Call us crazy, but we think a man sometimes referred to as “Mad Dog” has some valuable things to say about cooperation and order.
Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, despite his colorful nickname, provided a voice of reason and steady hand to the Trump Administration’s largely volatile approach to American engagement around the world. We, and others, were troubled to see him depart in December 2018.
At the time, Mattis penned a resignation letter to the president extolling the value of global alliances and partnerships, along with highlighting the imperative of “being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors.” Mattis wrote that the president deserves a defense secretary “whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects.”
That seemingly was a very respectful nod to the president’s not always respectful treatment of some U.S. allies under his “America First” banner. By that point in President Donald Trump’s tenure, our commander-in-chief had raised questions about the U.S. commitment to NATO and feuded with many allies, including Canada and Germany on trade. More recently, he managed to complicate relations with Denmark, a country we should be working with to counter Russian activity in the increasingly important Arctic region, all because the Danes didn’t want to sell us a largely autonomous part of their kingdom.
Mattis has returned to the spotlight amid this backdrop as he promotes a new book. And while he’s clearly selling something, he at the very least continues to make a compelling argument that America must once again buy-in fully to our relationships with partners and allies around the world.
“I believe strongly in allies. I think that’s our unique strength. When [New York City] was hit on 9/11, back in 2001, within 60 days I was fighting in Afghanistan. And joining me there were troops from Canada and the United Kingdom, Norway and Germany, Turkey and Jordan, New Zealand and Australia,” Mattis said during a CNN interview. “Now, none of their cities had been attacked. They were there because we were there, because we had been attacked. Our values had been attacked.”
It’s not as if this message of cooperation is coming from a safe-space advocate who is preoccupied with feelings and wants everybody to be nice to each other. Mattis is a battle-tested retired Marine Corps general. When asked on CBS in 2017 about what keeps him awake at night, Mattis didn’t hesitate. “Nothing, I keep other people awake at night,” he responded. Mattis’ Marine call sign may have been “Chaos,” but he nevertheless has extensive experience and a valuable perspective on world order and what binds us together.
“What are the shared values inside our country? We don’t talk about these right now, we only talk about what we don’t share,” Mattis lamented during the same CNN interview. “What are the shared values among the allied nations?”
America should be using its microphone to trumpet the virtues of liberty, human dignity and equality while reinforcing alliances and calling out bad actors. Instead our president appears unwilling in many instances to confront Russian aggression and mistakenly uses praise as a negotiation tool with autocrats like Kim Jong Un. To his credit, Trump has been willing to stand up to China on trade, but even in that regard his unpredictability has caused confusion both at home and abroad.
Mattis, for his part, has been careful not to directly criticize Trump and his administration since his departure, evoking the French concept of “devoir de reserve” — the duty of silence — in order to give his former commander and administration space to tackle the “grave responsibilities” they confront.
That’s admirable. But we don’t share his hesitancy, and have no problem saying that the president’s willingness to pursue an America-first strategy, often at the expense of longstanding and strategically critical international relationships, continues to be a serious mistake that reverberates around the world.