In Davos, the United States is like the friend whose absence feeds all the conversations around the table. Embroiled in his shutdown, President Donald Trump has not repeated his spectacular appearance from last year. Notably during the first day of the World Economic Forum, his chief diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, took part only by video conference, cloistered in Washington, as if being punished.
But this punishment, this highly noticed and commented-upon absence, is self-inflicted by the most powerful country in the world. Despite assurances that “America First” didn’t mean “America alone,” it is indeed alone that it observes its competitors parading around at the WEF from afar.
The first among all of these competing nations, China, came in force. Ministers, diplomats, and captains of industry are all present to affirm their desire to do business. Wednesday, the Chinese vice president will take on the role of defender of globalization. As President Xi Jinping said during his visit two years ago, Beijing wants to defend the international system, multilateralism and free trade.
If China isn’t a uniting force – it even worries many of its immediate neighbors − the unpredictability of the United States has today reached such a degree that the entire world is obsessed with it, like the Japanese representative, whose country does not lack for disputes with the Chinese giant, who has declared that his government is far more worried about what is happening in Washington.
Of course, the United States cannot be first forever. The profound forces of history cause the world’s center of gravity to pivot from century to century. But by staying away from the WEF, by gradually withdrawing from this world that it contributed so much to forging, it is well and truly accelerating the inescapable transition. Davos, more than any other global meeting, allows it to be measured year after year.