Speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual Asia security conference Saturday morning in Singapore, as part of the so-called Shangri-La Dialogue, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis demonstrated why he — unlike national security adviser H.R. McMaster — may emerge from the Trump administration with his integrity and stature intact. Mattis has avoided spinning for President Trump’s inexcusable behavior (as McMaster did after Trump gave Russia code-word classified intelligence) and from penning incoherent and embarrassing defenses for Trump’s “America First” policy. Rather than clean up Trump’s messes, Mattis spends his time speaking authoritatively about American values and interests, even if the words sound out of sync with, or even critical of, the president.
On Friday, Trump set off a firestorm with our European allies by pulling out of the Paris climate agreement. Trump is convinced our allies are robbing us blind, that our participation in bilateral and multilateral agreements is somehow rigged against us. By contrast, Mattis told the audience in Asia over the weekend: “The international order was not imposed on other nations. Rather, the order is based on principles that were embraced by nations trying to create a better world and restore hope to all.” He explained: “Those principles have stood the test of time, like equal respect for the international law, regardless of a nation’s size or wealth, and freedom of navigation and overflight, including keeping shipping lanes open for all nations’ commercial benefit. These principles underwrite stability and build trust, security and prosperity. . . . Nations with strong allies that respect one another thrive. And those without allies stagnate and wither.” Allies don’t rip us off; they strengthen us. “Alliances provide avenues for peace, fostering the conditions for economic growth with countries that share the same vision, while tempering the plans of those who would attack other nations or try to impose their will over the less powerful,” he said.
He acknowledged Americans’ historic aversion to overseas entanglements. But rather than irresponsibly encouraging that mentality, as Trump does, Mattis delivered some tough love. “Like it or not, we’re part of the world. That carries through for all the frustrations that are felt in America right now, for the sense that at times we have carried inordinate burden,” he said. “That is still very deeply rooted in the American psyche, that engagement with the world.” However, he reassured the crowd that “to quote a British observer [Winston Churchill] of us from some years ago, ‘Bear with us. Once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.’ ” He added, “So, we will still be there. And we will be there with you.”
Mattis disregards Trump’s a-factual ramblings and knee-jerk reactions to world events. He does not shy away from reinforcing two themes. First, the international world order — which Russia seeks to undermine — is a rules-based system we must tend to. The alternative is the law of jungle. Putting it in historical context, he observed that “the fight between those who want a rules-based order and those who try through coercion to find ways around it, frankly” is not new, but its outcome is not preordained. And second, we have alliances to preserve that system. He argued that “it’s simply something we have to work together on.” And the reason goes back to enlightened self-interest: “I think that one point I would make is that we have got plenty of valid reasons for many nations to work together in maintaining the rules-based order today. These are valid because we can quantitatively show the value in commerce and in security where we work together.”
In the zero-sum, bully-boy Trump mentality, our allies are a drain, a burden. His notion of “America First,” however, is a recipe for isolating the United States and undermining the rules-based international order, which inures to the benefit of Americans (whether they realize it or not). As clear and convincing as Mattis may be, he could give the president countless tutorial sessions but never penetrate Trump’s psyche. With Trump there is no learning or normalizing. He is — as we saw with his cringe-worthy, opportunistic tweets in response to the London attacks — defined by his crass, oafish ignorance.
Mattis, therefore, is left to manage his department, provide military strategy and guidance to the president (over the objection of political hacks who feel empowered to weigh in on issues like troop levels in Afghanistan) and, most important, engage in public diplomacy, which Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson seems entirely incapable of doing. Allies and foes correctly doubt that Mattis always speaks for the president (then again, Trump on a Monday doesn’t speak for Trump on Tuesday), but at least Mattis speaks intelligently and persuasively in defense of American engagement and international cooperation. He thereby may limit the amount of damage Trump can do — and hand off (sooner rather than later, we pray) some useful guideposts to Trump’s successor.