While attention was focused on the impending federal government shutdown last week, something else happened on that will arguably have far greater long-term impact. U. S. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis gave a speech on Friday, announcing a major shift away from the so-called “war on terror,” and a switch in focus to what he called “revisionist powers:” Russia and China.

In the speech, Mattis said “We face growing threats from revisionist powers…China and Russia…seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models, pursuing veto authority over other nations’ diplomatic, economic and security decisions.”

Jeremi Suri, a professor of Public Affairs and History at the LBJ School of Public Affairs says Mattis thinks the U.S. should add Russia and China to its defense priority list.

“He does not claim victory in the war on terror.  If he were to do that, one would have had to ask why he increased our troop presence in Afghanistan,” Suri says. He characterizes Mattis remarks last week as “a return to Cold War rhetoric.”

The notion of “revisionist powers” comes from what Suri says is a Russian assertion that the world order, as envisioned by the United States after the Cold War, is invalid.

“[Russian leader] Vladimir Putin has decided that the way the liberal international system works – the world that we’re accustomed to, post-Cold War – doesn’t serve the interest of Russia,” Suri says. “And he is seeking to change the rules of the game by intervening in elections, by conquering nearby territories; all things that aren’t supposed to happen in a post-Cold War environment.”

Suri says Mattis points are persuasive, but seem at odds with President Donald Trump’s statements and actions with regard to Russia and China.

“We are yet to hear the president of the United States in any setting, yet acknowledge any threat to the United States from Russia. In fact, just the opposite,” Suri says.

Suri sees these mixed messages as a problem in communicating with U.S. allies and adversaries. Particularly in a democracy, he says, where many people speak their minds, it’s important that the president and his cabinet speak with a unified voice on national security issues. In that sense, Suri says, Mattis remarks have “made that worse.”

 

Written by Christopher De Los Santos.

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