Two days ago, when describing the two opposing foreign policy tracks emerging within Trump's administration (which led to disappointment inside Russia, which was hoping for a more aggressive detente between Putin and Trump), we said that "there are two clear axes developing within the Trump administration: a Pence/Mattis/Haley foreign policy and a Trump/Bannon/Miller foreign policy."
As a reminder, over the weekend first Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and then Vice President Mike Pence assured participants at the Munich Security Conference that Trump would "hold Russia accountable" and vowed "unwavering support" to both NATO and EU.
Today, confirming that there is indeed a schism when it comes to the administration's diplomatic objectives, Reuters writes that in the week before VP Mike Pence visited Brussels and pledged America's "steadfast and enduring" commitment to the European Union, Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon met with the German ambassador and delivered a different message. Bannon, according to Reuters' sources, signaled to Germany's ambassador to Washington that he viewed the EU as a flawed construct and favoured conducting relations with Europe on a bilateral basis.
In other words, Bannon voiced the same conerns made by others about the sustainability of the European experiment, if not in polite company, and was preparing how to address Europe's "failure" through bilateral trade treaties, the same as the recently "free" UK is doing currently with all of its former trading partners.
There was some push back to the Reuters report: a White House official who checked with Bannon in response to a Reuters query confirmed the meeting had taken place but said the account provided to Reuters was inaccurate. "They only spoke for about three minutes and it was just a quick hello," the official said. The White House said there was no transcript of the conversation. The sources who had been briefed on it described it as polite and stressed there was no evidence Trump was prepared to go beyond his rhetorical attacks on the EU - he has repeatedly praised Britain's decision to leave - and take concrete steps to destabilise the bloc.
However, Reuters' sources described a longer meeting in which Bannon took the time to spell out his world view. They said his message was similar to the one he delivered to a Vatican conference back in 2014 when he was running the right-wing website Breitbart News.
In those remarks, delivered via Skype, Bannon spoke favourably about European populist movements and described a yearning for nationalism by people who "don't believe in this kind of pan-European Union."
Western Europe, he said at the time, was built on a foundation of "strong nationalist movements", adding: "I think it's what can see us forward".
The Bannon encounter reportedly unsettled people in the German government, in part because some officials had been holding out hope that Bannon might temper his views once in government and offer a more nuanced message on Europe in private.
One source briefed on the meeting said it had confirmed the view that Germany and its European partners must prepare for a policy of "hostility towards the EU". A second source expressed concern, based on his contacts with the administration, that there was no appreciation for the EU's role in ensuring peace and prosperity in post-war Europe.
"There appears to be no understanding in the White House that an unraveling of the EU would have grave consequences," the source said.
Anxiety over the White House stance led French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, to issue unusual calls last week for Pence to affirm during his visit to Europe that the U.S. was not aiming to break up the EU.
And, as discussed before, Pence obliged pledging strong ties between the United States and the EU, and making clear his message was shared by the president. "President Trump and I look forward to working together with you and the European Union to deepen our political and economic partnership," he said.
However, despite the message of reassurance by Pence and Mattis, Europeans remain unconvinced as the real question - as suggested previously - remains unanswered: which axis is dominant: that of Trump/Bannon/Miller or Pence/Mattis/Haley. Indeed, as Reuters adds, the Pnence tour did not end the concerns in European capitals.
"We are worried and we should be worried," Thomas Matussek, senior adviser at Flint Global and a former German ambassador to the Britain and the United Nations, told Reuters. "No one knows anything at the moment about what sort of decisions will be coming out of Washington. But it is clear that the man on top and the people closest to him feel that it's the nation state that creates identity and not what they see as an amorphous group of countries like the EU."
With elections looming in the Netherlands, France and Germany this year, European officials said they hoped Pence, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson could convince Trump to work constructively with the EU, overriding Bannon's skepticism.
What is the worst-case scenario, if only perceived through the eyes of Europe? It was described by Ischinger in an article published last week, entitled "How Europe should deal with Trump".
He said that if the U.S. administration actively supported right-wing populists in the looming election campaigns it would trigger a "major transatlantic crisis".
Translation: should the "far right" win in the Netherlands, France and/or Italy, Europe already has a prepared scapegoat who to blame, and not surprisingly, it has nothing to do with the real culprits who over the past decade cared only about central banks' failed reflationary policies which however succeeded in blowing the world's biggest asset bubble, and unleashing an unprecedented tide of social discontent, leading to where the world finds itself now.