HONG KONG – The abrupt resignation of U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has governments from Seoul to Brussels on edge, as the reliability of American alliances and the direction of policy under an erratic leader comes increasingly under question.
The former marine general was widely seen a moderating force against President Donald Trump’s hostility toward traditional American alliances and overseas troop commitments, and had come to be described as “the last adult in the room.’ Besides the immediate moves to pull forces from Afghanistan and Syria, Mattis’s departure could have ramifications for U.S. standing around the world, from North Korea to Europe, where Trump’s criticism of NATO has prompted calls to form a continental army.
Here’s a look at how the change impacts some global tension points:
Over the long history of postwar disputes between the U.S. and Japan, their security pact has often proved an anchor. Trump threw that into doubt by not only threatening to levy auto tariffs against Japan, but questioning its contribution to security. Since taking the job, Mattis has repeatedly visited to share reassuring words about the alliance with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“When the Trump administration was straying off course, it’s not an exaggeration to say that it was Mattis who just about managed to keep foreign policy to the proper line,” Akihisa Nagashima, a former vice defense minister of Japan and now an opposition lawmaker without party affiliation, said on Twitter. “The outlook beyond February next year is unclear.”
Mattis leaves at a perilous time for South Korea, which is grappling with the price of Trump’s detente with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, including his unilateral decision to suspend joint annual military exercises. While the president has repeatedly questioned the necessity of having some 28,000 troops on the peninsula and pressed Seoul to pay more for its security, Mattis was a vocal proponent of maintaining the alliance.
Mattis’ exit — especially after he clashed with Trump over troop withdrawals elsewhere — could encourage Kim’s efforts to negotiate a reduced American presence directly with the president. On Thursday, North Korean state media published a commentary saying that the removal of the U.S.’s nuclear weapons from the region was a condition of its own disarmament.
“If Trump does not get his way, and as his legal and political peril worsen in the coming weeks, it’s not inconceivable that Trump might order a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea,” said Daniel Pinkston, a lecturer in international relations at Troy University in Seoul.
The timing of Mattis’ resignation and the announcement of a partial U.S. troop withdrawal could drastically undercut efforts under way to end the 17-year-long conflict in Afghanistan.
The troop withdrawal will be demoralizing for Afghan security forces, Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said via email.
‘For the Taliban, it’s a best-case scenario. It’s a propaganda coup and tactical triumph rolled into one — the Taliban has managed to get U.S. troops to withdraw without giving anything up, and it now has a huge battlefield advantage to look forward to,’ Kugelman said. ‘Mattis’ departure smooths the way for Trump to implement his decision.’
The Middle East has already been jolted by a series of policy about-faces under Trump, from the undoing of his predecessor’s deal with Iran, to his decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem to the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria.
While Trump justified the Syria move by saying the U.S. has scored “historic victories” over Islamic State, the decision has drawn bipartisan criticism from lawmakers who warned it leaves Syria’s future in the hands of Russia and Iran, the primary backers of President Bashar Assad.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been preparing to start a military operation in northeastern Syria targeting America’s Kurdish allies, a group known as the YPG, which Turkey views as a terrorist organization. The YPG has been seen as the most effective counter to Islamic State — they will be left to fight alone after the U.S. withdraws, and are likely to face increasingly severe attacks from Turkey.
The reshuffle at the Pentagon will only exacerbate already deep concern in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which evolved from its Cold War role opposing the Warsaw Pact to support U.S. military action in Afghanistan. After Trump initially failed to recommit the U.S. to the alliance’s mutual-defense pact and withdrew from the Paris climate accord, it fell to Mattis to reassure allies: “Bear with us. We will still be there, and we will be there for you.”
With him gone, allies in Europe are losing confidence that there’s any resistance within the administration to Trump’s “America First” policies. Another influential Cabinet member, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, has echoed the president’s more critical view of the European Union, the United Nations and a host of other international organizations, saying in a Brussels speech this month “they must be reformed or eliminated.”
‘For U.S. allies, Mattis’ departure is bad news as this further increases Trump’s unpredictable behavior in internationally tense questions and could bring about further weakening of U.S. positions,” Marko Mihkelson, head of the Estonian parliament’s foreign affairs’ committee, said in an interview with Delfi news. “Trump clearly wants a person in charge of the Pentagon who would be obedient to the White House and would enact president’s decisions incontrovertibly.”
South China Sea
Mattis struck a middle road on one of Asia’s biggest potential flash points, the South China Sea. He reassured China’s neighbors with more frequent naval patrols and tough rhetoric criticizing Beijing’s efforts to expand its military footprint on reclaimed reefs in the disputed water body.
While he dubbed China a “strategic competitor,” he advocated engagement between the world’s two largest economies, saying “competition doesn’t mean hostility.” His talks with Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe helped ease tensions after a near collision in the South China Sea, leading to a Washington meeting in which both sides agreed the “military-to-military relationship could be a stabilizing factor” for ties.
“The Chinese side in general thinks Mattis is a rational and cautious person and is worrying about who will replace him,” said Sun Zhe, co-director of the China Initiative at Columbia University. “Under Mattis, U.S. and China armies have some contradictions in the South China Sea and arms sales to Taiwan, but the conflict has not escalated and mutual exchanges were continuing.”
For the Kremlin, Mattis’ announcement capped a sweep of wins the Kremlin had long desired but didn’t believe would ever happen. But the jubilation was measured in public statements, and some were tinged with anxiety about what the U.S. retreat might mean for conflict zones where Russia’s now left as the primary foreign power.
While the U.S. secretary of defense represents the traditional American view of projecting power all over the world, “Trump looks at all of these positions pragmatically,” said Oleg Morozov, a member of the international affairs committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament.
“In Syria, the effort to depose Assad has failed so there’s no longer any point to the American presence. It even discredits the U.S. to an extent. It’s easier to pull out. It’s the same in Afghanistan, where there isn’t and won’t be any long-awaited victory,” Morozov said. “Putin is victorious here in the sense that he offered a more effective strategy.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s reaction was less triumphant — and less certain. He said he couldn’t speculate on what decisions Mattis may have kept Trump from making, but warned that the unpredictability of U.S. policy was a growing risk.
“When stability and predictability give way to unpredictability, surprise and, shall we say, a certain chaotic nature in various decisions, that of course is a cause for discomfort and concern,” he said.