President Trump sharpened his break from the international community at the World Economic Forum on Tuesday, boasting about fossil fuel production and American economic success at a summit dedicated to fighting climate change and fostering global cooperation.
Trump cited positive economic statistics — a soaring stock market, record low unemployment and factory openings — that he hopes will boost his reelection chances and overshadow the Senate impeachment trial underway back in Washington.
“Today I’m proud to declare that the United States is in the midst of an economic boom the likes of which the world has never seen before,” he said in remarks that often sounded more like a campaign speech than an address to global leaders.
Although the U.S. economy is outperforming other advanced economies, many of which are struggling, few economists would call it a boom.
American job growth has been resilient, but domestic manufacturing is in recession and business investment has been sluggish. And economic growth overall in the United States is expected to slow further this year to about 2%, similar to the moderate pace during most of the economic recovery under President Obama.
The audience clapped politely for Trump, particularly when he backed a new international goal of planting 1 trillion trees worldwide. But the commitment was overshadowed by his touting of the extraction of “traditional fuels,” such as coal and natural gas, that have contributed to global warming.
Although the conference was awash with anxiety over growing nationalism and climate change, Trump brushed off the concerns and seemed to suggest that rising wealth would solve all problems.
“We must reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse,” Trump said. “They are the heirs of yesterday’s foolish fortunetellers.”
But his speech placed the president out of step with the rest of the summit’s goals.
“It flew in the face of everything that Davos is trying to talk about,” said Sanjay Nazerali, the global chief strategy officer at the Dentsu Aegis Network, an international marketing firm based in London.
He described Trump’s speech as a “hymn to nationalism” at a time when leaders were discussing collaborative solutions to problems like climate change that transcend borders and domestic politics.
“Which nation is going to save the ice caps?” he asked.
Other speakers warned of economic and environmental crises on the horizon.
“The world is in a state of emergency, and the window to act is closing,” said Klaus Schwab, a German engineer and economist who founded the World Economic Forum.
Simonetta Sommaruga, the president of Switzerland, expressed alarm about the effects of climate change as global temperatures rise.
“The world is on fire,” she said. “We see the rainforest burning in the Amazon and the bush fires burning in Australia.”
A star attraction at Davos has been Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish climate activist. In her address, she said that “pretty much nothing” had been done to stop global warming despite all of the conversations about the problem.
“Without treating it as a real crisis, we cannot solve it,” she said before Trump spoke.
Trump’s comments had some business leaders pining for earlier versions of U.S. leadership.
“The U.S. used to be a fantastic global leader,” said John Neill, head of Unipart Group, a British manufacturing and logistics company.
“We’re trying to move to a more inclusive, collaborative world,” he said. “Promoting your own country is not in complete conflict, but there was a contrast with the Chinese, who seem more inclined to try to embrace the global agenda for mutual advantage.”
Indeed, Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng delivered an ode to globalization, with a veiled swipe at Trump’s punishing trade war with China. Although tariffs remain in place, tensions have eased since both sides signed a preliminary agreement last week.
“Despite the protectionist and unilateral moves by some countries,” he said, “China will not stop opening up, and we will not follow their footsteps to move in the opposite direction.”
Although Trump fancies himself an international tycoon, he’s never been completely comfortable with the economists, celebrities and others who flock to this glitzy Swiss ski resort every winter to brainstorm solutions to global problems.
The conference center itself was a monument to several issues that Trump had ignored or rejected, featuring carpets made from recycled fishing nets, and the kind of energy-efficient lighting that Trump has mocked in the past.
Trump’s trip to Davos is his second, a surprising return engagement considering that he ran for office by denouncing globalists and previous presidents mostly shunned the gathering.
He seemed eager for vindication from the crowd about his economic policies, saying, “The time for skepticism is over.”
He received some support from the International Monetary Fund, which predicted that global growth would hit 3.3% this year, in part because of the easing of Trump’s trade war with China. That’s up from 2.9% last year, the worst year for the world economy since the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009.
At least some attendees seemed to have grown accustomed to Trump.
Ian Bremmer, head of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm based in New York, said there was “zero panic” about Trump winning another term in the White House.
“They like the regulatory rollback, they like his Cabinet, they like his tax policy,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.
But Chad Bown, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said any acceptance was more like relief that Trump’s trade policies hadn’t been more destructive.
“His policies have been extraordinarily damaging,” he said, “and there’s universal consensus on that outside of a small group of people in the United States.”
Trump did not mention his impeachment during his speech but briefly rehashed his complaints about the process before entering the main hall.
“It’s just a hoax. It’s the witch hunt that’s been going on for years,” he told reporters.
Staff writer Don Lee contributed from Washington.