Economic nationalism

I only arrived in Davos a few hours ago, but I've had three conversations and they've all ended up coming back to the same kinds of issues – protectionism and free trade, economic nationalism and the shift of economic power in the world.

If you'll forgive the name-dropping, two of those conversations involved George Soros and Henry Kissinger, who I actually spoke to before I arrived. (You can hear Soros online and Dr Kissinger will be broadcast on Thursday's Today programme).

But my not-very-representative sample of three conversations is clearly not altogether off-agenda, because I notice that David Cameron is here this evening, giving a speech on the subject as well.

"The heroes will be those who held their nerve and stood up for free trade" is his line, (while commending John McCain for doing that in the US election campaign).

It is not surprising the issue of trade has come up.

First, the US election has displayed some signs of gentle (or not so gentle) economic nationalism.

Secondly, it is – as you might have noticed - an interesting time in the world economy, and there might be a temptation for countries to retreat into the language and diplomacy of "looking after their own workers".

It might make sense at a selfish level for individual nations to put up trade barriers - although few economists would concede even that – but it rarely makes sense for the whole world to look after their own workers, because what we gain by protecting our workers, we lose by others protecting theirs.

Anyway, I expect the general issue of America's response to the rise of the emerging economic powers to absorb quite a few people here.

I'm not going to suggest it will dominate the Davos coffee-bar conversations of the investment bankers and private equity guys, but it does have a resonance at the moment.

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