DAVOS, Switzerland — President Donald Trump didn’t say how delighted he was to be in Sweden, he didn’t call any countries s-holes, he didn’t threaten to “totally destroy” another nation, and he didn’t brag that his “nuclear button” was “much bigger” than anyone else’s. In other words, Trump’s speech here at the World Economic Forum was a resounding success.
OK, fact-checkers found at least two falsehoods, and the audience booed when Trump went off script and raged at “how nasty, how mean, how vicious and how fake the press can be.” Yet on the whole, he read an anodyne speech perfectly well off the teleprompter, making it a personal triumph for him — albeit also probably the weakest speech delivered by any leader in Davos this year.
The past week has underscored how much the world needs American leadership, and how badly Trump is falling short — or, more precisely, when he provides leadership, it’s often in the wrong direction, setting us back.
The upshot is that there’s now a global vacuum of practical and moral leadership.
There are challenges from North Korea to Yemen, from climate to refugees, plus atrocities in Myanmar that probably amount to genocide. South Sudan is collapsing, and in Syria, 16 bombings of hospitals or clinics have been reported just since Christmas — and barely an eyebrow has been raised.
Trump is a gift to the world’s tyrants in two important ways. First, he doesn’t typically stand up to them. Second, his tweets and outrages suck the oxygen from other important issues worldwide. (It’s fair to criticize us in the news media as well. Too often we’re like dogs yapping at everything that moves, distracted by the latest shiny Trumpian thing.)
Evan Osnos of The New Yorker captured Trump’s “leadership” style: “Barack Obama’s foreign policy was characterized as leading from behind. Trump’s doctrine may come to be understood as retreating from the front.”
With the U.S. in retreat, there’s no one who can fill the gap.
Angela Merkel, who in Davos called right-wing populism a “poison” and warned against erecting walls, is struggling in Germany to form a coalition government. Prime Minister Theresa May is a hobbled leader of a diminished Britain. Xi Jinping brutalized the only Nobel Peace Prize laureate China has ever had. India is unhelpful even with the Myanmar crisis in its neighborhood. Brazil and South Africa are in political chaos. And Vladimir Putin is too busy interfering with elections outside Russia or stealing bits of Ukraine to lead anything.
Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, gave a powerful speech in Davos challenging attendees to promote women and address pay inequity, family planning and child care to help women flourish. But Trudeau can be more of a talker than a doer; he has been less generous with foreign aid than his predecessor.
So Trump is all there is. Alas, he’s not in the business of solving global problems, but of creating them.
We’ve seen that in his threats to annihilate North Korea, his pullback from trade agreements and the Paris climate accord, and his threats to the Iran nuclear deal. He promised Middle East peace but has made the situation worse.
Does he inspire allies? Well, Germany’s conservative newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, asked in a headline this month: “Is Trump Still Sane?”
It’s not quite right to say that Trump is providing no leadership. Trump is “protecting” us from refugees, but not from Russian manipulation of elections. He tries to “protect” us with a Muslim ban, but not from gun violence. And note that last year Americans were less likely to be killed by a Muslim extremist (one chance in 19 million) than by an extremist for being Muslim (1 in 3 million).
Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist who has written a book about Trump voters, “Strangers in Their Own Land,” says that leadership is about focusing on the future — technology, information, renewable energy — while Trump embraces nostalgia.
“He’s looking backward, not forward,” she told me after we watched the speech. “This is not leadership in a real sense. This is cheerleading, but for yesterday.”
Some of Obama’s failures enabled Trump. Obama was weak on Syria and Myanmar. He also never renounced the first use of nuclear weapons, laying the groundwork for Trump’s Pentagon to contemplate a nuclear strike in response just to another country’s serious cyberattack.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the “Doomsday Clock” to two minutes to midnight, the closest it has been to midnight since 1953. It warned that “to call the world nuclear situation dire is to understate the danger.”
The person in Davos who I thought exhibited the most leadership was Malala Yousufzai, who powerfully called on governments to ensure education for the 260 million children worldwide who are not in school. Government leaders must know that education is important because they send their own kids to school and universities, she said, “but when it comes to the rest of the world’s children, they struggle a bit.”
When the most mature leader around may be a 20-year-old university student, the world is in trouble.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service.