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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].

Diplomatic Solutions to the North Korean Nuclear Crisis?

By BEF 2017 NATO-Participant Brandon Roth

New South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, is at the center of a major North Korean diplomatic policy shift. Talks on the peninsula have the potential to change the political fault lines of the world’s largest nuclear powers. North Korean dictator, Kim Jon-un, contacted his long time Southern rival and the United States to discuss the North’s growing nuclear arsenal and sanctions. Recently, the UN imposed tough isolating measures that have further isolated the rogue North. World leaders are welcoming the change, however a diplomatic miss-step in world’s most volatile region could threaten international stability for years to come.

Questions remains, namely did Kim Jong-un chose a diplomatic solution due to strict UN sanctions as President Trump claims? Or is the dictator emboldened by his declaration of a nuclear weapons program capable of targeting both Europe and the US with nuclear ballistic missiles.

With the prospect of talks on the horizon, North Korea remains defiant as they recently activated a nuclear reactor with the potential to produce weapons grade Plutonium.

The Trump administration did not hesitate to accept the dictator’s unsolicited invitation. Claiming political victory, President Trump championed his policy of economic warfare against the world’s last Stalinist regime. “The president has made it clear, companies that help fund North Korea‘s nuclear ambition will not do business with the United States” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a February statement.

Many have voiced concerns current sanctions on the rogue nation may cause famine and starvation for the 25 million citizens isolated in the secretive North. After famine killed an estimated 2.4 million North Korean citizens in the 90’s, the US, South Korea, Japan and China began providing 75% of North Koreas food and energy trade. Recent estimates suggest 70% of the population continues to be undernourished.

After recent sanctions, China now provides 90% of North Koreas food and Energy trade, according to the UN Security Council.

Source: Stephan Haggard, professor of Korea-Pacific Studies at the University of California-San Diego. UNSCR refers to United Nations Security Council Resolutions.

Before the diplomatic shift by the North’s Supreme Leader Kim, President Trump claimed a victory by convincing China to back UN Resolution 1718 and 2375. This was an unprecedented move by China against its US$ 8 billion trading partner, North Korea.

The historic support of sanctions by China highlights recent strains in the China-North Korean relationship. However, China’s conflicted policy may have reached a turning point as the rebel leader tested nuclear weapons close to the Chinese boarder, sparking tensions and causing riots in the country.

Threat of conflict on the Korean Peninsula and uncertainty of the American role in the region has caused East Asian countries to quietly build-up their own capabilities. Many South Korean citizens support a homegrown nuclear weapons program and want the capability to provide their own security. Japan is working towards a larger alliance with India, Australia and is challenging the limits on its military capabilities imposed by Article 9 of its constitution.

The goal of talks with North Korea has always been the complete dismantling of its Nuclear Program. The U.S. has made it clear in the past, disarmament is required for future talks. However, in a 2017 meeting with Steve Bannon, he hinted the US “might consider a deal in which China got North Korea to freeze its nuclear buildup with verifiable inspections and the United States removed its troops from the peninsula”.

Accepting a nuclearized rogue state to the short list of nuclear powers is not an option. Even if North Korea didn’t launch a devastating nuclear strike, it has already proliferated its nuclear program beyond its borders. According to the CIA, the North Korean Regime secretly worked with Syria and Iran to exchange nuclear technology. Israel reacted to the building of a nuclear weapons plant in Syria by destroying its reactor in 2007. If Kim decided to work with terrorists, the results would be catastrophic.

 

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.

 

Sources:

Council on Foreign Relations. 2018. “The China–North Korea Relationship”. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/03/north-korea-south-korea/555245/