TPP if it was fairer to the U.S. It’s something he has said about NAFTA, as well, which the U.S. is renegotiating with the pact’s other signatories. It’s uncertain though whether the world will wait for the U.S. to re-engage with multilateral systems. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week that his country would join the TPP without the U.S.—joining Australia, Japan, and other Pacific Rim nations.
But if the audience at Davos is concerned by Trump’s position on free trade, it appeared positively giddy at the president’s overhaul of the tax system. Introducing Trump on Friday, Klaus Schwab, the WEF’s founder, said the overhaul would stimulate economic growth in both the U.S. and the world. Trump, citing the economic gains made during his year in office—to the economy, to the stock market, and the unemployment rate, welcomed the world’s investors.
“America is the place to do business,” he said. “So come to America where you can innovate, create, and build.”