John Kerry defends global trade against populist anger

Davos (Switzerland) (AFP) - Outgoing US Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a stark warning of the dangers of economic populism on Tuesday, insisting on the greater benefits of global trade and cooperation.

Kerry made his last annual pilgrimage as Washington's top diplomat to the World Economic Forum in Davos just three days before President-elect Donald Trump is to take office.

Speaking before the world's business and political elite at an event moderated by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Kerry warned against protectionist rhetoric.

"It's really dangerous to play to the lowest common denominator of American, of global political life," he said, accusing politicians of exploiting voters' fears.

Trump won November's White House race having pledged to return "American jobs" from production plants in China and Mexico, and the incoming leader has threatened to tear up trade deals.

This week Trump also declared the NATO strategic alliance "obsolete" while praising Britain's decision to leave the European Union, predicting that other members would follow suit.

Kerry admitted that "certain people in political life" have tapped into legitimate anxieties about job insecurity in a globalised economy of free trade and capital flows.

But he insisted automation rather than a shift toward foreign labour was what has hit the US workforce and argued that trade would help power the growth needed to bring new jobs.

Kerry also defended NATO and the European Union as guarantors of stability in a continent once wracked by war.

"I don't know where the new administration is going," he said, of the new White House team that will replace President Barack Obama's administration on Friday.

- 'Killing Europeans' -

"But my message, friends in Europe ... is that Europe has got to believe in itself," Kerry said.

"Europe needs to recognise it that the reason people came together was not just economic, in fact it was not just principally economic," he added.

"It was to stop Europeans from killing Europeans."

Kerry argued that far from inheriting the enfeebled US economy Trump described in his campaign rhetoric, the real estate tycoon turned politician would enter office "with the wind at his back."

This could be put at risk by a disengagement from the world economy in the name of protecting US jobs.

"Now obviously the new president is tapped into the anger," Kerry admitted.

"But has he seen the way in which this can be solved that doesn't undo economic opportunities and doesn't create more barriers and more turmoil?"

Kerry's stance was closer to that of Chinese leader Xi Jinping -- who had addressed the Davos forum earlier in the day -- than of the incoming US president.

Xi had told attendees there was "no point" in blaming economic globalisation for the world's problems and that no one would win a trans-Pacific trade war.