Trump at Davos: Trickle-Down American Engagement

January 26, 2018

This article was first published on January 26, 2018 on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

President Donald Trump became the first U.S. president to address the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he offered his audience of world leaders and major global business figures his parameters for continued American engagement with, involvement in, and support of the international system: what I have termed "American-led globalization with Trumpian characteristics." Several key themes were repeated throughout the speech: fairness, reform, renegotiation, equitable burden-sharing, as well as sovereignty and, above all, "national interest."

Trump did not present any vision of a "Fortress America" that will withdraw into economic autarky and pull back from a global role. Instead, Trump talked about the importance of trade and investment occurring across borders and the need for international cooperation to deal with pressing security threats like terrorism. However, the speech was not a complete about-face from themes he sounded during the 2016 presidential campaign or any sort of admission that he had changed his views. Instead, he offered a different vision of American leadership: one where pursuit of U.S. national interest will benefit other nations as well.

In many ways, the vision of American leadership within the global community of nations resembles a form of trickle-down theory: the U.S., under Trump, will pursue policies designed to unleash America's economic potential and secure its heartland from threat—and, whenever necessary, do these things unilaterally and without consulting with or seeking permission from other states. Such steps will make America more prosperous and secure. Other states are then invited to harness and hook their economies and national security needs to the American engine and be pulled along the same upward trajectory. As Trump summed it up, "America first is not America alone."

But there are two important caveats. One, other states should not seek to put roadblocks or impede U.S. efforts in these areas, either by insisting on application of international regulations or by using international institutions and law to inhibit or limit American freedom of action. In other words, American power is not something to be restrained and caged but unleashed to produce these international public goods of greater prosperity and security. The second is that the ability to connect to the American engine is not automatic. There are entrance fees: payment to be made in terms of greater investments in defense and security (as opposed to relying on the U.S. to take the burden of securing the global commons) and payment in the form of renegotiation of existing pacts and agreements to remove what Trump sees as unfair costs and burdens placed on the United States. It is not accidental that he spent so much time talking about removing domestic regulations as an inducement for business figures to consider greater investment in the U.S., it also reflects his worldview that the U.S. has allowed itself to be overregulated and tied down by the international system. Trump has made it clear that whenever possible he will dispense with those restrictions, allowing America to be "unleashed" and to "roar back"—and those countries that aid him in that effort will benefit, while those that try and stop him will not share the benefits.

"Today, I am inviting all of you to become part of this incredible future we are building together." Trump made it clear that his lodestone is pursuing what he sees as U.S. national interest, not any vague sense of global or international interest. In turn, while recognizing that other countries will be pursuing their national interests, he believes that when they crunch the numbers, they will conclude that it is a better deal to align with—rather than resist—his approach.

What will be interesting is how other states respond to his offer. For instance, the president indicated that he would be open to revisiting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or to transform it into a series of bilateral deals. Will those countries respond or decide to take their chances with a Chinese-led regional order? America's European allies, at Davos, indicated their commitment to strengthening European integration and Europe's ability to function as a cohesive pole in international economic and political affairs. Will they decide to accept Trump's terms, or reject them? We'`ll see how this plays out over the coming year.

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