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General Mattis: The hope of the side

'We will still be there. And we will be there with you'.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore (Photo: Sanjit Das/Getty Images)
US Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore (Photo: Sanjit Das/Getty Images)

It’s the topic du jour. How far will the US withdrawal go and how will it affect the US-led, rules-based, global order that has served the world so well for 70 years?

US President Donald Trump campaigned on an America First platform and in the White House has matched deeds to words. First there was the pull back from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Last week came the announcement the US would pull out of the Paris climate agreement. What next? On Saturday at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis sought to reassure, speaking of his country's 'enduring commitment to the security and prosperity of the region'.

But for many, the most telling moments of the session came after the speech and during the Q&A. Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove asked Secretary Mattis a pointed question on the rules-based order in which, Dr Fullilove noted, ‘President Trump appears to be an unbeliever’.

Citing the TPP, Paris, and alluding to the Trump administration’s often disparaging attitude toward NATO, Dr Fullilove asked: ‘Why should we not fret that we are present at the destruction of that order. Please give us cause for optimism General’.

When the answer came, it was illuminating. The assertion that fresh approaches should be expected from a new president was not unexpected. It was what came next that caught the room’s – and soon after the world’s – attention. Secretary Mattis said the US will remain an international leader (‘Like it or not, we are part of the world'). He said the nation had learned from its isolationist phase between the World Wars of the last century about what a ‘crummy world’ it would be ‘if we all retreat inside our borders'.

Finally, and most surprisingly, Mattis ended by paraphrasing a quote generally attributed to former British PM Winston Churchill.

To quote a British observer of us from some years ago: Bear with us. Once we have exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.

So, we will still be there. And we will be with you.

This quote, followed by a reassurance that ‘we are standing with the NATO allies 100 percent’, was quickly picked up by the world’s media including the Washington Post, The New York Times, Bloomberg and The Economist in this blog post which noted ‘there was something 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.'

You can watch an edited version of the question and answer exchange below. Video of the full plenary session is available here at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue site.  A transcript of the session is here.  

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