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On the 20th of December, United States secretary of Defence Jim Mattis became the last in a long line of Trump administration officials to resign from their posts. Uniquely, this departure comes with a clear reason — a protest on major policy positions. Mattis stated that the U.S. needs to be more assertive with countries employing an “authoritarian model” — namely, Russia and China — and argued that “… we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours”.
This resignation’s coinciding with Trump’s withdrawal of all-American troops from Syria does not seem to be coincidental. While there may be other motivations for this action, it is also in clear alignment with the desires of Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, who found Mattis’ departure favourable. It may be the case that the withdrawal of troops had been the final straw for Mattis, after it followed Trump’s exit from the Iran nuclear deal and the halting of military exercises in South Korea.
The most alarming implication of his resignation is this: Mattis is the last of the generals that seemed to have had a hand in restraining Trump and his unorthodox foreign policies. Ex-CIA director, John Brennan, tweeted; “… Republicans, how much longer are you going to let this farcical ‘presidency’ continue? At a time of such political, economic, and geo-strategic turbulence— both nationally and globally — are you waiting for a catastrophe to happen before acting? Disaster looms.”
Furthering this point, senior Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, Mark Warner, wrote, “This is scary. Secretary Mattis has been an island of stability amidst the chaos of the Trump administration.”
The concern here stems from the one common denominator in Trump’s erratic tenure as President — this being that his actions appear to all be aimed at ensuring his political survival by appeasing his conservative supporters. The removal of American troops from Syria sets a dangerous precedent in terms of pursuing world peace. Part of a campaign promise to increase U.S. isolation globally in order to protect national interests, this action may precede alarming decisions, such as a NATO or South Korea withdrawal.
In terms of Asia, Mattis’ leaving represents a loss of continuity. Despite Trump’s barrage of incendiary material on Twitter, Mattis continued to operate the U.S. defence bureaucracy with stability and predictability. Despite the role he played in the implementation what can only be described as “Trumpian” policies, such as bans on transgender personnel, Asian leaders saw him as an indication of a continued alliance.
Just last week, Trump was prepared to deliver the blunt message to Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that his troops were not to cross into Syria and interfere with the battle against ISIS. The message that was instead delivered was that ISIS had been vanquished, and that U.S. presence in Syria was no longer necessary. The question of the true necessity of American intervention in the Syrian crisis aside, what this deviation reveals is an alarming rift between the U.S. president and his security team.
Essentially, Trump’s behaviour resembles that of a trapped animal. The investigation into Russian collusion, Michael Cohen, and the stock market crash — all of these instances seem to be creating a president who feels the need to lash out and make drastic decisions to garner support. With Mattis departing, there seems to no longer be a member of Trump’s administration that can stymie such behaviours.
Mattis’ resignation and the following decisions that have been made regarding U.S. national security indicate a looming threat. As is stands, we see the delicate web of geopolitical alliances and tensions tearing. Furthermore, if Trump’s current relationship with Russia and the resulting foreign affairs policy is any indication, this resignation could be a factor leading to a significant shift in global power.
It is not to say that the U.S. hegemony has been synonymous with peace and diplomatic resolutions to complex issues. However, increasing Russian power would likely not be a more viable path. Carrying with it a fixation on pan-slavism, the political ideology concerned with the unity of Slavic speaking peoples, culminating most recently in the annexation of Crimea, Russian foreign policy to date does not seem to set the most impressive track record conducive with peaceful negotiation and non-violent measures. Put simply, Mattis resigning makes for a president unchained, and may have unpredictable effects on the delicate network of global political tensions.