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Trump’s ghost stalks Davos

Trump’s ghost stalks Davos

by host

DAVOS, Switzerland — World leaders gathered together in the Swiss Alps this week are nervous that Donald Trump will be even more anti-global if he returns as United States president.

And they have good reason to be wary.

If polls prove correct, the front-runner for the Republican nomination is set to be crowned winner of the Iowa caucus — the first stage of the U.S. presidential primary process — on Monday night. Meanwhile across the Atlantic in Davos, power brokers are gathering over canapés and drinks for the opening event of this year’s World Economic Forum.

Although Trump won’t be present at Davos, the specter of a comeback by the populist firebrand is set to stalk the halls and loom over the backroom chatter at the annual gathering of corporates and politicians. 

The prospect of Trump 2.0 has spooked many in the international community.

“If we are to draw lessons from history, looking at the way he ran the first four years of his mandate, it’s clearly a threat,” said Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank and a Davos regular, in an unusually candid interview on French television last Thursday. 

“Just look at the trade tariffs, the commitment to NATO, the fight against climate change. In these three areas alone in the past, American interests have not been aligned with those of Europe,” she added.

According to members of Trump’s circle, Europe is right to be scared. 

One former senior Trump administration official, granted anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly, said that the Davos set was correct that Trump’s policy in a second term would impede their work. 

Senator J.D. Vance, an Ohio Republican, author and venture capitalist, also stressed this view. The global elite “should be afraid of him,” he said in an interview with POLITICO. “If Trump stands for anything, I think it’s the rejection of their ideology, of the material benefits that come from it.”

Raging against the global machine 

Trump has a complex relationship with Davos. 

The private jet-owning billionaire businessman once shared common ground with the Davos set, particularly early on in his career, when he regularly mixed with wealthy financiers, exploiting the nexus between politics and money. 

But as political fame beckoned, he sought to position himself against the elite.

Trump shunned the global jamboree in the run-up to his election in 2016 as he campaigned as an everyman, anti-globalist candidate, promising to tear down the norms of free trade to focus on the needs of the American worker. 

Yet he showed up in 2018, a year into his term as president, becoming the first sitting U.S. president in 18 years to attend the annual World Economic Forum. And he was back again in 2020. 

In 2018, his message was one of disruption, as he brought his “America First” brand of protectionism to the heart of the spiritual home of globalization.

Although Davos, along with other international fora like the G7 and G20, is traditionally a space for diplomacy, for Trump these meetings became a face-off with allies during which he threatened consequences for defying America’s will. 

European Commissioner Thierry Breton — a senior figure in the EU’s executive body, responsible for a broad remit from tech regulation to industrial policy — revealed last week that at Davos in 2020, Trump privately warned the U.S. would not come to the EU’s aid if it was attacked militarily. 

“You need to understand that if Europe is under attack we will never come to help you and to support you,” the French Commissioner recalled Trump telling European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

The U.S president also explicitly threatened to quit NATO, a bedrock of the transatlantic alliance for decades.

“By the way, NATO is dead, and we will leave, we will quit NATO,” Trump also said, according to Breton, adding: “And by the way, you owe me $400 billion, because you didn’t pay, you Germans, what you had to pay for defense.” 

The roundtable meeting between Trump and senior members of the European Commission, including von der Leyen, took place just a few weeks into her five-year term as the head of the EU’s executive branch. Trump’s tone shocked the new Commission president, another official who was present in the room told POLITICO. 

That Davos showdown set the tone for what was to be a fractious relationship between Washington and Brussels for the remaining years of the Trump presidency. 

Preparing for a Trump world 

As some of the world’s most influential decision-makers — from politicians like French President Emmanuel Macron and China’s Li Qiang, to central bankers and corporate bigwigs like Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase and BlackRock’s Larry Fink — come together to do business and talk strategy this week, November’s election in the U.S. looms large over international relations. 

Majda Ruge of the European Council of Foreign Relations said, “It’s not just what a Trump presidency will mean for foreign policy and trade.” An overhaul of the administrative state would “risk turning America into an illiberal democracy — that could redefine its relationship with the world.” 

In particular, Trump’s lack of commitment to NATO is ringing alarm bells at a crucial moment in the war in Ukraine. Trump, who has said he would resolve the war in Ukraine “within 24 hours,” is likely to cut or drastically reduce military aid to Ukraine. Republicans in Congress have already been getting reticent about continuing to fund Kyiv’s war effort. 

Meanwhile, some believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing the long game, gambling on a Trump return in November. According to Czech President Petr Pavel, Putin has ruled out peace discussions until the outcome of the U.S. elections is known. 

“He has made it clear that for him, the partner for possible negotiations is none other than the United States,” he said in a recent interview in the Czech press, warning that Putin may try to negotiate directly with Trump if he wins, “regardless of what Ukraine or the rest of Europe thinks.”

And as many traditional U.S. allies share fears about a Trump return, other nations are gleefully biding their time.

“Countries with more authoritarian leaders — for example, Viktor Orbán, Vladimir Putin, or the Gulf countries — won’t shed too many tears if he returns,” said Majda Ruge. 

Trump has his fair share of supporters at Davos this week. His son-in-law and former White House aide Jared Kushner will be there. Other former members of the Trump administration are also on the guest list, including Gary Cohn, the former National Economic Council chief and Goldman Sachs executive, and SkyBridge’s Anthony Scaramucci. 

There is also strong representation from Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which Trump and his family developed connections with during — and after — his presidency. 

A Trump presidency may not have quite the impact many at Davos fear. The former senior Trump administration official noted that Trump’s offering on trade policy, for example, will probably play out in the same way as if President Joe Biden wins a second term.

There are also signs that the U.S. business world is already making its peace with the idea of Trump at the helm once again.

A former Trump Treasury official, likewise granted anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly, said the former president is clearly not the preferred choice of people attending Davos. But the U.S. corporate community is “getting more comfortable with the idea that Trump could come back — and that may not be as bad as envisioned.”

Many corporate figures are “not exactly thrilled with how government policy is going” under Biden, he said. While they remember the tweets and gaffes of the Trump administration and the parts of the policy agenda atypical for a Republican administration, they liked the policy results. 

“But on balance, they’re recalling the 80 percent that largely was executed in a mainstream Republican fashion, and they kind of believe that it will happen again,” he added.

Jasper Goodman contributed reporting.

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