January 28, 2018

Donald Trump's Davos journey from statesman to salesman

By Richard Fontaine

The notion of Donald Trump descending on the global economic elite at Davos stirred tremendous interest, not least across the Indo-Pacific. The WTO-sceptical, TPP-withdrawing, KORUS-renegotiating, NAFTA-bashing American President was set to charge the bastion of globalisation – and deliver what message, exactly? Would he attempt to seize back the mantle of economic leadership claimed at Davos a year ago by China's Xi Jinping? Would he reprise his gauntlet-throwing tone at November's APEC gathering, decrying anew "trade abuses" and demanding a change in course? What was President Trump doing in Davos?

It turned out that he was there neither to assert economic leadership nor offer in-your-face bromides about American sovereignty and the horrors of abusive trade partners. His kinder, gentler approach called for "fair and reciprocal" trade and emphasised the need for all to play by the rules. Notably, Trump even suggested an openness to consider a modified Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.

But the trade elements of the President's speech represented the less important parts of his message. Trump was in Davos not to push a particular model of economic engagement, or to sketch out a vision of economic leadership. He was there to sell America.

It is possible to read a bit into the President's trade approach. The administration's original plan, after withdrawing from TPP, was to begin bilateral negotiations with its members. The notion was that by doing so, the United States could bargain from a position of asymmetric strength, rather than negotiate as just one of 12 nations around a multilateral table. The result would be a series of better deals for America.

Read the full commentary in Australian Financial Review.