Who can tell us more about the future of US foreign policy – the erratic President Donald Trump or respected figures such as Defense Secretary James Mattis? As Dana Allin argues, if Trump does follow through on his threat to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement, it will make it harder for Mattis to convince Asia-Pacific allies that the US really does care about the future of the region.

© US Department of Defense

By Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs; Editor of Survival

US Defense Secretary James Mattis travels to Singapore to attend the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue this weekend for a by-now familiar, but no-less difficult, challenge: to convince American partners and potential adversaries that the wheels are not coming off his country’s foreign policy.

It will be a hard sell. The immediate context, of course, is Donald Trump’s first foreign trip as president, from which he returned last weekend. It went well enough at first. Trump appeared, for whatever reason, to feel at home in Saudi Arabia, and his Saudi hosts, with other invited Arab leaders, were pleased by the president’s re-affirmation that US policy will now move to be more in line with their own implacable hostility towards Iran, as well as his assurance that the days of human-rights lectures – such as they got tired of hearing from both the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations – are over.

His reception in Israel was rather more mixed. For one thing, it has dawned on many right-wing Israelis that the administration might not rubber stamp their Greater Israel dreams. Perhaps more significantly, the president’s mercurial personality is simply unnerving – as when he appeared to reveal Israeli-shared intelligence with Russian guests in the Oval Office. (As Steven Simon and I wrote last week, the incident – while containable in its damage – confirmed the worries of a recently retired, very senior Israeli security official, who told us when we visited Israel in January, that the incoming president’s unpredictable character posed a potential threat to his country.)

The European leg was a disaster. Trump somehow could not bring himself to deliver the simple and unconditional reaffirmation of NATO’s Article V commitment that his aides had promised would be forthcoming. He was more motivated to lecture Chancellor Angela Merkel about Germany’s trade surplus with the United States, complaining specifically about car sales while seemingly unaware that much of Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen production takes place in states such as North Carolina and employs almost three-quarters of a million Americans. (There is, to be sure, a strong case that net German over-saving contributes to chronic international imbalances, most egregiously in Europe itself, but this is not a case that the US president seems suited to deliver.)

European leaders were clearly shaken, if not altogether surprised, by the roughness of their encounter with the new president. Merkel herself expressed her disquiet at a campaign stop in a Munich beer hall, suggesting, not for the first time, that Europe may no longer be able to rely on the United States, and may have to rely more on itself. This provoked another Twitter eruption from Trump.

There was one thing above all that the Europeans hoped to hear from Trump – a reaffirmation that the United States will abide by the Paris climate accord. They didn’t hear it; the president said he would decide sometime this week. His decision, expected to be announced in the afternoon of 1 June, will be, by far, the most important news of this week, and it is a subject that should be discussed, as has happened in past years, at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue. Indeed, it is an excellent example of one of the central, recurring dramas of the Trump presidency so far, revolving around the question of whether the erratic president, or respected figures such as Mattis, can tell us more about the future of US foreign policy.

The New York Times reported Wednesday on a major struggle in Washington and the US more broadly to shape the decision, with corporate leaders, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former head of Exxon, urging the president to abide by the accord that was signed by President Obama. Secretary Mattis himself stated in his January confirmation hearings that ‘climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today.’ This includes, obviously, the Middle East, including Syria where already occurring climate change likely contributed to droughts that, in turn, helped precipitate the country’s devastating civil war.

It is important to emphasise the words already occurring. Plausible scenarios for the future range from the mere exacerbation of ongoing misery and insecurity to a truly catastrophic impact on the course of human civilisation. Early affected areas include population centres of the Asia-Pacific region. And the conclusion that the United States couldn’t care less will undoubtedly spill over into other areas of American diplomatic effort. If the US does pull out, then climate change will move to the top of the list of acute long-term threats that other countries may decide they have to handle without US leadership.


This post is part of the 2017 IISS Shangri-La Voices blog. It will provide a lively mix of news and views from the 16th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, taking place in Singapore from 2–4 June.

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