alliances, allies, America First, China, Defense Department, globalism, Japan, Jim Mattis, Marines, Mattis, NATO, North Atlantic treaty Organization, North Korean, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, South Korea, The National Interest, Trump
By all accounts, General George S. Patton was one of America’s greatest battlefield leaders during World War II. And by nearly all of those same accounts, he had no qualifications to advise Presidents on the grand strategies that would serve the country best in world affairs.
I couldn’t help but think of Patton while reading about the contents of former Trump Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ upcoming book about leadership lessons he’s learned during his own career in a Marine Corps uniform. For one of the main points made in Call Sign Chaos – that President Trump’s foreign policies are dangerously ignoring the vital importance of allies to U.S. security and prosperity – is not only far from obvious. This critique of America First-ism could itself be dangerously wrong.
Here’s the gist of Mattis’ case:
“Nations with allies thrive, and those without them wither. Alone, America cannot protect our people and our economy.
“At this time, we can see storm clouds gathering. A polemicist’s role is not sufficient for a leader. A leader must display strategic acumen that incorporates respect for those nations that have stood with us when trouble loomed.”
“…An oft-spoken admonition in the Marines is this: When you’re going to a gunfight, bring all your friends with guns,” he wrote. “Having fought many times in coalitions, I believe that we need every ally we can bring to the fight.”
And there can be no question that these beliefs form the core of Mattis’ policy worldview. His letter to Mr. Trump declaring his resignation as Pentagon chief shows that this decision was driven largely by his prioritizing of alliances. His stated position is worth quoting at length:
“One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.
“Like you, I have said from the beginning that the armed forces of the United States should not be the policeman of the world. Instead, we must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances. NATO’s 29 democracies demonstrated that strength in their commitment to fighting alongside us following the 9-11 attack on America. The Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations is further proof.
“Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions — to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies. That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense.”
“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.
“Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”
In fact, the letter’s reference to advancing an international order most conducive to U.S. interests also makes clear that Mattis is a card-carrying globalist. For the defining feature of this school of thought is that because the United States lacks the ability to defend and promote its essential goals on its own, it has no choice but to nurture and support global systems that will do these jobs for it – even if such policies degrade some of its own power and wealth.
I’m not saying that because he’s a globalist, Mattis is wrong and good riddance to him from a policy-making position. Instead, I’m saying that, typically for adherents to this school of thought, Mattis evidently doesn’t know, or refuses to acknowledge, the possibility of an alternative approach, one that relies above all on America’s own considerable strengths and advantages, to security, prosperity, and freedom. I made the case for such an approach last year in this article for The National Interest (which also pointed out that the President’s actions – lamentably – haven’t been nearly as America First-y as his rhetoric).
Equally disturbing, the months since his resignation last December, Mattis seems to have overlooked the continuing emergence of evidence undermining continuing faith in globalism. Just three of the most obvious:
(a) the determination of the major allied economies of Europe and Asia to keep fence-sitting in America’s economic and strategic conflict with China – in large part because so many of them make so much money supplying the PRC’s export-focused factories;
(b) the ongoing failure of most of these allies to pay any reasonable share of the common defense;
(c) the bitter economic conflict that’s broken out between Japan and South Korea, which mocks the idea that the American military can rely on any effective help from them against aggression from North Korea or China; and
(d) the major progress made by North Korea and China in developing the kinds of nuclear forces that have created an unprecedented and needless risk of nuclear attack on the American homeland – needless because the wealthy countries anchoring the U.S. alliance system in East Asia refuse to build adequate defenses for themselves. In other words, tightly linking America’s fate to such deadbeats could wind up incinerating a major American city…or two…or three.
So welcome to the foreign policy/grand strategy debate, General Mattis. Now how about addressing its most difficult questions seriously rather than simply repeating decades-old globalist mantras?