Trump to Davos: Hey, we're all globalists here, folks

After tearing up the Trans-Pacific Partnership and threatening to do the same with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), that’ll be news to the globalists gathered in Davos this week. In fact, it might be news to Donald Trump’s political base, for which “globalist” has become an epithet to toss at domestic opponents. Yet the Washington Post reports that Trump and his economic team have started off the Swiss summit by emphasizing that they want the United States to keep its leadership on globalization and free trade.

In other words, the US wants globalization on American terms … NTTAWWT:

The Trump administration arrived in the Swiss ski town of Davos Wednesday with a clear message for world leaders and executives: “America first” doesn’t mean America alone. President Trump, accompanied by 10 Cabinet members and other top advisers, is fighting back at the global perception that the United States is anti-globalization and against free trade.

“This is about an America first agenda, but America first does mean working with the rest of the world,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a news conference Wednesday morning.

Gary Cohn, the head of Trump’s National Economic Council, put it this way: “America first is not America alone.”

So far, at least, other world leaders have not warmed to that message:

Even other world leaders have openly made jabs at Trump. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t mention the United States by name, but his lengthy defense of globalization was widely seen as a message directed at Trump.

“The forces of protectionism are raising their heads against globalization,” Modi said Tuesday. “Their desire is to not only save themselves from globalization, but to reverse the natural flow of globalization altogether.” …

“Today is a great day for Canada but it is also a great day for progressive trade around the world,” Trudeau said before adding that he was “working hard” to make sure Canada’s “neighbor to the South” understands the benefits of free trade, including the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Recent trade actions might be complicating this message from Trump and his team. Yesterday, for instance, the White House announced import tariffs on washing machines and solar panels, prompting protests from South Korea and China. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross dismissed the complaints and the rhetoric at Davos as examples of countries that talk about free trade but practice protectionism by other means:

Ross said U.S. trade actions were provoked by “inappropriate behavior on the part of our trading counterparties.” …

“Many countries are very good at the rhetoric of free trade but in fact actually practice extreme protectionism,” Ross said.

In other words, we’re for free trade as long as we’re not getting fleeced. Even some of the “globalists” in the US would agree with that, and the Washington Post’s Anne Gearan writes that Trump will emphasize that nuance at Davos. Mostly, though, he’s there for the opportunity to say I told you so. That will give Trump a springboard to pitch the US as a real investment opportunity, thanks to the success of his economic policies:

Trump is attending the global economic conclave in Davos, Switzerland, not because he has come around to the views broadly shared by the sort of international financial elite, government figures and academics who gather annually in a Swiss ski town.

He is going because he wants to say, “I told you so.” …

“President Trump will reiterate that a prosperous America benefits the world. When the United States grows, so does the world,” White House economic adviser Gary Cohn told reporters ahead of the trip.

“The president is going to Davos to speak to world leaders about investing in the United States, moving businesses to the United States, hiring American workers, changing the direction of our economy to be one of the biggest and best and most efficient economies in the world.”

Let’s face it — an “America first” theme would never be popular in global trade markets, let alone policies to enforce it. Being liked, however desirable and useful it might be in some contexts, still has to take a back seat to having an effective trade policy that provides a fair balance between our trading partners, strategic allies, and American workers. Properly configured, free trade provides the best avenues to those goals, and sneering at that reality as “globalist” does no one any good. But then again, neither does it do any good to sneer at efforts to enforce that proper balance and to remind those allies and partners that the first role of American government is to ensure the safety and welfare of its own people.

It’s possible to do that without creating unnecessary provocations. Trump has an opportunity to sell the world on the notion that an American economic engine running on all eight cylinders can drive world prosperity without falling into a zero-sum game. The stage is set — all Trump needs to do is deliver.