U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has wrapped up his first visit overseas in his new job, a trip that took him to South Korea and Japan. Mattis provided calming reassurance in both countries, reaffirming the U.S. commitment to both allies and the priority the Trump administration gives to Northeast Asia. Mattis’ message is vitally important as the world focuses on the spectacle that is President Donald Trump; it must not overlook the signals of continuity in U.S. foreign and security policy.
While Trump as a candidate said many things that troubled allies and encouraged adversaries, since taking office, his administration’s statements about alliances in Asia have hewed closely to traditional policy of the United States. The decision to send Mattis to Asia on his first overseas journey as defense secretary is a clear sign that those allies retain a singular importance in U.S. thinking, a message that he reinforced in both countries.
In South Korea, Mattis was blunt. After meeting South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo, he pledged that “Any attack on the United States or on our allies will be defeated and any use of nuclear weapons will be met with a response that will be effective and overwhelming.”
That message was reiterated and reinforced in Tokyo. In his joint news conference with Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, Mattis was unequivocal, noting that “The alliance between the United States and Japan is enduring and will remain as the cornerstone of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region.” He affirmed that the Senkakus fall under Article 5 of the security treaty and that the U.S. will assist in their defense.
Equally soothing to Japanese ears was his statement that the Japanese-American cost-sharing approach is “a model for other nations to follow.” There should be no fights over host nation support. While many in Okinawa are likely to have been dismayed by his determination to pursue plans to move the U.S. Marine Air Station Futenma to a replacement site in the northern part of the island, the ongoing presence and the commitment to reducing the U.S. military footprint are more reassuring signs of continuity.
While gratified by the visit and the statements, alliance watchers worry that Mattis’ comments may have limited value given his mercurial boss. That concern is understandable. Even as president, Trump has demonstrated periodic contempt for pillars of U.S. policy and shows little discipline when speaking extemporaneously. But amusing and alarming though those comments may be, they are not U.S. policy. They may introduce uncertainty at the time, but subsequent reaffirmations from people like Mattis or the secretary of state are the statements that guide foreign and security policy.
Still more reassuring are signs that Trump values Mattis’ judgment and thinking. While the president sought people who “looked” the part when selecting Cabinet officials, Trump was especially taken with Mattis. He likes to refer to him as one of “my generals,” and takes particular delight in repeating his nickname, “Mad Dog.” It is not clear where that name comes from; his call sign was “chaos,” which stood for “Colonel Has An Outstanding Solution.”
More pertinent is his reputation as a “warrior monk,” a label that reflects his penchant for study of military history, leadership and the arts of war. He understands the Clauswitzian dictum that “war is politics is politics by another means,” and is thus acutely sensitive to the political decisions that frustrate the realization of military objectives. He has been one of the loudest voices in the new administration pushing back against the president’s view that torture works and appears to have convinced the president to abandon attempts to reinstate that policy. Like every true military leader, he knows well the cost of war and knows it must always be the last resort for policy makers.
The challenge now is for the two governments to follow up on this encouraging visit. One important step is resumption of the “two-plus-two” process, the meeting of the two countries’ foreign and defense ministers that institutionalizes goals and objectives for the alliance. The Security Consultative Committee, as it is more formally known, is the primary mechanism for the two governments to lay out a shared vision for their partnership, to align threat perceptions and agree on a course of action to address them. Mattis agreed to convene a meeting soon, noting that “There is no complacency in terms of the alliance. We know we must adjust to the changing security situation.”
More immediate, however, is the visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Washington on Friday. That summit is intended to build upon the relationship the two men developed when they met in November. Abe took the initiative for that visit and that effort should stand him well as he tries to consolidate the relationship.
In the upcoming visit, however, the two leaders will address the entire range of issues within the bilateral relationship — significantly, to include trade and economic matters. While the Mattis visit indicates that the two governments see eye to eye on security concerns, there is more room for friction on economic issues. Indeed, there is a danger that Trump, a transactional negotiator, may use progress on security affairs to press for concessions on economic matters. Abe must parry those demands, while working with Trump to strengthen the bilateral partnership in all levels. It promises to be a difficult task, but the U.S. defense secretary’s visit to Japan should make that outcome easier.