DONALD TRUMP’S America still stands by allies in Asia and Europe, and “I can give you absolute optimism about this issue,” the Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, told an audience of generals, diplomats and security types at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 3rd. His words were stirring, and just what the gathering longed to hear. Perhaps no member of the Trump administration has as much worldwide credibility as Mr Mattis, a former four-star Marine general with no political background, revered by his peers as a ferocious yet learned “warrior monk”. But deep down the room did not believe him.
Mr Mattis is a distinguished man in an unenviable position. His mission here in Singapore is to reassure allies and warn foes that America remains the ultimate guarantor of the rules-based international order that has brought years of nearly uninterrupted peace and prosperity to Asia. But if he does that job too well and insists that America’s global role is unchanged, who will think that he really speaks for President Donald Trump?
For all its high-tech staging (to ask a question, members of the audience must scan their ID badges on their microphone) the Shangri-La Dialogue has a distinctly pre-modern feel. It could be a conference in 19th-century Vienna, or perhaps the set of a James Bond film from the Connery era. Vietnamese generals stride past Australian admirals in tropical whites; a giant of a Fijian officer waits near a waif-like Saudi delegate, his gold-edged robe denoting princely rank. The tectonic energies unleashed by a rising China, a wavering West and an anxious Asia rumble beneath every meeting.
American defence secretaries are big news at the Shangri-La. Lexington is travelling with Mr Mattis this week on his official military plane, and even an inward-looking America puts on quite the show. The head of the Pentagon travels the world aboard a doomsday plane, a windowless, radiation-shielded military version of a Boeing 747, filled with the secure communications kit to run a nuclear war from aloft.
As soon as the giant plane landed in Singapore and we zipped into the city in a fast motorcade, Mr Mattis was straight into bilateral meetings with prime ministers and ministers of defence, all broadly wanting to ask the same two questions. One, how does Trump’s America see its national security interests in Asia—a question which in June 2017 essentially involves ranking two issues: the urgent threat of North Korea developing a nuclear missile capable of hitting America versus the long-term challenge of a China seemingly intent on becoming a regional hegemon, including by building air bases on contested reefs in the South China Sea? Two, when weighing its interests and values in foreign policy, how much weight does Trump’s America attach to values?
Mr Mattis used his formal speech to offer a carefully crafted answer to the first question. The short version of his reply is that America takes North Korea very seriously indeed and wants China to do more to rein in the regime there, but will not trade help in that sphere for concessions in the South China Sea that mock international law and the principle that all countries have equal rights regardless of size. The former general noted sharply that the North Korea regime has a “long record of murder of diplomats, of kidnapping, killing of sailors and criminal activity”. Its attempts to develop nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles are a “clear and present danger,” Mr Mattis added. The Trump administration believes that China will come to see North Korea as a “liability not an asset,” and hopes to see China’s words opposing a nuclear North Korea matched by actions.
At the same time, Mr Mattis did not soft-pedal his views on Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea. Accusing China of showing “contempt” for the interests of its neighbours, the defence secretary growled that America opposes “countries militarising artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law. We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo.”
Speak to American officials, and they insist that it is a false choice to suppose that Chinese co-operation over North Korea can only be bought with concessions in the South China Sea. To simplify, they suggest that this binary choice must be broadened to take in a wide range of other security interests, such as terrorism or global nuclear non-proliferation. They hint that American resolve in the South China Sea, perhaps involving increased freedom of navigation passages by warships and over-flights by airplanes, may demonstrate that as North Korea’s nuclear programme grows more dangerous, America’s appetite for risk will grow in lockstep.
In his public speech on June 3rd, Mr Mattis probably did as good a job as he could of answering that first question about interests. He was limited in what he could do when it came to the second query, about values.
There was something almost heartbreaking about the questions posed by the audience to the defence secretary, a lean man with a craggy face, the cropped silver hair of a Marine, and a laconic speaking-style. An Australian delegate noted Mr Trump’s dismissive comments about NATO, and his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a big trade pact, and from the Paris climate accord. Should the region worry that it is seeing the “destruction of the rules-based order”, the Australian asked. A member of the Japanese parliament wondered aloud whether America still shares “common values” with its allies, or just security interests.
This being a blog rather than a newspaper article, readers may indulge the author for quoting Mr Mattis’s replies at some length. The defence secretary is not a dissident within the Trump administration. He is a loyal servant of a democratically elected president. But in his defence of the post-war order, he was trying to tell his Asian audience that some principles and instincts are so deeply rooted in the American spirit that they can survive the swings and counter-swings of electoral politics.
This, then, is my transcript of Mr Mattis’s unscripted remarks, replying to those questions about the rules-based order. Hear, here, an old-fashioned public servant wrestling with the duty of serving a very different sort of president, but one who won an election promising an “America First” foreign policy.
Mr Mattis said: “Obviously, we have a new President in Washington, DC, we’re all aware of that, and there’s going to be fresh approaches taken.” But look at Mr Trump’s first foreign trip to the Middle East, he went on, and the president’s call on Arab allies and international organisations to work together on countering terrorism and bringing stability to the Middle East. Later in his reply, he argued that Mr Trump had visited Brussels to demonstrate that he stands by NATO allies “100%”. He further noted that Mr Trump had sent him to Tokyo and to Seoul on his first foreign trip as defence secretary, to make clear America’s commitment to its allies in Asia.
The middle passage of his reply was the interesting part. He said: “I think we have been engaging the world for a long time. Historically, the Americans have been reluctant to see themselves in that role. We were quite happy keeping between our two oceans, we were happy to stay there, but the 20th century took us out of that. At the same time we recognised, especially the Greatest Generation we called them, coming home from world war two, what a crummy world if we all retreat inside our own borders. How many people deprived of good lives during the Depression, how many tens of millions of people killed in world war two? Like it or not, we are part of the world. That carries through, for all of the frustrations that are felt in America right now with the sense that at times we have carried an inordinate burden. And that is still very deeply rooted in the American psyche, that engagement with the world. To quote a British observer of us from some years ago: bear with us, once we have exhausted all possible alternatives, we Americans will do the right thing.”
For all those anxious to see America remain a guarantor of democratic values in Asia, this is a hard moment. For it is the democratic process itself that forces men such as Mr Mattis to twist himself in knots, and to try to convince allies that America stands by certain unvarying principles, even though his commander-in-chief won office by vowing to tear down the status quo. You see, China can murmur to Asian governments now: democracies are unstable and inconstant.
Here at the Shangri-La Dialogue, delegates do not hide their relief that America has a principled, clever man as defence secretary. But the Pentagon cannot and should not be the final arbiter of how America balances values and interests in national security and foreign policy. That, ultimately, is the job of the president. And here among the Asian military and security establishment, that thought is not reassuring at all.