January 19, 2019

U.S. Allies Will Miss Mattis

“The resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis has sent a shock wave through American politics. But its impact overseas may be just as disruptive.

Since President Trump took office, American allies have been hedging about hedging: They have been exploring alternatives to relying on the U.S., but have been doing so more cautiously than one might have expected. They have been taking this approach, in no small part, because they hoped Mattis and other “adults in the room” would manage Trump’s destructive impulses. With Mattis gone, however, reassurance will be harder to come by. Hedging will become more pronounced, and the strains on U.S. alliances will intensify.

When Trump was elected in 2016, U.S. allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific had every reason to panic. Trump had described them as deadbeats during the campaign. He had argued that Japan and South Korea should develop nuclear weapons so America could pull back from their defense and let them keep North Korea at bay. He had even proposed leaving the Baltic states to fend for themselves if Russia attacked.

Trump’s behavior didn’t get any less concerning after November 2016. During the transition, the president-elect implied that he might reduce U.S. support for Taiwan in exchange for trade concessions from China. After taking office, Trump’s initial refusal to endorse NATO’s Article 5 commitment to mutual defense, his repeated tantrums at alliance summits, and his bonhomie with President Vladimir Putin of Russia and other aggressive dictators all seemed tailor made to wreck the credibility of U.S. alliances – and to force the allies to consider other options.

Some of this has clearly been going on: It would have been the height of irresponsibility for officials in Poland, Japan or Australia not to be thinking about how to defend their countries in a post-American world. Yet over the past two years, this hedging has nonetheless been quite cautious and carefully calibrated.”

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