- Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis has been seen as a seasoned national security hand who acted as a check on President Donald Trump’s impulses.
- As Mattis has tendered his resignation, many experts are concerned that the president may act on some of his impulses, and that has US allies and partners, as well as rival powers on edge.
- Europeans see Mattis as a one of the last Trump officials to defend America’s transatlantic ties to Europe, and China sees him as a tough but predictable opponent.
Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis was a trusted expert with four decades of military leadership who acted as a level-headed check on an often impulsive president, but times are changing.
Mattis tendered his resignation Thursday night, reportedly in response to President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and leave the ISIS fight to others. The secretary’s resignation letter, a sharp rebuke of the president’s worldview, said that the president deserves a defence secretary who shares Trump’s views on alliances, adversaries, and the US-led international order.
Europeans see Mattis as a one of the last Trump officials to defend America’s transatlantic ties to Europe, and China sees him as a tough but reasonable opponent. His departure, in which he used his resignation to defend alliances as vital to American power, sent shock waves through allies and rivals alike.
China, a US rival in a time of rising global competition, is on edge as Mattis walks away.
“Mattis has been pulling the reins,” Qiao Liang, a Chinese Air Force major general and military strategist, told The South China Morning Post.
The US has increased pressure on China militarily, particularly in the disputed waterways of the East and South China Seas, often sending warships and bombers through contested areas. Mattis personally condemned China for “intimidation and coercion.
Qiao argued that despite Mattis’ occasionally hawkish tendencies, “he thinks beyond the current battle, and evaluates the overall strategic picture and its development and consequences,” creating a space for competent and predictable interaction.
“Our concern is who comes next,” Yue Gang, a retired People’s Liberation Army colonel, told The Washington Post, further commenting that “if Trump chooses a lackey who isn’t willing to serve as a balance to his instincts, the worry is that the world becomes even more unstable.”
In Russia, some are wondering whether relations, already in rough shape, will worsen. “Mattis was tough, but not without realism: He didn’t seek conflict with Russia,” Russian lawmaker Alexey Pushkov wrote on Twitter, The Post first reported.
In both Beijing and Moscow, there are also, of course, those who suspect that this could be an opportunity to see reductions in pressure, a positive change that better serves their respective interests.
As for America’s allies and partners in Europe and elsewhere, Friday morning was one of “alarm.”
“A morning of alarm in Europe,” Carl Bildt, a former prime minister of Sweden, stated on Twitter.
“SecDef Mattis is the remaining strong bond across the Atlantic in the Trump administration. All the others are fragile at best or broken at worst.”
The president has repeatedly criticised America’s closest allies, from NATO powers like Germany to South Korea and Japan, often expressing dissatisfaction with the financial contributions of other countries and arguing that the US needs to reevaluate its relationship with certain countries.
He has even raised the possibility of withdrawing troops supporting regional collective defence, and now there are concerns that Trump may act on moves that Mattis had helped restrain.
The US has already begun pulling troops out of Syria, and a drawdown in Afghanistan is imminent. Evidence suggests that the Trump administration is preparing to dramatically reduce America’s military presence in the Middle East, something felt strongly by Israel.
“Mattis believed that a strong American presence in the Middle East served as a buffer to Iran and other hostile elements,” Michael Oren, a deputy minister in the prime minister of Israel’s office, told The Post. “Today, as in the past, Israel will have to defend itself with its own forces.”
The shock of Mattis’ resignation is also felt in India, among other countries.
“Until now, you could talk about hedging, and all allies were doing it fairly prudently,” François Heisbourg, a former French defence official, told The New York Times.
“But now, everyone will have to work on the assumption that the alliance system is no longer there. The organisations are there, the treaties are there, the troops and equipment are still there, but the high priest of that church is gone.”
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