The former US Secretary of State has been critical of his former boss President Trump and his more isolationist policy, and is urging Joe Biden to return to the hypocritical ‘with us or against us’ old ways of the past 50 years.
General Mattis writes in Foreign Affairs with three other co-authors from U.S. think tanks, that President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ strategy should be replaced under Joe Biden with cooperative alliances. But will America still be calling all the shots?
The attitude of the US towards the rest of the world is black and white. There’s little room for nuance or neutrality. “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists,” then-President George W Bush said in a national address after the September 2001 terrorist attacks on American soil. In the same speech, Bush promised to “pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism.”
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Alright, fair enough. But it’s a worldview that’s rife with hypocrisy. The US could easily take issue with its own long-standing allies, or even with itself. From Afghanistan during the Cold War against the Soviet Union, to the support of Syrian rebel jihadists against President Bashar Assad, the US and its Persian Gulf allies have long fueled irregular, asymmetrical warfare through non-state actors. And in the specific case of the September 11 attacks, most of the terrorists involved were from Saudi Arabia – one of America’s top Middle Eastern allies. One would think that, based on America’s own criteria for ally selection, that would exempt the Kingdom from Team America.
More recently, the CIA concluded that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two years ago, and yet it clearly hasn’t made a dent in the US-Saudi alliance, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paying the Kingdom a visit just this week.
If America’s alliances were really just based on common values, then its alliances would look much different. There’s no reason why, for example, Iran should be treated any worse than the country of origin of Osama Bin Laden and the terrorists who brought down the Twin Towers in New York, flew a plane into the Pentagon, and have fueled the rise of modern-day terrorism.
General Mattis himself worked as an adviser to the Saudi’s “little brother” – the United Arab Emirates – prior to joining the Trump administration. The UAE has also backed non-state insurgents to advance common Saudi-Emirati interests across the region, from Yemen to Syria and into Libya.
Interestingly, Mattis and his co-authors don’t refer to American “values”, but rather to American “interests.” And indeed, it’s obvious that America’s choice of allies is really about its own interests rather than any kind of shared values.
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Europe, for example, shares America’s stated democratic values. It can also, however, diverge from American interests. The latest example is Europe’s desire to normalize business relations with Iran despite America’s withdrawal under the Trump administration from the 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement designed to limit Iran’s nuclear capacity in exchange for sanctions relief. Or the case of Europe’s joint Nord Stream 2 energy project with Russia. In both cases, the US turned to sanctioning its supposed allies when Europe threatened to pursue its own interests rather than America’s. This, despite their shared values.
The US doesn’t want allies based on values. It really just wants vassals to do its bidding. But Mattis now suggests a more subtle approach by “resisting the temptation to maximize U.S. gains at the expense of countries that share its objectives and, instead, utilizing the powers of influence and inspiration to enlarge the group of countries that work with the United States to a common purpose.”
The general seems to be suggesting that not every relationship with an American ally needs to be a maximally exploitative one. How benevolent. In that case, there’s no reason why nearly every country in the world can’t be a strategic ally of America’s rather than exploited as a rhetorical scarecrow used as-needed to gin up the notion of a permanent threat to America with the view of maintaining a steady flow of state funding to the American military-industrial complex.
It’s only really a cozy group of industrialists and shareholders who benefit from cherry picking America’s alliances in a way that often seeks to weaken its strongest competitors under the guise that they represent a national security threat. The average American, or even small or medium sized business, greatly benefits from increased opportunity brought about by opening markets, reducing global conflict, lifting sanctions, and playing on the same field long protected by a select few close to power for their own exclusive use and exploitation.
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