Allies Relied on Mattis. Now They're Worried.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis has sent a shock wave through American politics. But its impact overseas may be just as disruptive.

Since President Trump took office, American allies have been hedging about hedging: They have been exploring alternatives to relying on the U.S., but have been doing so more cautiously than one might have expected. They have been taking this approach, in no small part, because they hoped Mattis and other "adults in the room" would manage Trump's destructive impulses. With Mattis gone, however, reassurance will be harder to come by. Hedging will become more pronounced, and the strains on U.S. alliances will intensify. 

When Trump was elected in 2016, U.S. allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific had every reason to panic. Trump had described them as deadbeats during the campaign. He had argued that Japan and South Korea should develop nuclear weapons so America could pull back from their defense and let them keep North Korea at bay. He had even proposed leaving the Baltic states to fend for themselves if Russia attacked. 

Trump’s behavior didn’t get any less concerning after November 2016. During the transition, the president-elect implied that he might reduce U.S. support for Taiwan in exchange for trade concessions from China. After taking office, Trump's initial refusal to endorse NATO's Article 5 commitment to mutual defense, his repeated tantrums at alliance summits, and his bonhomie with President Vladimir Putin of Russia and other aggressive dictators all seemed tailor made to wreck the credibility of U.S. alliances – and to force the allies to consider other options. 

Some of this has clearly been going on: It would have been the height of irresponsibility for officials in Poland, Japan or Australia not to be thinking about how to defend their countries in a post-American world. Yet over the past two years, this hedging has nonetheless been quite cautious and carefully calibrated.

The Australian government did release a white paper calling for stronger partnerships with other medium powers as insurance against U.S. retrenchment, but it also labored diligently to preserve the relationship with Washington. Shinzo Abe's Japan stepped into the breach after Trump abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but also worked overtime to protect the U.S. alliance. The EU has taken modest steps toward a more independent European defense, and Emmanuel Macron has called for a true "European army." But even the European leader Trump has most tormented – Germany's Angela Merkel – shot down the idea that Europe should serve as a "counterweight" to the U.S. and reiterated that the continent still needed American military power. Other allies have performed the same balancing act: discreetly exploring future options while clinging as tightly as possible to the U.S. 

They have done so for a variety of reasons: The paucity of real, near-term alternatives to relying on America, fear of further alienating the president, hope that Trump would be turned out of office in 2020. Yet U.S. allies also believed that they could rely on officials like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and especially James Mattis to rein in the president.

Virtually all of America's traditional partners invested heavily in their relationships with Mattis, viewing those relationships as insurance against presidential hostility. This approach yielded some benefits, such as additional Pentagon funding for the European Deterrence Initiative, a National Defense Strategy that put pushing back against Russia and China at the top of the agenda, and other indications that actual U.S. policy was changing less than presidential rhetoric had.

Yet even before Mattis's resignation, this approach was becoming harder to sustain. In early 2018, McMaster and Tillerson were replaced by John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. In each case, Trump fired an individual who had been a moderating influence and replaced him with an official more sympathetic to the president's America First agenda. Meanwhile, Trump's provocative style has made it harder for leaders like Macron, Merkel and Theresa May of Britain to maintain any semblance of normality in their relationships with the president.

Finally, Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from Syria – and reports that he may slash the U.S. presence in Afghanistan – signaled that even Mattis could no longer prevent the president from leaving partners in the lurch.

Mattis's departure thus comes at a time when nervousness among U.S. allies is palpable. His remarkable resignation letter – which strongly hints that he views Trump’s approach to global affairs as naïve and even dangerous – has surely amplified that anxiety. Francois Heisbourg, a well-connected French foreign policy expert, tweeted almost immediately that "America's allies are already reviewing all options." Officials in London, Berlin or Tokyo can still hope for a shift in U.S. policy after 2020. They can no longer expect that they will have a Mattis to protect them in the meantime. 

The near-term result of Mattis’s departure will thus be to empower individuals – such as German foreign minister Heiko Maas – arguing for a sharper reorientation of policy, and to weaken those who argue for a wait-and-see approach. In Europe, discussions of “strategic autonomy” will become louder and more urgent, even though the continent’s ability to make great strides in that direction is still quite limited.

Most worryingly, countries that are on the front lines of today’s great-power competitions will face harder decisions about how to protect their interests. Officials in the Philippines, for instance, had previously indicated that they might review their Mutual Defense Treaty with the U.S. in light of Washington’s reluctance to clarify the extent of its commitments in the South China Sea. If Mattis is replaced by a less reassuring figure, Filipino officials may be tempted to distance themselves from Washington as a way of mitigating pressure from Beijing. And if Trump uses Mattis’s resignation as an opportunity to take aim at another alliance commitment he has long loathed – the presence of U.S. forces in South Korea – then hedging tendencies in Seoul, Tokyo and other allied capitals in the Asia-Pacific and beyond will be dramatically exacerbated.

One of the key dangers of Trump’s presidency was always that it threatened to weaken U.S. alliances at a time when international threats are growing and the need for cohesion is as great as ever. With Mattis’s departure, that danger has grown significantly.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.