Category Archives: Current Column

This Column deals with current developments worldwide. Due to our global network of contributors we get insight into local issues, that might not yet have made the evening news.
Thereby we aim to provide a far-reaching understanding into issues that might normally pass you by.

The resignation of James Mattis: The first minister to stand up to President Trump and the last connection to his allies leaves the administration

by Franziska Spindler, participant in the FAC at the BEF 2018

International cooperation with the U.S. has become significantly more complicated in times of the Trump administration. Frequent changes within the cabinet1 forced the international diplomatic actors to constantly readjust their strategies relating to the U.S. This made it hard to assess their reactions and to carry on consistent negotiations. Within the NATO – an international organization valued by most of its members but viewed with distain by President Trump – collaboration has always been of utmost importance. This cooperation seemed secure with James Mattis as the American Secretary of Defense and the international community was granted an ally and competent strategist. He views international alliances as the core reason for the strength of the United States2.

Yet on December 20, 2018, James Mattis decided to resign in protest by releasing a public letter addressed to President Trump in which he explains his decision with the missing alignment of his and the President’s views3. The consequences of his resignation for both the U.S. Security Policies and the NATO members are yet to be bided.

Before James Mattis became the Secretary of Defense under President Donald Trump, he built a distinguished career in the U.S. Military and the NATO forces. As Defense Secretary, he became well known and respected by his colleagues and allies within the NATO for his tendency to ignore the President’s skeptical views regarding the alliance and his ability to foster stable cooperation between the member states and (European) allies. Even though he failed to stop President Trump from withdrawing from the nuclear treaty with Iran, he did manage to support the NATO’s determined stance against Russia regarding the conflict in Ukraine and he influenced the air strikes against Syria in a way that didn’t provoke Russia, which could have further fueled the ongoing conflict 4. In reaction to earlier comments like “be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet”5, the press gave James Mattis the nickname “Mad Dog Mattis” which was used until the end of his tenure by President Trump despite Mattis’ efforts to prevent it6. Regarding his work ethics, Mattis acted to the contrary of this nickname – his constant efforts to shape the U.S. defense policy in a moderate and ally-friendly way stabilized the transatlantic collaboration.

After President Trump’s announcement to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Syria, James Mattis resigned by releasing a public letter addressed to the President in which he clearly took a stand on the importance of international alliances for the strength of the United States, saying that “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”7. He clarified that the differing views of him and President Trump regarding the value of those alliances caused him to resign from his position.

While Russia welcomed the resignation of Mattis claiming that he supported (Anti-Russian) policies of the Democratic Party despite being a Republican 8, European leaders stood united in their reaction to Mattis’ resignation: many of them declared their dismay with his decision. Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister described James Mattis as “the remaining strong bond across the Atlantic in the Trump administration” and Norbert Rottgen, chairman of the German Bundestag, even went so far as to call him “the last voice of reason” of the Trump administration9. Beyond that, the resignation also sparked reactions in Australia, China and Japan. Peter Jennings, executive officer of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and former government defense strategist, reported that him and other government officials were left asking “which adult is left in the room?”10. Japanese officials on the other hand don’t see their relationship to the U.S. endangered and Chinese officials even assess the resignation of the China-skeptical Secretary of Defense a chance to improve their relationship with the Trump administration11.

In order to guarantee a smooth transition and to maintain the office’s work efficiency, James Mattis had planned for his resignation to take effect on February 28, 2019. On December 23, 2018, President Trump surprisingly announced that Mattis’ successor, former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan, was going to stand in from January 1, 2019 on but the search for a final successor continues. According to senior administration officials, the negative news coverage following Mattis’ clear words caused the President to remove him from office two months early. Some even suppose that President Trump along some of his advisers suspect Mattis to be involved in a campaign to display the President negatively12.

It remains yet to be bided what the actual consequences of the resignation/removal of James Mattis will be for the U.S., the NATO members and the international power structure. A huge influence on future power switches will be Mattis’ final successor, whose views and policies will most likely be way more compliant with those of President Trump. America’s allies will probably have to brace themselves for a Secretary of Defense who follows his President’s ways of disregarding the rules of alliances and diplomacy, and find a way to defend the values and use of organizations like the NATO regardless of President Trump’s skepticism.

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.

 

References

1 Keith, T. (2018). ‘Trump Cabinet Turnover Sets Record Going Back 100 Years’. National Public Radio. [online] Available at: https://www.npr.org/2018/03/19/594164065/trump-cabinet-turnover-sets-record-going-back-100-years [30 December 2018].

2 CNN (2018). ‘Read: James Mattis’ Resignation Letter’. CNN. [online] Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/12/20/politics/james-mattis-resignation-letter-doc/index.html [30 December 2018].

3 Ibid.

4 Ross, A. (2018). ‘Schlag in die europäische Magengrube‘ Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. [German, online] Available at: https://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/trumps-praesidentschaft/kommentar-zum-ruecktritt-von-james-mattis-15953456.html?premium&_ga=2.104675206.747781084.1545905473-1079424275.1511530205 [30 December 2018].

5 Tatum, S. (2018). ‘Mattis: ‘Mad Dog‘ Was A Nickname Given By The Press’. CNN. [online] Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2017/01/12/politics/james-mattis-mad-dog-nickname/index.html [3 January 2019].

6 Ross, A. (2018). ‘Schlag in die europäische Magengrube‘ Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. [German, online] Available at: https://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/trumps-praesidentschaft/kommentar-zum-ruecktritt-von-james-mattis-15953456.html?premium&_ga=2.104675206.747781084.1545905473-1079424275.1511530205 [30 December 2018].

7 CNN (2018). ‘Read: James Mattis’ Resignation Letter’. CNN. [online] Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/12/20/politics/james-mattis-resignation-letter-doc/index.html [30 December 2018].

8 Maza, C. (2018). ‘Russia Welcomes Mattis Resignation, Says He Shared Democrats’ Policies, But Europe’s Leaders Panic’. Newsweek. [online] Available at: https://www.newsweek.com/james-mattis-resignation-russia-europe-nato-1268259 [30 December 2018].

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Perlez, J. and Mullany, G. (2018). ‘Mattis Resignation and Afghan News Alarm U.S. Allies’. The New York Times. [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/20/world/asia/mattis-resign-afghanistan-withdrawal-trump.html [30 December 2018].

12 Rucker, P., Lamothe, D. and Dawsey, J. (2018). ‘Trump Forces Mattis Out Two Months Early, Names Shanahan Acting Defense Secretary’. The Washington Post. [online] Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-forces-mattis-out-two-months-early-names-shanahan-acting-defense-secretary/2018/12/23/b78a0478-06d2-11e9-a3f0-71c95106d96a_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.91c32d3f02f2 [30 December 2018].

The “Gilets Jaunes”: The individuals caught between multilateralism and every day life

by Evelyn Shi, participant in the FAC at the BEF 2016

Though decreasing in number, the “Gilets Jaunes”-protests have led to increased violence in the last weeks, forcing Macron into an interim suspension of his reform agenda. In a 13-minute broadcast, he tried to address the anger in the population[i] – but his concessions might have been “too little, and too late” [ii]. Especially because how France is handling the situation is essential not only regarding national security but also Macron’s standing on the international arena. But the miscommunication between the government and its people is not only a problem in France, but the fight against extremism must also, therefore, be handled with extreme caution in order to not internationalize this technique of protest – if it is not already too late, looking at the French-inspired protests in Belgium and the Netherlands[iii].

A yellow vest – the symbol of the current protests in France

After weeks of partly violent demonstrations in France, their government has agreed to an interim suspension of the planned fuel tax rises, the announcement of which led to the recent mobilization throughout the whole country. This protest movement is named after the yellow vests, obligatory to carry in all vehicles according to French law: Arguably a symbolic choice representing the average citizen, who seems to be targeted most by the currently suspended rise in fuel prices. This was the straw, which broke the camel’s back, causing the people to demonstrate their general discontent with the high living costs in France. President Macron has, for the first time, publicly addressed the population and announced measures to calm the anger. Among these measures is a rise in the minimum wage. But the problem goes further, as the French people have felt misrepresented and unheard for some time now:

Their antagonism arises from a miscommunication that has been taking place in France, alienating the government from its people. As popular and respected as President Emmanuel Macron may be in Europe and the world, an icon for restoring the values- and the rules-based multilateral world, the incomprehension and discontent of his national policies is steadily growing. Driven by his foreign policies, Macron is trying to reform the country itself to make it more attractive and competitive more competitive, in Europe and the world. The most controversial reforms passed in his current presidential term were done with this intention: The reformed labor laws, for example, were passed by decrees – therefore undermining a parliamentary and thus democratic debate. This, however, is not an uncommon occurrence in France. The idea is that a good economy would benefit everyone in the long-term. But in the meantime, this can negatively affect those individuals, who have little securities regarding their working conditions and employment. According to a poll from Elabe[iv], 87 % of French citizens find that the passed reforms under Macron have not improved their purchase power and therefore did not contribute to a better economy. This dissatisfaction with Macron’s reforms has gone so far, that 69 % of the citizens demanded a “pause” of reform activities[v].

A fuel tax – the cause for the protests

The situation did not improve when Macron’s ministers started to resign earlier in autumn, one of them the minister for ecological transition, Nicolas Hulot. Beloved by the people, he explained his resignation with an insolvable dissent with the President, who does not seem to prioritize the ecological transition as much as Hulot had expected. The rising fuel prices, though planned already under the former President Sarkozy, therefore come at a bad time. As good as the intent to tackle environmental issues and to further implement the Paris Agreement on Climate Change is on an international level, the measures were not sufficiently explained to the French citizens. As a result, they only see that the government’s policies do not strengthen the individual’s purchasing power and therefore the national economy, a topic that seems to be so essential on Macron’s presidential agenda. The people think that the government is failing them and their country, and this is what populist leaders around the world have been waiting to see happen to their opponents: Following the fourth protest, for example, US President Trump stated on Twitter: “The Paris Agreement isn’t working out so well for Paris. Protests and riots all over France. People do not want to pay large sums of money, much to third world countries (that are questionably run), in order to maybe protect the environment. Chanting “We Want Trump!” Love France.”

After the third protest, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe had to cancel his trip to the climate conference in Poland in order to tackle the national insurgency, while Macron was at the G20 Summit in Argentina when the until now most violent protest took place. This absence most likely did not improve the French peoples’ view of their President. One must remark at this point, however, that organized protests are not unusual in France. The big difference this time is, that the protests were initiated without elected representatives, but rather out of a movement on social media. This has led to various actors trying to claim a leadership position in the movement, extremist opposition leaders being among them. The French government accused far-left leader Jean-Luc Melénchon and his far-right counterpart Marine Le Pen of having called for their voters to violently infiltrate the protests. The opposition leaders have denied these accusations[vi].

The government sought dialogue with the yellow vests, but proved to be difficult due to reported death threats to spokespeople who were willing to talk in the name of the protestors: The BBC, for an example, reported of such threats to Jacline Mouraud, a 51-year-old accordion player from Brittany, who had reached six million views with her online video on the carbon tax[vii].

Protests – partially turning violent

The government anticipated the fourth round of protests with the closure of tourist attractions and the deployment of 89.000 polices officers throughout the country[viii]. Despite decreasing in number and their now more frequently violent protests, the remaining yellow vests see their demands acknowledged by the broader public and the government. Yet this behavior is too perilous to be conditioned in the long run, as the general public disapproves to the methods deployed by the protesters. Additionally, it is risky for Macron to give them all they want. If they get their way through violence and without discussions and compromises, what is going to stop them from further demands against the government’s policies? Macron’s address to the nation might have calmed those, who have already backed down with the suspended fuel taxes. However, Macron did not sufficiently address the middle class with the announced measures, even though they are the ones who have the most to lose. Furthermore, it is doubtful, whether the extremist part of the movement will be satisfied with his concessions. In fact, even far-left politician Melénchon has called for further protests the following weekend.

It is essential for Macron and his government to find their way back to the people, to re-establish the French peoples’ trust in their Head of State. As important as he currently is as a key player to restore the multilateral world order, his credibility lowers with his rising unpopularity in France. Surveys have found that Macron’s popularity has decreased to a new low of 23 %[ix]. Constructive dialogue must be sought, but it is not violence that should lead to concessions – especially not in times, where Europe is torn between the people and their governments. France’s national mobilization is being watched throughout Europe and the world – and could set precarious precedents if dealt with wrongly.

 

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.

 

References

[i] Rose, M, Irish J. (2018). ’To quell unrest, France’s Macron speeds up tax cuts but vows no U-turn’ Reuters. [online] Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-protests-economy-lemaire/to-quell-unrest-frances-macron-speeds-up-tax-cuts-but-vows-no-u-turn-idUSKBN1O90LP [11 December 2018]

[ii] Willsher, K. (2018). ‘Police flood into Paris to contain gilets jaunes’ The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/08/paris-police-flood-streets-gilets-jaunes [8 December 2018]

[iii] Rossignol, C, Emmott, R. (2018). ‘Brussels police arrest hundreds in ‘yellow vest’ riot’ Reuters. [online] Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-belgium-protests/brussels-police-arrest-hundreds-in-yellow-vest-riot-idUSKBN1O70OP

[iv] Elabe. (2018). ‘Les réformes jugées inefficaces et injustes par une majorité de Français’ [online] Available at: https://elabe.fr/reformes-executif/ [7 December 2018]

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Willsher [2], K. (2018). ‘French ‘gilets jaunes’ protests turn violent on the streets of Paris’ The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/24/french-gilets-jaunes-protests-turn-violent-on-the-streets-of-paris [6 December 2018]

[vii] BBC. (2018). ‘France fuel protests: Who are the ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests)?’ [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-46424267 [6 December 2018]

[viii] Willsher, K. (2018). ‘Police flood into Paris to contain gilets jaunes’ The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/08/paris-police-flood-streets-gilets-jaunes [8 December 2018]

[ix] Willsher, K[1]. (2018). ‘Macron scraps fuel tax rise in face of gilets jaunes protests’ The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/05/france-wealth-tax-changes-gilets-jaunes-protests-president-macron [6 December 2018]