Trump touts ‘America First’ to sceptical Davos elite

US President Donald rump joined the World Economic Forum in Davos with foreign exchange markets in turmoil and Washington's trading partners in uproar
AFP

Davos (Switzerland) (AFP) – US President Donald Trump swaggered into the lion’s den to confront the world’s political and business elite on Thursday, as his “America First” administration executes an anti-globalist manifesto in trade, taxes and currency rates.

A year after taking office, Trump joined the World Economic Forum in Davos with foreign exchange markets in turmoil and Washington’s trading partners in uproar.

Trump smiled and waved as hundreds of onlookers at the gathering in the Swiss Alps held up cameraphones as he strode slowly into the conference venue.

One female admirer grabbed Trump’s autograph while other delegates muttered — out of his earshot — about wanting to pelt him with fruit.

“It’s very exciting to be here, we’re very happy to be here. The United States is doing very well,” Trump said, before heading into bilateral talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

“This will be a very exciting two days,” he said, after having demonised the globalist Davos crowd on his unorthodox march to the White House.

Other government leaders and business tycoons in Davos are agog at the tempestuous course of US policy under Trump. He is due to address the forum on its closing day Friday at the end of a week that saw his administration announce a new package of trade tariffs and spark turmoil on the currency markets.

“I think the most fascinating thing with President Trump is that he has the capacity to surprise, and I’m sure we will be surprised tomorrow,” Alexander Stubb, former prime minister of Finland and the new vice president of the European Investment Bank, told AFP in Davos.

Traders and US partners already got one surprise in Davos this week when Trump’s treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, appeared to back away from decades of support by his predecessors for a “strong dollar” policy by declaring “a weaker dollar is good for us”, flouting US commitments in international fora such as the G20.

International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde Thursday urged Mnuchin to “clarify” his stance on the dollar, which slumped on his remarks, and European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi reminded trading partners to “refrain” from language that could cause currency volatility.

A weak dollar would potentially boost US exporters but cause headaches for all other trading nations.

“We are not concerned with where the dollar is in the short term, it is a very liquid market and we believe in free currencies,” the Mnuchin told reporters Thursday.

His latest comments helped depress the dollar to a three-year euro low and were taken as reinforcing a broad offensive in trade built on the “America First” platform, drawing the ire of French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire.

“We want exchange rates to reflect economic fundamentals… and we shouldn’t play with these rates,” he said in Davos.

– ‘Race to the bottom’ –

The new tariffs imposed this week on solar panels and large washing machines, which infuriated China and South Korea, combined with big cuts to the US corporate tax, are accentuating foreign concern that the United States is abandoning its role as protector of the global trade order.

Business leaders in Davos have this week given a broad welcome to Trump’s controversial tax reforms, but European political leaders fear a “race to the bottom” as the United States gains in appeal to foreign investors.

Aside from his speech and talks with May, Trump met Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before another bilateral session on Friday with Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

With Kagame, who currently chairs the African Union, Trump will likely try to turn a page on his reported derogatory comment about “shithole” African countries.

– Nice or nasty? –

A year ago, the Davos spotlight was claimed by China’s communist leader Xi Jinping, who took up the torch of global trade to the delight of the well-heeled audience then anxious about Trump’s inauguration.

The Davos elite are keen now to see which version of Trump will show up — the business-friendly tycoon or the leader who berated the rest of the world at the UN General Assembly last September.

“I think they’ve already built down their expectations so far that anything he may say that’s conciliatory, they’ll be grateful for,” Robert Kaplan, senior fellow at Washington’s Center for a New American Security, told AFP at the forum.

“Yes, people like the fact that markets are high and America has reformed its taxes, but people are very nervous about geopolitics around the world and they are very nervous partially because of Trump,” he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel “stole the show” at Davos already, Kaplan added, after the European leaders used separate speeches on Wednesday to push back hard against the Trump manifesto.

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