Trump and Davos: Not Exactly Best Friends, but Not Enemies Either

Several world leaders highlighted integration and cooperation as vital for the global economy ahead of President Trump’s arrival at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

DAVOS, Switzerland — When President Trump arrived on Thursday at the conference center where the world’s financial and political elite have been meeting, onlookers crowded a balcony and craned their heads to see the leader who has challenged the very international order that Davos represents. At first, it was quiet. Then someone called out a question.

“Are you going to be treated well?” he was asked.

“You tell me,” Mr. Trump replied.

The reverse question was unasked but hung in the air: How was he going to treat them?

If he was not exactly entering the lion’s den, it was nonetheless a fraught moment for both sides as the America First president ventured into the lair of the we-are-the-world banking titans, corporate magnates and international leaders who have spent decades preaching the virtues of global integration.

Rather than confrontation, both sides labored for conciliation, at least to a point. For one afternoon and evening, at least, Mr. Trump threw no protectionist grenades and even broached the possibility, however remote, that he would re-enter a Pacific trade agreement that he scrapped last year, if it were renegotiated. For its part, the Davos crowd welcomed its top critic with a reception and warm words.

The mood was strikingly different from a year ago, when Mr. Trump was about to take office and the globalists meeting in this mountaintop getaway reeled in shock, panicked that his campaign promises meant the end of the movement they had nurtured for decades.

A year later, many of the business and political elites remain dismissive of him, privately rolling eyes and using words like “madman,” but there was excitement about economic growth, and the tax cuts and regulatory rollback he has ushered in.

The real test of how the two sides will deal with each other will come Friday when Mr. Trump addresses the World Economic Forum. Mr. Trump’s plan is not to stick his thumb in anyone’s eye, aides said, but to soberly promote his view that trade should be fair and reciprocal while selling his story of economic energy and soliciting foreign investment. Whether he will follow the script, they acknowledged, was anyone’s guess.

“The question is whether he’s here to be congratulated by the billionaires of Davos or to scold them on behalf of the people who elected him,” said Robert A. Johnson, president of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, a research institution in New York. “He will act like he’s doing both.”

Asked his message for Davos, Mr. Trump said: “The real message is we want great prosperity and we want great peace, and I think that’s the message. It’s been going really well. A lot of people are coming back to the United States. We are seeing tremendous investment, and today has been a very exciting day.”

Davos has never encountered anyone quite like Mr. Trump. For one week each year, this ski town is transformed into a festival of deal-making capitalism, international wonkery, late-night parties and earnest save-the-world panel discussions. Heads of state, corporate chieftains, policymakers and celebrities slip and slide along icy streets to stop in glass-enclosed, tech-heavy spaces set up by countries like India and South Africa and companies like Facebook and Google along the Promenade, the main drag.

At times, the tensions of the outside world follow them here. The Ukrainians were chagrined to discover this year that the space they rented at Promenade 73 turned out to be right across the street from Russia House at Promenade 72. Grim jokes ensued about the Russians crossing the road to take over a room in Ukraine House.

Unlike other visitors, Mr. Trump did not wander the pavilions. He attended a reception in his honor by the forum, and then was host at a dinner for about 15 chief executives from firms like Siemens, Nokia, Nestle, HSBC, Anheuser-Busch and Bayer.

As the executives tucked into grilled beef tenderloin or fried Swiss pikeperch with purple carrot purée, Mr. Trump flattered them as “some of the greatest business leaders in the world” and invited them to talk about their businesses, much as he does at cabinet meetings back home. Like his cabinet secretaries, many of the guests volunteered praise of the president and gratitude for his efforts to cut taxes and regulation.

The greeting did not surprise everyone. “Trump made a Christmas gift to everyone with those tax rebates,” said Charles-Edouard Bouée, chief executive of Roland Berger, a global consultancy with offices in Shanghai and Munich.

Credit...Tom Brenner/The New York Times

Even leaders with grievances against the Trump administration seemed intent on playing up to him.

“I found him to be a different person from his public persona,” Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi of Pakistan said at a breakfast on Thursday, recalling their encounter at the United Nations, while putting aside Mr. Trump’s threat this month to suspend most security aid because of what he called Pakistan’s “lies and deceit” in dealing with terrorism. “He is a very warm person and he engaged me.”

An aide to Mr. Trump who arrived before him expressed astonishment that he was being received so warmly by people he had criticized so harshly. But outside the president’s earshot, there was still plenty of skepticism and concern.

At a separate dinner on Thursday night, George Soros, the liberal financial trader and philanthropist, called Mr. Trump the vanguard of a new wave of authoritarian rulers that threatens open society.

“The survival of our entire civilization is at stake,” said Mr. Soros, while pointing a finger at “the rise of leaders like Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.”

In the days before Mr. Trump’s arrival, the leaders of India, Canada, France and Germany used a series of high-profile speeches to mount an aggressive defense of the global trading system, while other officials worried that Mr. Trump and other nationalists posed grave risks.

“The whole world is concerned that the United States is disengaging from the global trade arena,” said Cecilia Malmstrom, trade minister for the European Union. “I’m extremely concerned.”

Unlike Bill Clinton, the only other sitting president to attend Davos, Mr. Trump has threatened to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada and a separate pact with South Korea in addition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, that he withdrew from shortly after taking office. Before leaving Washington this week, he slapped new tariffs on imported solar panels and washing machines.

But as he has on immigration in recent days, Mr. Trump toggled between being hard-line and accommodating. In an interview with CNBC to be aired on Friday before his speech, Mr. Trump raised the possibility of rejoining the Pacific partnership, which was negotiated by President Barack Obama but never submitted to Congress amid bipartisan opposition.

“I would do TPP if we were able to make a substantially better deal,” Mr. Trump said. “The deal was terrible; the way it was structured was terrible. If we did a substantially better deal, I would be open to TPP.”

For other Davos participants, more disturbing than his trade views were his utterances on race and gender, most recently in his resistance to immigrants from Haiti and Africa.

“It’s disappointing to be written off by some ill-judged words,” said Nicky Newton-King, chief executive of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. “Our exchange is regarded as world class. We’re completely proud of what we’re able to do in one of these countries the president is so dismissive of.”

Lynette Wallworth, a virtual reality filmmaker from Australia who has traveled the world to introduce viewers to diverse cultures, expressed hope that Mr. Trump would use his time here to absorb challenging points of view.

“He seems to talk about barriers,” she said. “He needs to listen to the people who are gathered here, who are trying to make an inclusive world.”

Tolu Oni, a professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, asked if Mr. Trump was capable of absorbing opinions that conflict with his preconceptions.

“I wonder what he will get from this,” she said. “I hope that in coming here, there is some degree of learning that national interests are not necessarily in contradiction with being a responsible global citizen.”

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