The common refrain at the World Economic Forum is that the prevailing order needs to be improved, not dismantled.
DAVOS, Switzerland — While he was absent from the World Economic Forum this week, President Donald Trump and his administration remained the proverbial elephants in the room. On Wednesday, world leaders and politicians voiced their opposition, often thinly veiled, to Trump’s ultranationalist approach to foreign policy.
The speeches came a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose appearance in Davos was canceled amid the government shutdown at home, addressed the forum via satellite link. Pompeo’s message was an optimistic one, hailing the Trump administration’s efforts as part of a broader “pattern of disruption” linking Washington to the Brexiteers and the populist government in Italy.
“New winds are blowing across the world,” he said. “People are asking questions that haven’t been asked or taken seriously for an awfully long time.”
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Those questions, Pompeo suggested, had to do with doubts over the benefits of globalization, the problems posed by immigration and whether politicians were truly invested in the national interests of their countries. The secretary of state has arguably turned into a more polished spokesman for Trumpism than his own boss; his remarks this week followed a speech delivered in Brussels last month in which he provocatively mocked European bureaucrats.
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Pompeo’s message was repeated in part by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who focused his ire on the fiscal policies of Brussels. He warned of a spreading “sense of despair” among the lower and middle classes in Western societies, who have seen wages stagnate and opportunities wither. “Everyone, with a few exceptions, tends to perceive that tomorrow will be worse than today,” he said.
But others in Davos were eager to push back, and it showed on Wednesday. At the forefront was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was determined to defend Europe’s liberal establishment even as the end of her political career approaches.
“There is a new approach that we see in the world today, an approach that harbors doubts as to the validity of the international system; they say ‘shouldn’t we look after our own interests first’ and then out of that develop an order that is good for all,” she said. “I have my grave doubts that this is the right way to go about it.”
In a separate session, Ursula von der Leyen, Merkel’s defense minister, declared that the “multilateral order has to be defended.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used his moment on the main stage to champion principles of free trade and the struggle over climate change. “Japan is determined to preserve and committed to enhancing the free, open and rules-based international order,” he said, invoking jargon familiar to readers of this column.
Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, whose government is locked in a protracted trade war with the United States, described globalization as an “inevitable trend in history” and decried both protectionism and the dangers of populism.
“We reject the practices of the strong bullying the weak and self-claimed supremacy,” Wang said, in what seemed to be an attack on Trump’s “America First” agenda.
Without calling out Trump, South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha decried the proliferation of exaggeration or falsehoods by politicians. “The danger of the world today is that we’ve lost sight of the facts,” she said. “The primary responsibility of leaders anywhere is to make the point that facts are important.” (The Washington Post Fact Checker reports that Trump made more than 8,100 false or misleading claims in his two years in power.)
The common refrain in Davos is that the prevailing order needs to be improved, not dismantled. “We need to be honest with ourselves and each other,” urged Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. “The rules-based international order today is facing greater challenges today than since it was created.”
Freeland was referring to the nationalists consuming politics on both sides of the Atlantic, straining traditional alliances and eroding democratic norms throughout the world. Freeland was sensitive to what ails voters in the West.
“Starting in the ’70s, the way global capitalism has grown has been really bad for some people in the middle class of Western industrialized countries,” she said, speaking alongside the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea. Freeland then took a thinly veiled jab at her southern neighbor: “The easiest way to channel this anger is at people who don’t look like you, at immigrants or bad foreigners cheating on trade,” she said. “We’ve seen this before in 1920s and 1930s.”
The answer to global crises, she and others suggested, can’t be a nationalist turn inward.
“What has come to an end, in my opinion, is the conservative, protectionist, and provincial model, which is incapable of seeing the world as a space that belongs to everyone,” said Spain’s center-left prime minister, Pedro Sánchez.
He attacked the logic of “reactionary” populism: “We are seeing technological progress as a threat, globalization as a challenge to a nation’s identity, rather than a source of cultural wealth, and feminism as pitting men and women against each other, rather than as a push for equality,” Sánchez said.
Of course, the very existence of Davos is built on the assumption that free trade, liberal values and internationalism are the world’s best options. And even as many Davos attendees glide between high-powered CEO dinners and the fancy pop-up storefronts of major tech companies — staged like the pavilions of nations at an expo — there are also many among them earnestly trying to grapple with how to make globalization more equitable for all.
David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee and a former senior British politician, pointed to the apparent retreat of Trump and his ilk from this conversation. “There’s something very striking about this contrast — we are discussing how to make globalization work better and essentially America is not here, or it’s just a disembodied video message,” he told this column.
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post.