Mattis’ History Lesson: Allies Matter, Michael Stricof

                Michael Stricof, doctorant, Aix-Marseille Université

Le secrétaire américain à la Défense James Mattis

Secretary of Defense James Mattis has one of the hardest jobs in Washington today. This is not merely because he steers the largest bureaucracy in the government, managing over $700 billion, 2.87 million employees and 4800 physical sites. The massive entity known as the Department of Defense works closely with others around the world. It maintains a presence in 164 countries according to its public facing materials.1 This means working withother nations more often than fighting against them. And for the last two years the already difficult task of maintaining friendly relationships with allies has not been simple.

It is supposed to be easiest with Europe where old cultural ties underpin the most important US alliance, NATO. Rocky transatlantic relations are nothing new, of course, but the last two years have been particularly tense. France’s recent push for “Strategic European Autonomy” (autonomie stratégique européenne) might not be the predominant thought in Mattis’ mind, but he is aware that allies have been balking ever since Trump took office.2

So the Secretary of Defense took special care while in Brussels for the October NATO Defence Ministers Meeting to show that the United States remained committed to its main alliance. At his press conference after the meeting, Mattis focused on the defense budget and the general popularity that NATO maintains in Congress, without mentioning Trump, the White House or the executive branch of government. According to Mattis, this legislative support “demonstrates an enduring American bipartisan commitment in Washington to keeping the fabric of our trans-Atlantic alliance strong and a clear recognition that NATO is central to American national security interests, a theme echoed across Europe and Canada.”3

These comments are nothing new. In the statement for his confirmation hearing by the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis made frequent promises to work with allies, concluding, “History is clear: nations with strong allies thrive and those without them wither.”4 Mattis has spent a considerable amount of time since then reassuring partners while staying out of the media spotlight which has frequently been synonymous with Trump’s “You’re fired!” crosshairs. Alliances have gained considerable ground in official US defense strategy, a noteworthy development when the President and his National Security Advisor John Bolton tend towards rubbing the rest of the world the wrong way. Rather than get caught up in the drama of moments like Trump’s cringeworthy performance at the United Nations in September, a complex picture of US relations with the world needs to take into account the positive steps the Secretary of Defense has taken to emphasize transatlantic ties.

The newest National Defense Strategy (NDS) was released on 19 January 2018. As has been noted elsewhere, Mattis very much claimed ownership for the document.5 The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) which it replaces was understood to be a faceless “Pentagon” or “Department of Defense” production, not owned nearly as directly by outgoing Secretary Chuck Hagel.6 While the main idea of the NDS can be summed up as a return of great power conflict, it also serves a signaling role to allies that the DoD, if no one else, remains a steady force of American engagement in the world.

The 2014 QDR makes frequent references to allies, but nearly always in passing. “We will continue to maintain a strong military posture in the Gulf region – one that can respond swiftly to crisis, deter aggression, and assure our allies and partners…” or “Given our deep and abiding interests in maintaining and expanding European security and prosperity, we will continue our work with allies and partners to promote regional stability…” are typical examples.7 “Allies and partners” appear at every turn, but the words add little meaning. Perhaps in 2014 American reliance on institutions like NATO was so obvious that it needed no further focus.

In 2018, the highest defense authority in the nation very much thinks that alliances should be in focus. “Strengthening alliances and attract new partners” is one of only three major strategic goals given its own heading in the NDS, and the two pages of explanation under this heading represent nearly 20% of the document.8 “Defending allies from military aggression” is one of the primary defense objectives explicitly outlined elsewhere in the document.9 The fact that this is a short, public facing document only strengthens the case that Mattis is sending a message to other branches of government and allies who are likely to actually read this text.

Mattis is known to be an avid reader of history,10 and his new NDS contained an important history lesson for his own administration and allies:

In the decades after fascism’s defeat in World War II, the United States and its allies and partners constructed a free and open international order to better safeguard their liberty and people from aggression and coercion. Although this system has evolved since the end of the Cold War, our network of alliances and partnerships remain the backbone of global security.1

1Mattis, 2018 National Defense Strategy, op. cit. 8, 2.

By going back to the end of the Second World War in particular, Mattis can on the one hand rely on the moment when the US was most respected in the world, and on the other pay special attention to the oldest US allies who need the most reassuring recently. In a quiet game of public documents and foreign press conferences that generally go ignored in the US, Mattis has become the nation’s chief diplomat for consistently defending international security ties, especially with Europe. This has been underscored by the NDS’s more subtle request to “Be strategically predictable” and by statements like Mattis’ unequivocal support for British and Dutch accusations of Russian cyber-interference in Belgium.12

There is a legitimate critique that has been leveled about the potential deterioration of civilian control over the armed forces if the US is relying so heavily on military men for civilian leadership. This is connected to a larger debate that has been gaining attention in the US about weakening civil-military relations, often focused on the failures of “thank you for your service” to replace critical civilian oversight.13 And it can been extended to diplomatic spheres by fears that “mission creep” occurring as the military takes over more and more functions abroad weakens diplomacy, makes the US more likely to resort to military force, or distracts the Pentagon from its main missions.14

Nevertheless, in a time when the president of the United States can in the same day cozy up to a hostile foreign leader and hang up on a friend or during the same trip insult an ally and then have a tête-à-tête with that same enemy, when the State Department has been gutted,15 and one of the most belligerent diplomats in the nation’s recent history holds the reigns at the National Security Council, there are few signs that the US is maintaining its leadership in the world to assure the nations still numerous friends. Mattis is still there, the only remaining member of the original “axis of adults” said to be composed of him, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson and former assistant to the secretary for national security H.R. McMaster.16 In many ways he is running an independent diplomatic strategy via military-to-military contacts like the NATO Minsters Meeting, which he clearly hopes will be enough of a sign that the US can still lead.

At the end of his press conference in Brussels, Mattis described the meeting as “a show that we stand quietly together in unity in terms of maintaining peace and prosperity here in Europe. And we don’t need any more misbehavior by anyone.”17 He overtly was talking about Russian cyber attacks, but it is easy to wonder if he didn’t have another misbehaver in mind that he has to keep in check, all while keeping his own profile quiet. Mattis can only hope that Europe and the world are getting his message rather than the one being shouted out by his boss.

1Department of Defense website, accessed 5 October 2018

2Nathalie Guibert, “Défense : Paris doute des intentions américaines en Europe,” Le Monde, 12 September 2018, accessed 5 October 2018,; “Autonomie stratégique européenne,” Institut français des relations internationales, accessed 5 October 2018,

3James Mattis, News Conference, NATO Headquarters, Brussels, 4 October 2018, accessed 5 October 2018,

4James N. Mattis, “Senate Armed Services Committee Nomination Hearing Statement,” 12 January 2017, Dirksen Senate Office Building, accessed 6 October 2018,, 2.

5Mara Karlin, “How to Read the 2018 National Defense Strategy,” Brookings Order from Chaos, 21 January 2018, accessed 5 October 2018,

6“DoD Releases 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review,” Arthur D. Simmons Center for Interagency Cooperation, 19 May 2014, accessed 5 October 2018,; Gregory Sanders, David J. Berteau, Ryan Crotty, Samuel J. Brannen and Maren Leed, “The 2014 QDR ad FY15 Defense Budget: What Are We Watching for,” CSIS Commentary, 10 March 2014, accessed 5 October 2018,

7Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review 2014, Washington, DC, 2014, 20.

8Jim Mattis, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge, Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2018, 4.

9Ibid., 8.

10Dexter Filkins, “The Warrior Monk,” New Yorker, 29 May 2017.

11Mattis, 2018 National Defense Strategy, op. cit. 8, 2.

12Mattis, 2018 National Defense Strategy, op. cit. 8, 6; Idrees Ali and Robin Emmot, “Russia Must Be Held Accountable for Cyber Attacks: Mattis,” Reuters, 4 October 2018, accessed 6 October 2018,

13Mara E. Karlin and Alice Hunt Friend, “Military Worship Hurts U.S. Democracy,” Foreign Policy, 21 September 2018, accessed 1 October 2018,

14Gordon Adams and Shoon Murray, eds., Mission Creep: The Militarization of US Foreign Policy? Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2014.

15Jack Corrigan, “The Hollowing Out of the State Department Continues,” Atlantic, 11 February 2018, accessed 1 October 2018,

16Ilan Goldenberg, “Here’s How Trump’s ‘Axis of Adults’ Weathered the First 100 Days,” Foreign Policy, 28 April 2017, accessed 5 October 2018,

17Mattis, News Conference, op. cit. 3.

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