Elephants in the Room
James Mattis’s Reassurance Tour Is Winning Admirers But Not Believers
The defense secretary is limited in how much he can reassure allies when his boss's erraticism is making them so unsettled.
SINGAPORE — Secretary of Defense James Mattis gave a terrific speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore this weekend. It would have been solid and unremarkable in any American administration of the past 70 years; it was exceptionally sensible in the current climate. But we may be seeing the limits at which a defense secretary can take positions at variance with the actions of the president and still reassure allies. Because virtually every question asked him was a variant of “how can that be true?”
The speech was delicately attuned to Asian allies’ sensibilities. Mattis emphasized America’s commitment to working with allies to preserve the rules-based international order (which, as Ankit Panda pointed out on Twitter is “a digestible euphemism for light and benevolent US hegemony.”) Mattis used the reassuring phrase repeatedly. His remarks were shot through with emphasis on shared values — even stressing the importance of Thailand returning to democracy. He described China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea as showing “contempt” for other nations and committed that the United States would not use the security of our allies as bargaining chips. He described America’s primary effort as strengthening our alliances.
His laudable remarks were met with deep skepticism, however. He was interrogated about whether the United States was seeking to tear apart the international order it had built after World War II, even though his speech was laced through with explicit praise for that order. American disengagement from the world was the running theme of every anxious conversation. A Chinese participant mischievously asked what international law provided the basis for American freedom of navigation, given that the United States is not party to the Law of the Sea treaty.
America’s Asian allies clearly want to believe in us. There is an enormous amount of respect for Mattis among the government officials and defense experts convened here in Singapore. Several questioners prefaced their remarks with praise for him as a bulwark of reason in the administration. But it could not and did not escape notice that the secretary’s views on trade, the value of alliances, and the nature of the international order are at wide variance from those expressed by the president of the United States, and also by the national security advisor. Even Malaysia’s defense minister, after the speech, expressed his wish to know President Donald Trump’s true policies for the region.
Mattis’s experience and good judgment have reassured allies wary on Trump’s views. When pressed on the administration’s actions running counter to his description, Mattis wearily appealed for patience, repeating the British refrain that America will do the right thing once it has exhausted the other possibilities. But America’s allies in Asia, most of whom have narrow margins of error before our mistakes severely damage their security and prosperity, did not find that prospect reassuring.
The Trump administration’s eroding credibility is a serious problem for the United States. Especially in Asia, where America’s many allies and partners feel exposed to Chinese intimidation, and where the United States has elected to dial up attention on North Korea’s nuclear progress and provocations. Our allies are right to be nervous about the gap between our stated policies and the likely behavior of the president if challenged. Successfully carrying off the policies outlined by Mattis at the Shangri-la Dialogue requires focused attention this president has not demonstrated himself capable of.
The dedication of our defense secretary to reassuring policies and friends cannot be a substitute for presidential commitment, and despite all of Mattis’s good efforts, he’s losing his ability to camouflage its absence.
Photo credit: ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images