Expect “America First,” a broadside against unfair trade practices, tough talk toward enemies and a fair bit of bragging when U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the World Economic Forum (WEF) next week, according to a range of policy commentators.
CNBC spoke to experts from the fields of defense, foreign policy, economics and politics to see what they predict the most unpredictable president in modern U.S. history might talk about in Davos, Switzerland.
“It’s anyone’s guess what Mr Trump will talk about at Davos, but whatever he focuses on specifically — like terrorism or international trade — he will have one eye on his political base back in the U.S.,” Peter Trubowitz, director of the United States Center at the London School of Economics, told CNBC. “In short, I look for a variation on the ‘I was elected to represent Pittsburgh not Paris’ theme.”
Since entering office one year ago, Trump has overturned both his predecessors’ policies and political norms, touting his accomplishments while lamenting negative coverage from the press. Critics fear he has alienated and insulted important allies, while his supporters laud his focus on an “America First” agenda.
And he’s been vocal in deriding what he calls the “global elite” — the wealthy, internationalist, and largely progressive community associated with Davos. Next week’s crowd may be a tough one.
“Trump has every right to brag about what he has accomplished for the U.S. in the past year,” Jan Halper-Hayes, former worldwide vice president of Republicans Overseas, told CNBC. “He’ll definitely talk about tax reform, and he’ll definitely talk about how encouraging companies to bring their money back here will only propel the economy that much stronger.”
Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) specializing in U.S. economic competitiveness, anticipates a reiteration of the narrative that “the world has taken advantage of the United States on trade and (Trump) is going to put an end to it,” he told CNBC via email.
“And I expect he will do some bragging about the strength of the U.S. stock market and the wisdom of the tax reform bill, and will point to the recent announcements of new investments in the U.S. to bolster the case that his tough new approach is working.” Apple, Chrysler and Toyota, among others, have all announced major U.S. investments since the passage of the Republican-spearheaded Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in December.
On defense, Trump will likely hit the same themes he sounded during his 2017 visits to the United Nations, Poland and Vietnam, said Heather Hulburt at security think-tank the New America Foundation. That is, that “nations come together when it’s useful to mutually defend their individual sovereignty,” Hulbert told CNBC.
The president will “possibly express support for the civilizational values of Europe, possibly preview some aspects of his trade enforcement agenda that we’re expecting in the State of the Union” as well as deliver tough rhetoric on North Korea and Iran, she said. Hulburt previously worked with former president Bill Clinton on his 2000 Davos speech as a special assistant to the president.
For Xenia Wickett, head of the U.S. and Americas Programme at U.K. policy think-tank Chatham House, there shouldn’t be anything new to expect, as the White House hasn’t hinted at any impending announcements.
“I imagine he will maintain his rhetoric on America First and perhaps, if necessary, defend his positions on recent issues such as Jerusalem and keeping the pressure on North Korea,” Wickett told CNBC.
“I’m sure that he will also use the opportunity to emphasize to his domestic audience how his presence there shows how much the U.S., and he, is respected internationally — and never more so than now.”
From the financial angle, there wasn’t so much a prediction as there were questions on how any statements by the president might move markets. Simon Derrick, chief currency strategist at Bank of New York Mellon, sees Trump’s Davos visit as a case of watching for comments on topics like the dollar’s current downward slide, competitiveness and domestic spending.
“From an FX perspective it will be interesting to see whether he has anything to say on the issue of dollar weakness, given that he spoke on a number of occasions in 2016 and early 2017 about the issue of currency manipulation,” Derrick told CNBC. “Anything on domestic spending will likely catch attention as well, given the rise in U.S. Treasury yields.”
Whatever unfolds over the coming week, Trump is a president who has rarely failed to surprise an audience, embodying that “shoot from the hip” demeanor his voters love so much. His speech will likely garner substantial attention and social media reaction from viewers at Davos and at home.
Attesting to this, the CFR’s Alden said: “Trump is happiest when he is the bull in the China shop — the leader who is saying harsh things, shattering old understandings, insulting allies and adversaries alike. I do not expect a different Donald Trump to show up in Davos.”
What will Trump say at Davos? Six analysts give their predictions