At Davos, Will Trump Miss His Chance to Repair America's Image?

President Donald Trump will attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this week. In a typical administration, the National Security Council (NSC) staff would prepare a “scene-setter” memo to help the president prepare and know what to expect before such a trip. But it’s unclear whether such a memo exists in this case or, even if it does, if the president will read it.

It is crucial that Trump understands the lay of the land before Davos. In that vein, I offer some scene-setter advice for the president and his staff to succeed on his trip abroad.

First and foremost, the U.S. needs to repair its global image. The forum will include 3,000 participants, six G-7 leaders, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and several of Trump’s G-20 peers, as well as attendees from countless other countries that the president has addressed—as “shitholes” or otherwise—over the last year. Gallup recently reported that Trump’s approval rating—at 30 percent across 134 countries surveyed—falls below that of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. And the World Economic Forum’s own Global Risks Report noted that “charismatic strongman politics is on the rise across the world,” specifically citing the “America First” platform alongside “deepening polarization” which “has, among other things, weakened democratic debate.”

Good staff work would flag these perceptions of the president and the state of play within the United States, alongside analysis that shows what Trump’s peers expect him to do (i.e., make bold statements and diverge from his talking points). The NSC staff should encourage the president to use Davos to try to regain some vestige of U.S. credibility—it could represent a lot of bang for his buck—a chance to meet with a lot of people and to try to build up some credibility and some favor. They should make clear his opportunity to convince world leaders, celebrities and civil society that the United States still has the head seat at the table.

GettyImages-909304378 People hold up banners with Trump's image as they protest against his attendance to the upcoming Davos World Economic Forum, on January 23, 2018, in central Zurich, Switzerland. PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images

On the flip side, Trump's staff are also probably all too aware that a gaffe in Davos will have macro consequences, as so many of the world’s public and private sector leaders will be either physically there or watching events closely. Redeeming ourselves on the global stage will certainly be a Herculean task, especially on the heels of Trump's arbitrarily pulling out of international agreements, using derogatory language about almost everyone and bullying countries to coerce behavior. Research conducted by Pew last spring showed that just a median of 22 percent expect Trump to do the right thing. By walking away from U.S. commitments on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accords, NAFTA and the Iran nuclear agreement, Trump has made it hard for our enemies and our allies to trust anything we say we are going to do. The president’s vacillation between trying to bully his counterparts into doing what he wants (even using critical foreign assistance dollars as a bribe for voting posture at the United Nations) and flattering despots like Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte means that, even under the best of circumstances, Trump has an uphill battle ahead of him.

Next, while the global economy is recovering, and the world has become more adept at handling conventional risk, Trump should understand there are new problems on the horizon. The forum, in its risks report, noted that “we are much less competent when it comes to dealing with complex risks in the interconnected systems that underpin our world,” which could make for a messy Davos. Global problems like North Korea and Russian cyber- and information operations aren’t neatly contained. If the president is open to advice from his NSC team, they would be well-advised to flag that a misstep on North Korea (whether by tweet or from the podium in Davos) has reverberations in other areas, like trade, investment and energy. A retweet of anti-Muslim content impacts not just our relationship with Muslims but also our relationship with the U.K.

It’s a delicate dance and navigating these complex waters requires prowess. With that in mind, Trump’s NSC staff should emphasize the importance, and the benefit, of staying on message and disciplined—something Trump has not always excelled at.

Third, India has been stepping in to fill America’s shoes, and Trump should know it. Modi will deliver the opening speech at Davos; Trump is the closer. This makes for a not-so-subtle metaphor. Trump’s NSC staff should remind him to voice his support for the peaceful rise of our allies, and for their work attempting to decrease inequality. (Addressing, Russia and China, however, which Trump has called rival powers in his latest National Security Strategy, will be more complex. For continuity’s sake, though, the NSC should recommend Trump use language similar to what he laid out in his strategy.)

Scene-setters often specifically lay out things the president should watch out for—landmines in his path. This time around, the NSC should flag that it’s no secret that world leaders will try to distract Trump by flattering his ego (recall Trump’s call to Putin after Putin praised the stock markets performance, or his compliments to Xi, despite lambasting the Chinese on the campaign trail) or by stoking his paranoia about domestic forces working against him (like the Russians, who often raise and promote conspiracy theories to get the president riled up). A realistic scene-setter should warn the president not to take the bait; he shouldn’t view flattery or comments about internal U.S. deep state conspiracies through Trumpian rose-colored glasses.

All in all, under the best of circumstances, this is a tough trip. Let’s hope the president does his reading.

Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst and served on President Barack Obama's National Security Council from 2009 to 2013.

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