Trump's Freak Show Might Get Top Billing in Davos But Power Lies With China
This week, Donald Trump will become the first sitting US President to attend the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos since Bill Clinton in 2000. There could be no clearer symbol of the failure of the assembled plutocrats and their political enablers during the intervening years.
At the turn of the century, Clinton was the evangelist-in-chief for globalisation as the path to future prosperity for all. Trump is the product of the damage the Davos crowd’s job off-shoring, tax dodging and bonus guzzling ways have done to Clinton’s optimistic vision.
The attention-hungry organisers of the WEF appear untroubled by this or Trump’s assorted outrages. All publicity is good publicity remains the rule for them.
Elsewhere in Switzerland, there is plenty of discontent about Trump’s visit. To the surprise of those unfamiliar with it, the Swiss political scene contains some strong and militant left-wing elements. They will be in the vanguard of the protests but will get nowhere near Trump in Davos. Aside from picturesque scenery, the other beauty of Alpine resorts for security forces is that they are easy to seal off. The windows of some poor, hardworking McDonald’s franchisee in distant Zurich will probably cop it instead, as they do here every May Day at the hands of marauding anarchists.
Whilst Trump is unprecedentedly awful, there is nothing new in this ritual. Previous Republican presidents have been unpopular in Europe too. Reagan’s bullying of small Central American nations and witticisms about nuking European countries never travelled well. Nor did anything about George W. Bush.
the world is increasingly going about its business, for good and ill, without reference to Washington
The more level-headed Mitteleuropeans are intrigued by what their guest will say in his speech at Davos. As a heavy hint, Trump’s ambassador in Bern has been telling the Swiss media that “America First” does not mean anti-international trade. Then again, the erratic President might still opt to spout some aggressive, nationalist guff for the idiots at home.
But here is the thing. It scarcely matters what he says. The Davos 2017 keynote speaker, Chinese President Xi Jinping, already gave a pro-globalisation, pro-international trade speech to great acclaim at last year’s gathering. By parroting Xi’s lines, Trump would just be trailing in the slipstream of the new superpower in the East. Whereas going for his familiar furious isolationism would only highlight the marginalisation of the US under his leadership.
After a year of Trump’s presidency, the world is increasingly going about its business, for good and ill, without reference to Washington.
China’s rise is being inadvertently accelerated by the man who hollered throughout the US election campaign about stopping it. Closer Chinese cooperation with Europe is developing rapidly. This burgeoning relationship is embodied by China and France taking joint leadership of the fight against climate change, after America’s abdication of the role. Beijing is also exercising free reign in Asia and bending once staunch US allies such as the Philippines and Australia to its will.
The Russians now realise they bought a dud when helping Trump get elected. But they also know that, while he will not do much to help them, he will not hinder the expansion of their malign influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East either.
Even much smaller powers are emboldened. Syria shrugged off some cursory US bombing over President Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people and has carried on persecuting them regardless, with Russian and Iranian help.
North Korea responded to Trump’s threats by throwing a few insults back and speeding up its nuclear weapons programme. This has prompted South Korea to do its own preliminary deal with Pyongyang to reduce hostilities, against the wishes of its erstwhile American protectors.
The intra-Korean talks signify the latest stage in the rapid decline of US influence. Even hardcore allies and former supplicants are now turning their attention elsewhere. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu has pocketed US recognition of Jerusalem as his nation’s capital whilst offering nothing in return. He now spends more time discussing Middle East events with Moscow than the White House.
Trump has been exposed as a sad, pathetic figure
Others are openly challenging the US, such as NATO member Turkey with its military assault this week on American-backed Kurdish forces in Syria.
Of course, Trump remains a threat to the world because of the awesome power any US President has at his fingertips. But short of initiating Armageddon, he is increasingly being ignored. Rather than the apparently fearsome ogre of his early days in office, Trump has been exposed as a sad, pathetic figure floundering out of his depth. Friend and foe alike are finding it easy to exploit his vanity and dim-wittedness to do as they please, whilst paying no mind to American interests.
As we will see at Davos this week, Trump still generates enough freak show-style fascination to scrape top billing at this global carnival. But rather than “Make America Great Again”, he has diminished the influence of the world’s most powerful nation to its lowest level in modern history.
About the author
Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.
He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.
All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.
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