What James Mattis’ Resignation Says About America’s Place in the World
Far too many assumptions are being left unchallenged
When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions, the United States faced a momentous choice. Either remain consistent with its historical identity and principles — that of a Republic formed “to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them” — or seek to establish a global hegemony as the “the indispensable nation in the free world” — as claimed by Jim Mattis in his resignation letter.
The decorated Marine General has done the country a tremendous, loyal, and honorable service by refusing to undermine the President in secret, as others in the administration are doing. But its value is not just in its honor and honesty; it is even more valuable in how it lays out a certain set of ideas that, in truth, date back no more than 25 of the country’s 242 years.
Let me start with the claim that we are “the indispensable nation in the free world.” We are not indispensable; we are exceptional. Throughout human history, people have transitioned from what John Locke called a “state of nature” to form political arrangements of government. Three things served as the foundation for these ties: 1) religion (religio is Latin for “bind”); 2) ethnicity; and 3) language.
Religious ties as the foundation of national identity began to unravel during the Reformation when a group among the Swiss Reformed churches began teaching that one became a Christian by making a deliberate choice at an age of reason, not by being baptized into the church of the community as an infant. They were the first Basket of Deplorables, pejoratively called “Anabaptists” — those who were “baptized again.”
They were persecuted bitterly by all churches in the Reformation period — Roman Catholics, German Lutherans, Swiss Reformed, and the Church of England. In Great Britain they were called the “Dissenting Churches.” They eventually piled into rickety ships for a dangerous sail to the New World, where they gave birth to what would become humanity’s first national identity not forged around religion, language, nor ethnicity, but rather on a set of ideas about human liberty.
We — Americans who ordained a Constitution as “We the People,” not “We who share the King’s bloodline,” not “We who speak the King’s English,” nor “We who attend the King’s Church” — remain the only place on the globe with a national identity of ideas rather than religion, ethnicity, or language.
This is what makes us exceptional.
America, NATO, and Russia: Wisdom Unheeded
In 1998 the United States Senate ratified a new NATO treaty expanding its membership toward Russia’s borders. Then 94, retired American diplomat George Kennan — who more than anyone else was the architect of America’s diplomacy during the first Cold War — predicted (with emphasis added)…
“I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. This was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.’’
It was columnist Thomas Friedman who elicited this opinion from Kennan 20 years ago. He went on to muse about “what future historians will say.” Maybe NATO expansion would not matter as Russia integrated into Europe. Or “if we are unlucky” it would provoke a series of moves and countermoves where NATO would have to expand right up to the Russian border “triggering a new cold war.”
Friedman went on to absolutely nail this with remarkable prescience (again, my emphases are in boldface).
“But there is one thing future historians will surely remark upon, and that is the utter poverty of imagination that characterized U.S. foreign policy in the late 1990’s. They will note that one of the seminal events of this century took place between 1989 and 1992 — the collapse of the Soviet Empire, which had the capability, imperial intentions and ideology to truly threaten the entire free world…And what was America’s response? It was to expand the NATO cold-war alliance against Russia and bring it closer to Russia’s borders. Yes, tell your children, and your children’s children, that you lived in the age of Bill Clinton and William Cohen, the age of Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger, the age of Trent Lott and Joe Lieberman, and you too were present at the creation of the post-cold-war order, when these foreign policy Titans put their heads together and produced . . . a mouse.”
Kennan’s parting comment was damning: “This has been my life, and it pains me to see it so screwed up in the end.’’
Trump’s Instincts are Both Right and Old News
Imagine the following words… they seem to be something President Trump would say (boldface added):
“The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense. Nations apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.
“Indeed, if current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, Future U.S. political leaders– those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me — may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”
This was said in 2011 by General Mattis’ predecessor, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. No further comment is needed.
Donald Trump is transactional to the complete exclusion of underlying political philosophies and military history. I suspect this is a big part of the consternation under which highly qualified people like Mattis suffer in the Trump administration. But we are not dealing with someone who has spent their adult lives gazing at their political navel, wondering which philosophical box they fit into. His critics can mine his business dealings for fodder to deliver on their cable news appearances all they want — Donald Trump has deployed capital in search of a return on investment. He sees trillions of dollars being spent overseas while our infrastructure at home literally rusts into oblivion.
In 1998 we were $5.5T in debt with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 61%. Today we are just shy of both $22T of debt and 100% debt-to-GDP (see here for the data). And it is exactly as the President has said it is: We have not gotten what we were promised, and are left with rickety infrastructure falling apart around us. We are facing a new Cold War, have not accomplished what we were told we were doing in Iraq, and are now sending young men into a war in Afghanistan with no historically or culturally credible end-state. These kids were not even potty trained when the war started.
For the General and all who labor in Washington, D.C. under the dread of Trump’s impulsiveness, the message is simple: Please stop looking everywhere else to explain to yourself what is happening. Please especially try as hard as you possibly can to get Mr. Trump out of your heads. WE DID THIS TO OURSELVES!
The Mathematical Logic of the “Indispensable Nation” Claim
America as the “indispensable nation” is a view which arises from the finance sector who have built for themselves a thoroughly closed echo-chamber where they deceive themselves and everyone else about the history of “debt” in the United States.
Prior to the Civil War, the U.S. Dollar was a cash asset to those who held it, and a liability in gold or silver to the U.S. Treasury. You “lent” your gold and/or silver to the Treasury and received dollars in return, and retained the ability to exchange those dollars for what they represented — your claim on your gold or silver. Then, to fight the Civil War, the United States defaulted on that debt by untying the dollar to gold and silver, allowing them to print the money necessary to fight the war.
Once the war was over, the U.S. returned to the gold standard. Then in 1971, after creating dollars to fight the Vietnam War and the War on Poverty (they called it “guns and butter” budgets), it became clear to other countries that the U.S. could not possibly have enough gold on hand to redeem the circulating money supply at $35/oz. The ensuing dynamic is very easy to understand: No one wants to be the next guy in line when the last of the gold is redeemed — left holding worthless paper money.
President Nixon then defaulted on the U.S. debt by “closing the gold window” — a masterpiece of propaganda to avoid having to admit to the American people what was really happening. Again — these other nations accepted dollars as reserves because they could be redeemed for gold. The dollars on their books were a reserve asset; on the books of the U.S. Treasury they were a liability in gold.
As a result of this default, an unrestrained financial sector began “financializing” not only the U.S. economy, but the world economy as well. Where we had once borrowed in order to expand the creation of wealth by actually making things (e.g. “the better mousetrap”), we eventually traded innovation for credit as the driver of economic growth; growth ceased being about the “better mousetrap” as we trapped ourselves in boom-and-bust debt cycles. The wealth creation of Main Street atrophied as the rent-seeking of Wall Street (and the wastefulness of Washington bureaucrats) became dominant.
We set ourselves down a path where the dollar as a reserve asset no longer measures legitimate claims on real things like gold or silver, but rather claims on “coupon payments” from the U.S. Government for its bonds — payments made in those same dollars. Any loan — as an asset on the lender’s books — is only as valuable as the borrower is able to repay it. With the world’s banking system dependent on the value of the U.S. Treasury bond as its principle asset, we must continue pretending there is a credible plan to pay off what is now in excess of $22T in debt. Unfortunately, there isn’t. Our “experts” have quite expertly arranged an economy which is now a circular firing squad. And thus the U.S. Treasury bond must be seen as the banking sector’s indispensable asset… and the U.S. as the world’s indispensable country.
The “Opportunity Cost” of Listening to the “Experts”
But what if President Trump — precisely because he is transactional and not philosophical — is right to stop listening to the “experts?” Let’s start with Russia. What if we were to offer the following: 1) Recognize what has been culturally and ethically Russian throughout its history as Russian — the Crimean Peninsula. Russia’s “little green men” annexation of Crimea was the inevitable response to the ill-advised moves by NATO discussed above and the feckless “21st century” fantasy world President Barack Obama and John Kerry built for themselves in place of George Kennan’s wise, historically literate realism; and 2) Replace NATO only in the states on Russia’s western border with a treaty patterned after the Austrian State Treaty of 1955. We would ask four countries with deeply established traditions of neutrality — Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, and Finland — to guarantee the security of these countries, who would be considered formally neutral. NATO would reserve the right — as is well-recognized in international law — to come to the aid of these neutral countries to respond to any Russian aggression. And by keeping NATO off her borders, Russia would be allowed to address a view of the world, and her security in it, only she can understand — the view of a people who lost 25 million in World War II. It is unlikely a single Russian is alive today who does not have a direct relative who died in the war.
How much less would NATO countries have to spend? How mush less would we have to spend? What other uses could be made of that treasure? These are the opportunity costs of listening to today’s “experts” instead of people like George Kennan who actually knew what they were talking about — as looking back on the last 25 years indisputably proves.
Too Many Poorly Informed and Self-Serving Assumptions
Reading General Mattis’ letter leaves me wondering how his view of America as the “indispensable nation” was formed. The General is known as the “Warrior Monk” for a reason. A lifelong bachelor, Mattis is indisputably the best read, most scholarly, of all Secretaries of Defense throughout our history. Stories abound of the toughest Marines reduced to tears of joy when they learned he would lead the U.S. military as the Secretary of Defense.
My hunch is he learned it from the likes of Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and Timothy Geithner. In a recent New York Times editorial they referred to the subprime mortgages made on the basis of “automated credit scoring” (otherwise known as liar loans) as “financial innovations.” Yes, these were the same loans that caused the financial crisis — “financial innovations” indeed.
Wall Street banks are publicly traded companies. Their managements’ first duty is to their shareholders — not my children. And their shares are only worth the degree to which they can continue to pretend, and we are willing to put up with their pretense, that U.S. debt is worth what it is marked as worth. They are literally required by securities law to continue lying to us as long as we can perpetuate the myth of America being an “indispensable” nation.
These are the people we have listened to for the last 25 years, not the people we should have listened to like George Kennan. How high a price will we have to pay for our refusal to think for ourselves? Will we be lucky to get away with a new Cold War? Or will we end up fighting what will almost certainly deteriorate into a nuclear exchange with Russia? When will we learn? Hopefully we will take this signature moment of worry about the direction the country will take without Generals Mattis and Kelly honorably serving the President to look far enough back to understand this whole mess is no one’s fault but ours.