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‘America first is not America alone’: Trump aims to reset global opinion about him in Davos

The Washington Post is in Davos. Hear from our reporters on the ground at this year's World Economic Forum. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

DAVOS, Switzerland — The Trump administration arrived in the Swiss ski town of Davos Wednesday with a clear message for world leaders and executives: “America first” doesn’t mean America alone. President Trump, accompanied by 10 Cabinet members and other top advisers, is fighting back at the global perception that the United States is anti-globalization and against free trade.

“This is about an America first agenda, but America first does mean working with the rest of the world,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a news conference Wednesday morning.

Gary Cohn, the head of Trump’s National Economic Council, put it this way: “America first is not America alone.”

Trump exemplifies the Ugly American. Davos will accept him anyway.

The Trump team has come to Davos to take a victory lap after passage of a major reduction in U.S. taxes and a rollback in regulations. They see this as a prime opportunity for Trump to be a great salesman of how well the country is doing economically and how foreign businesses should invest more in the United States. They point to the record highs in the stock market and growth topping 3 percent in the past two quarters as evidence that Trump’s policies are working for America and the world.

“We are committed to economic growth of 3 percent or higher GDP. Economic growth in the U.S. is obviously good for the rest of the world,” said Mnuchin. “There’s no question ... the vote from the market is very positive.”

Protesters in Zurich and Davos carried banners ahead of Donald Trump's visit to World Economic Forum later this week. (Video: Reuters)

Resetting the world’s perception of Trump is likely to be difficult. Thousands of protesters are gathered in Zurich, the closest major town to Davos, saying “Trump not welcome.” Protesters are also attempting to get into the heavily guarded conference in Davos.

Even other world leaders have openly made jabs at Trump. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t mention the United States by name, but his lengthy defense of globalization was widely seen as a message directed at Trump.

“The forces of protectionism are raising their heads against globalization,” Modi said Tuesday. “Their desire is to not only save themselves from globalization, but to reverse the natural flow of globalization altogether.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went even further. He opened his speech Tuesday by announcing Canada had finalized a major trade deal with 10 Asia-Pacific countries. The agreement Canada forged was a revised version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump pulled out of a year ago.

“Today is a great day for Canada but it is also a great day for progressive trade around the world,” Trudeau said before adding that he was “working hard” to make sure Canada’s “neighbor to the South” understands the benefits of free trade, including the North American Free Trade Agreement. Leaders from the United States, Canada and Mexico are meeting this week to hash out revisions to NAFTA, which began in 1994.

But Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross dismissed these criticisms as PR stunts.

“While there’s a lot of free trade rhetoric by many other countries, in fact, their behavior is quite protectionist,” Ross said Wednesday.

In Davos, everyone is worried about the forgotten people

Earlier this week, the United States announced new tariffs on foreign washing machines and solar panels, the first tariffs from the Trump administration. Ross said “there will be more to come.”

There was a lot of surprise when Trump announced he would attend Davos this year, the first U.S. president to do so since Bill Clinton in 2000. The annual World Economic Forum in Davos is widely viewed as a gathering of global elites who heavily value globalization, migration, trade and cooperation.

Trump’s America first message is seen as at odds with the Davos crowd, but Mnuchin, head of the U.S. delegation to Davos, told reporters that he’s received a warm welcome so far in Switzerland and that they are working hard to make sure world leaders better understand Trump’s agenda.

Ross argues what the United States is doing on trade is the same as what every other countries does.

“Trade wars are fought every single day,” Ross said. “A trade war has been in place for quite a little while. The difference is the U.S. troops are now coming to the ramparts.”