German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Donald Trump hold a joint news conference at the White House on March 17, 2017. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Donald Trump did not always see eye-to-eye. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

German Chancellor Angela Merkel just ended a three-day ride on the rollercoaster of current world politics. On March 19, she made a pitch for free trade and open markets along with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a high-tech fair in Hanover, Germany. Two days earlier, in contrast, she had a tense meeting in Washington with US President Donald Trump, who had no qualms about lambasting Berlin for its US$65-billion commercial surplus with the United States.

It seems that “The Donald” has a problem with Germany and its “Frau Kanzler”. Trump wants US-German trade to be “fairer” than in the past – namely that competitive German industries stop being so competitive and stealing US jobs. Further, immediately after Merkel’s visit to the White House, he doubled down on his claims that Berlin must pay what it owes for the military protection provided by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

At the core of the political divide between the US president and the German chancellor there is, however, much more than disagreements over Nato and trade. There is also Trump’s questioning of the European integration project, of which Merkel is the main defender.

This negative attitude toward the European Union has made Trump a potential danger for the European bloc, notably at a time when its member states are locked in an existential battle against economic stagnation, Islamist terrorism and illegal migration. But Trump’s EU-bashing should also alarm nations in the Asia-Pacific region that are committed to economic integration along the lines of the European experiment.

Delegitimizing the EU

Trump’s antagonism to the EU emerged clearly during his joint press conference with Merkel. He never mentioned the EU by name, making only a vague reference to “historic institutions” respected by the US. In contrast, Merkel cited the EU or European integration as many as 10 times.

It felt as if Trump had deliberately attempted to delegitimize the EU in the presence of its most prominent leader. He stressed that German trade negotiators had so far outplayed their American counterparts and that his administration wanted to “even it out”.

In response to Trump’s tirade, Merkel tried to lecture him on the function of the EU. In particular, she underlined that Germany was not in full control of the grouping’s trade policy and that the EU negotiated trade deals for all of its member states.

But this is a concept that neither Trump nor his close advisers seem able to grasp. On March 6, Peter Navarro, the director of the new White House National Trade Council, candidly talked about the need for  bilateral discussions to reduce the US trade deficit with Germany outside the EU rules. In February, he had already attacked Germany for seizing on a weak euro to have a commercial edge.

The Bannon factor

In essence, Navarro accuses Berlin of hiding behind EU boundaries and restrictions on trade and being a currency manipulator like China. But Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief political strategist, has gone beyond Navarro’s views, envisaging a new world order without the European bloc.

In Bannon’s opinion the EU is an “instrument of globalization”, which he despises, Politico recently reported, citing Ben Shapiro, a former writer at Breitbart News, the ultra-conservative news website that Bannon had managed up until his appointment to the Trump administration.

For Bannon, nation-states have to regain centrality to the detriment of supranational bodies, which have proved dysfunctional and incapable of delivering on their promises. In this sense, he hailed Brexit – Britain’s planned exit from the EU – as the first step toward the disintegration of the European bloc.

Some EU politicians fear that Bannon could influence Trump and push him into sabotaging the European project. In a nightmare scenario for Europe, Washington could work to pit the bloc’s weaker members against dominant Germany through the granting of political and economic incentives to selected EU countries.

The George W Bush administration did something similar when it tried to neutralize French and German opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. At the time, in fact, Bush and his neoconservative entourage attempted to drive a wedge between the “old Europe” (Paris and Berlin) and the “new Europe” (the countries in post-Soviet Eastern Europe) to gain support for the US military interventions in the Greater Middle East.

East Asia like Europe

So if it is the association between the EU and globalization as opposed to nation-states and localism that irks the Trump-Bannon-Navarro trio, then logic suggests that the new US administration could decide to counter the structures and initiatives advancing globalization in East Asia as well.

Thus Trump’s crosshairs could end up zeroing in on the efforts for economic integration in the Asian-Pacific region: the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which has been modeled after the EU; the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, two proposed multilateral trade agreements that China is keen to finalize; and a possible revamped Trans-Pacific Partnership on free trade, a multilateral project that Trump abandoned on the first day of his tenure.

The Trump administration could also blacklist and try to undermine the free-trade deals that the EU is negotiating with Japan and some Asean nations. Through these agreements, the European bloc wants to set the global standard for free and fair trade, as recently evidenced by EU Council President Donald Tusk – a position that represents an open challenge to the new protectionist America.

During the media briefing with Merkel, Trump remarked that he was not an isolationist but a fair trader. However, if he were to embrace the Bannon-Navarro line completely, he would be neither one thing nor the other, more probably assuming the most disturbing guise of saboteur-in-chief of the current international order.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.