James Mattis speaks to government class

by Debora Hyemin Han | 9/24/18 3:00am

Combining matters of foreign policy with a message of citizen involvement, United States Secretary of Defense James Mattis delivered remarks to around 200 Dartmouth students, faculty and staff on Friday, speaking about his goals as Secretary of Defense and making a call to action that reaffirmed citizens’ role as the “connective tissue” between the military and “other parts of democracy” in the United States.

The private event at the Black Family Visual Arts Center, organized by former College president James Wright, Trustee Emeritus Peter Robinson ’79 and Director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding and former U.S. Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, marks Mattis’s third visit to campus — the most recent being in 2013 when Mattis was the Class of 1950 Senior Foreign Affairs Fellow at the Dickey Center. It was held as a part of government professor Michael Mastanduno’s Government 54, “U.S. Foreign Policy” class, though other students, faculty and staff associated with the Dickey Center were invited to attend.

The event also marks a visit to campus at a “tumultuous” and polarizing time in the country, as noted by Benjamin in his opening remarks for the event.

Mattis began his main remarks by contextualizing the nation’s current foreign policy concerns, which he characterized as breaking out of a period of “strategic atrophy” that began after the Cold War. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mattis said, Americans believed that they were living in a period of peace — and while the events of 9/11 altered that understanding, a “strategic view” had not been imposed, even then. Today, however, the shift to be made in the nation’s foreign policy is clear, according to Mattis.

“While terrorism [is a] clear and present danger — it remains a significant threat — great power competition … is now our primary challenge,” Mattis said. “It’s increasingly clear that China and Russia seek to shape the world consistent with their authoritarian models.”

Mastanduno, who co-moderated the event, said in an interview after the event that the United States’ foreign policy interests have been on the war on terrorism for the past 15 years, and while the Secretary’s remarks do not mitigate that, they do signal a recalibration of the government’s priorities.

“In terms of emphasis, in terms of what the United States should focus most on, I think he’s signaling … [a] discernible shift in the area of a return to the ‘normalcy’ of great power competition,” he said.

Within the realm of great power competition, Mattis zeroed in on China, saying that there is “no reason” to think that China would not mirror its authoritarian model when reaching out to the external world. He noted the dichotomy between areas in which the United States seeks collaboration with China, such as in de-nuclearization efforts on the Korean peninsula, and areas in which the two countries confront one another, such as the clash between China and the U.S. in the South China Sea. While he called America’s relationship with China a “strategically uncomfortable” one, he said that having a relationship with China is necessary — and that the relationship must be defined by a balance of both confrontation and collaboration.

Jennifer Lind, a government professor who studies rising powers, said that as a scholar who focuses on this area of international politics, specifically China, it was “gratifying” to hear Mattis’s remarks that reinforced this administration’s focus on threats from great powers, especially since these threats had gone relatively “unaddressed” throughout the period of focus on the Persian Gulf.

When speaking about the Department of Defense’s national strategy, Mattis focused most on the importance of allies. He offered a counter-message to what is reflected in the media, saying that while news headlines do not reflect it, the reality is that many nations around the world — ranging from Mexico to Finland to India — still desire to have strong relations with the U.S.

In an interview after the event, Benjamin emphasized the Secretary’s attention to alliance-building, saying that it is a “strong message” that does not break into public view often because the opposite — deteriorating relations — are usually portrayed more.

“I think that what was important [about his remarks] was not just that he’s spending time on it in some kind of a damage control sort of way, but that there is really an affirmative agenda there, and that he recognizes just how our alliances and our partnerships make us stronger militarily, but also in terms of legitimacy and in our values,” Benjamin said.

Mattis’s message about the importance of allies stands out against actions by the president that have alienated some of the U.S.’s oldest allies, such as at the G7 summit this summer, when he was late to a gathering of leaders and later insulted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Twitter. Mattis’s remarks about China, in saying that the U.S. should not just be confronting China, also stand out against Trump’s continual escalation of the trade war between China and the U.S. His administration added new tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports over the weekend.

Indeed, Mattis’s visit falls just days after he denied quotes attributed to him from Bob Woodward’s upcoming book on the Trump presidency in which he compares Trump’s intellect to that of a “fifth or sixth grader,” and only weeks after an op-ed in the New York Times by an anonymous senior White House official described internal tension and disagreement within senior members of the Trump administration.

Liam Davidson ’20 prompted the Secretary to address this elephant in the room, asking during the Q&A whether Mattis agreed with the depiction of his role by many in the media as the “adult in the room who works to check the president’s worst impulses.” Mattis denied this, emphasizing the caliber of those who serve the president and affirming that those who serve the president have “open” conversations with him.

Answering Davidson’s question, however, Mattis said that it was a “concern” that Americans seemed to be losing “fundamental respect” and “fundamental friendliness” for one another.

Nevertheless, Mattis remained hopeful that this feature of our nation’s current reality was mendable, echoing a theme of optimism and belief in America that underscored the entirety of his remarks. Drawing on Dartmouth’s “long history of service to the nation,” Mattis told students that they hold this legacy of the school in their hands, and called on them not to fall into cynicism and to serve the nation in a variety of ways.

Davidson said that this message of civic engagement resonated with him and other students he spoke with after the event.

“[It was] an important message for people who are aspiring young leaders, like our generation, as we start to prepare to leave Dartmouth and go out into the real world,” he said.

Government professor Benjamin Valentino, who directs undergraduates in the War and Peace Fellows program at the Dickey Center for International Understanding, said that Mattis’s dedication to speaking to undergraduates was “extraordinary.” Emphasizing Mattis’s lifetime career in public service, Valentino said that it was heartening to see someone like Mattis work so actively to get others involved, especially in a time when people have many bad things to say about the government.

“He wants our young people, smart young people like the ones here at Dartmouth, to make similar choices with their lives and devote themselves to something bigger. He’s obviously someone who believes deeply in America and the whole concept of America,” Valentino said. “He’s not ready to give up on that.”

Indeed, Mattis both began and ended his remarks with a call to action that seemed to encapsulate his view on the nation today.

“We have a beautifully imperfect experiment that we call America,” he said. “And we’re going to need all of you.”