National leaders from around the globe, along with top economists, powerful businessmen, and billionaires, have gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to “shape global, regional, and industry agendas." As Donald Trump’s “America First” platform conflicts with the globalization and free trade agenda of the world’s elite, his visit to Davos is largely seen as an opportunity for Trump to sell his vision. Where world leaders frame his views as anti-cooperation and anti-prosperity, the Trump Administration hopes to convince people that a “nation first” focus is better for the Peoples and economies of the world. Above all, Trump needs to assure the titans of international business that his policies will not adversely impact their US business dealings.
A successful Davos trip for Trump could help disarm opposition from trade interests and garner support for a “nation first” movement among foreign populations. At the same time, Trump’s presence at the World Economic Forum offers him a platform to reiterate his “America First” agenda and prove his commitment to confront the “globalist” elites and their agenda. If Trump’s visit to Davos is too conciliatory, his supporters will see him as a sellout. Trying to balance these competing objectives is risky, especially since Trump is unlikely to convince foreign populations of his vision. Trump’s dialogue at Davos is, therefore, more likely to favor his domestic political interests over US foreign policy interests, which is part of an emerging pattern.
While the Trump Administration has already cut foreign aid to Pakistan and the Palestinian People, the US President has sought to cut over a third of US foreign aid, among other cuts to the US international footprint. These policy shifts and others may have been justified by world events, but they are part of an emerging pattern. To fulfill his campaign promises, which included the passage of tax cuts and reduced government spending alongside economic growth, Trump needs to find a place to cut that will not provoke a populous backlash and conflict with his promises. Trump’s withdrawal from TPP, flagging NAFTA negotiations, and tariffs on China coincide with global events, yet they are also part of an effort to tap alternative revenue sources.
Based on Trump’s policy priorities, it is clear that the Trump Administration is more than willing to use “foreign policy” as a sacrificial lamb to further Trump’s domestic agenda. With an “American First” platform, it is not surprising that Donald Trump would prioritize domestic concerns over foreign policy concerns, but the attitudes of the American People have as much to do with Trump’s assault on foreign policy as Trump’s political views. Unsurprising to the outside world, the American People are not terribly interested in foreign affairs. While a lack of interest in foreign policy is problematic enough, a lack of concern for international issues creates a lack of accountability for foreign policy failures, thus the US President is typically free to do as he pleases in the realm of foreign policy .
Looking at immigration issues, Democrats have stood firm when it comes to DACA, even refusing to support funding measures that could have prevented a government shutdown without a DACA fix. Despite the fact DACA impacts the lives of children, that is not enough to make DACA a priority among Americans. Although history and Republican control of government mean Republicans are held responsible for the shutdown drama, Democrats could have easily endangered themselves by insisting on a DACA fix. In fact, Republicans did try to blame Democrats over DACA. Regrettably, foreign policy issues do not directly impact the American People. Where foreign policies do not affect the lives of Americans, domestic policies do. There is, therefore, a perverse incentive to avoid tough domestic policy choices and use foreign policy as a sacrificial lamb to distract people.
Unfortunately, President Trump and his supporters have capitalized on the foreign policy apathy of the American People, which allows the Trump Administration to neglect US foreign policy to avoid tough domestic policy choices. Accordingly, Trump’s message at Davos may be directed at the elites and Peoples of the world, but it is more likely to resonate among his nationalist supporters at home. At best, it will also resonate among nationalists around the world, which can help Trump garner support for his “nation first” vision. Instead of appealing to the broader audience, Trump’s message will likely be received as disingenuous. International criticism is, of course, unlikely to have any impact on Trump’s policies or thinking.
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