“Trump campaigned against global elites,” one of the L.A. Times' stupider headlines reads. “Now he is joining them in Davos.”
There is, of course, no contradiction in a president who ran on populism doing his job at a forum of global elites. There is also no contradiction between Trump’s proclaimed nationalism and Davos’s mission of collaboration and cooperation among nations.
Trump is neither a political philosopher nor an economic theoretician. His policy views vary from month to month and issue to issue. So, in practice, his nationalism boils down to the simple idea that the federal government ought to be serving the American people.
“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris," said Trump succinctly and eloquently.
Trump doesn’t always have the right ideas on how to do this. His tariffs on solar panels and washing machines are great examples of what's sometimes called "economic nationalism" that, in truth, hurts the national interest. And while we’ve criticized the details of some of his foreign policy and immigration orders, we believe he has recalibrated policymaking towards the question, “What is in the interest of Americans?”
So, how can he take that "America First" attitude to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where countries are supposed to work together as a big happy family under the beneficent guidance of global elites?
Just as enlightened self-interest always involves cooperation with others, so enlightened national interest involves economic and strategic cooperation with others. Trump sometimes understands this, and his administration includes officials who understand it consistently.
Trump stepped away from what many expected to be his isolationist stance against NATO. He has come to accept that we need China’s help to contain North Korea. We need Europe’s help battling the Islamic State in North Africa. We need to strengthen our friendships with allies such as Britain and Israel. Heck, the thing Trump’s received the most flak for has been his openness to Russia.
The argument for free trade has never been that we owe it to other countries to let them sell to us. The argument, which, again, Trump himself hasn’t fully grasped, is that both countries benefit when trade barriers are reduced.
A stance of fiercely guarding America’s interest is not a stance of wanting to hurt or exclude other countries. “'America First' is not 'America Alone,'” as economic adviser Gary Cohn put it.
“America First” does, however, involve extricating ourselves from international agreements that are not in our interests. That means being wary about fruitless nation-building and dangerous regime changes. It means making sure our foreign aid is serving a purpose. It also means pulling out of the Paris climate deal.
The rest of the world’s leaders are not happy about the Paris decision, but as a shrugging Frenchman might retort, "Tant pis!" Some call that selfish. But Paris was a bad deal. There was no accountability for other nations, and so, the deal would have mostly shifted manufacturing towards economies such as China's, which have less pollution control. It was more about global redistribution of wealth than about greenhouse-gas mitigation.
The global elites loved what Paris represented, though, which is globalism overcoming nationalism.
International cooperation and nationalism don't have to conflict, though, and Trump this week will, we hope, argue that he will help all the world's countries — but America first.