Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Mattis visit unlikely to calm Trump-rattled allies

President's Trump’s taste for melodrama and conflict undercuts US envoys such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis with his South Korean counterpart Han Min-Koo in Seoul on 3 February. (Photo: Kim Jong Hyun /Getty Images)
US Defense Secretary James Mattis with his South Korean counterpart Han Min-Koo in Seoul on 3 February. (Photo: Kim Jong Hyun /Getty Images)

This is a weird time for US allies in Asia. This week’s visit by the new American Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, to northeast Asia should be a routine alliance maintenance trip. A new presidency brings new people and new ideas. Officials need to make the rounds and get up to speed. But under President Donald Trump, it is not clear if Mattis actually speaks for the White House, and what a White House it is.

The new president’s behaviour toward allies is nothing less than astonishing. In the 70 years of American not-always-but-reasonably liberal hegemony, one is hard pressed to think of a major US official, much less the president himself, attacking allies so publicly. In less than two weeks, Trump has gone after Mexico, Britain, Germany, and Australia. (Because everyone knows Australia has been fleecing the US for decades and had it coming! At least we can steal its oil.) No one really knows what this means yet. Alarmists are already saying this is the end of the liberal world order. That is probably an exaggeration, but Trump’s purposeful, theatrical ambiguity encourages such speculation.

Trump’s taste for melodrama and conflict also undercuts US envoys such as Mattis. What kind of reassurance can Mattis offer if Trump will tweet out something later that challenges his statements? Indeed, Trump has already done this to Mattis on this trip. Simultaneous with Mattis’ voyage, Trump was declaring Japan a currency manipulator. Trump has attacked Japan over economics for decades, and considering that South Korea basically lifted its growth model from Japan, one can easily foresee the same sorts of criticisms. (Here is the quarterly US Treasury Department report on currency manipulation, and yes, it does specifically call out Japan and South Korea, and China and Germany.) In fact, so unnerved is Tokyo that despite Mattis’ traditional reassurance guarantees, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is cooking up a plan for Japanese investment in the US to assuage Trump when they next meet. What matters now is not the boilerplate alliance rhetoric we have heard for decades, but Trump’s personality with all its reality TV-fed affectation for drama, conflict, suspense, and so on.

Beyond Trump’s own psychology is the problem of his (likely purposively) chaotic White House. Trump’s staff and cabinet are all over the place on policy commitments; ranging from traditionalist like Mattis, to Islamophobic super hawks like National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, to clash-of-civilisation white nationalists like Stephen Bannon. A positive interpretation would call this a 'team of rivals'. Far more likely is that it represents Trump’s own penchant for intra-organisational conflict over which he sits as the final arbiter dispensing favour. This policy 'process' too will undercut Trump subordinates. Empire-building and turf wars will encourage competing factions to release conflicting statements. Allies will be confused as to who speaks for what. The extraordinary profusion of leaks already from this White House suggests that this internecine conflict is even now underway.

The emerging winner appears to be Bannon, which will likely unnerve US allies. Although he lacks foreign policy experience, Bannon has nonetheless clawed his way onto the National Security Council. He was also the force behind the recent partial Muslim immigration ban. Bannon has indicated that he sees Islam and the West in a Huntingtonian clash, and that a Sino-US war is probable. If Bannon is indeed this influential, then US allies may well see a need to cultivate a relationship with him, as unattractive a prospect as that might be, if only to prevent being ‘chain-ganged’ into a conflict Bannon wishes to pursue. In Asia, Trump has already gone out of his way to provoke China over Taiwan. This is a well-established red-line for China, and the People’s Liberation Army has hinted at a military response. This would obviously put Japan, South Korea, and Australia in a very awkward position.

George W Bush’s government gives us some precedent of what to expect, namely, chaos. He too was a conservative Republican with little aptitude to read and grow, with weak cognitive skills, prone to snap judgments from his 'gut', and surrounded by clashing empire-builders, most notably Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The outcome of this 'doughnut' model of leadership – thick staff circling a thin center – was predictably disordered. Bush was widely seen as a naïf who was conned into major actions he did not understand, most notably the Iraq War. His low evaluation of competence lead him to appoint friends and cronies who ultimately tarred his administration with blunders such as the botched follow-up of the Iraq invasion or the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. When he left office, his approval ratings were dismal.

This is almost certainly an analogue for the Trump administration, only worse. Like Bush, Trump is not a reader. But it is worse, as Trump has said he does not read books at all and wants reports to him to be as short as possible. Like Bush, this leaves Trump susceptible to the last voice he hears on various topics and easily lead into others' projects. Under Bush, Cheney was the manipulator until Bush realised just how badly the vice president was damaging his reputation and cut him out in his second term. Under Trump, Bannon appears to be emerging as the internal Svengali-Dr Strangelove. Like Bush, only worse, Trump is nepotistic, leaning on family and friends rather than merit to staff his upper tiers. In Bush's case, this lead straight to Iraq, Katrina, the Great Recession, and a reputation for incompetence. Trump, in just his first week, already suffered nepotism costs in the badly bungled rollback of the Muslim travel ban. Like Bush, Trump makes decisions from his gut with an eye to macho posturing. Trump has already witnessed the cost of that style in the botched commando raid in Yemen.

Most noticeable in the comparison is that every problem Bush had is aggravated under Trump. Bush, for all his faults, came from a political tradition that respected America’s institutions, and in time, Bush learned to stop making rash decisions and start listening to experts instead of ideologues, most noticeably in his genuine second term efforts to get a deal with North Korea. Trump, by contrast, is completely unmoored from the American establishment. He won by destroying two American dynasties – the Bushes and the Clintons – and tearing down both political parties. His brash, 'winging it' style has, somehow, remarkably, worked so far. He presumably sees no reason to listen to the experts and traditionalists he vanquished.

So why listen to Mattis too much then? He represents exactly that establishment world Trump just bested on the back of a remarkable populist upsurge allegiant to him no matter what. Bannon did far more for Trump than Mattis, and his populist/nationalist instincts fit the mood of the West. Perhaps the Democrats will win in an anti-Trump wave in 2018; the opposition party normally does well in US mid-term elections anyway. But if not, American allies should consider politely ignoring traditionalists like Mattis and start following the frightening musings of Trump and his inner handlers.

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