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.
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].
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].
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].