What Mattis gets wrong: Alliances also need rebuilding at home

What Mattis gets wrong: Alliances also need rebuilding at home
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One of the most respected generals of our time, General James MattisJames Norman MattisThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico Trump needs a national security adviser who 'speaks softly' US could deploy 150 troops to Syria: report MORE, has just finished an autobiography about leadership. In a recent excerpt in the Wall Street Journal, he eloquently describes how his four-decade military career formed his thinking about the importance of international alliances. It’s a well-founded, and well-articulated, point of view. Few will disagree with it, and this and future presidents would be wise to embrace it.

Mattis gets something wrong, though, something important. It’s his attribution of the growing divisiveness in America to tribalism. This misidentifies the nature of the problem. America is of course deeply tribal, and always has been. What we’re living now, though, is political apartheid.

Mattis nails the importance of allies, but it’s not clear that he understands how deeply rooted and inherently tribal the American people are. This likely reflects his personal history. He joined the military at age 19, and worked over 40 years in countries around the world.

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I spent 29 years in the Foreign Service, and saw this same phenomenon in many U.S. Foreign Service officers. They were more comfortable overseas than at home, because they were more at home overseas than they were in the United States. Some were second or third-generation military or Foreign Service kids, and had never lived anywhere in America they called home. Others, like Mattis, grew up here but spent their adult lives overseas working on international issues. Virtually all developed a global outlook on U.S. affairs, foreign and domestic.

When I entered the service in 1983, I was astonished at the number of those who had never been west of the Appalachians. Their average age was 30, and they all had stellar resumes. But almost none had travelled the United States, spending time in the small towns, big cities and back roads of America. As a consequence, their understanding of the American cultural landscape was limited. This isn’t a criticism. It goes with the territory, and it’s why Congress long ago made home leave compulsory for Foreign Service officers.

Mattis argues that for American democracy to survive, we must live the motto e pluribus unum—from many, one. But that motto is political, not cultural. Proposed for the great shield of the United States in the 1770s, it alludes not to the patchwork of cultures that made up America, but rather to the relationship between the 13 independent states and the federal government.

This is not, as the diplomats like to say, a distinction without a difference. There is a profound difference between political identity and tribalism. Political identity is inherently political. Tribalism is inherently cultural, and the nature of the human species. Man is, after all, a social primate.

After the end of World War II, and a long period of relative peace and prosperity, our political differences hardened in the late 1960s. Slowly and incrementally, political acrimony deepened in the decades that followed. We learned in the weeks after 9/11 just how far it had gone. As U.S. flags sprouted like poppies across the American landscape, it was clear that politics still stopped at the water’s edge. Attacked at home, national solidarity eclipsed our political divisions.

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Since then, the divide has become harder, deeper and more intractable. The Obama and Trump presidencies, both highly partisan, have witnessed an inexorable slide towards what is shaping up as a new kind of civil war in America — not over slavery, economics and state’s rights, but over political identity and ideology. 

America has always been a petri dish of different political views. But as President Lincoln famously said, a nation divided against itself cannot stand. Maybe, as with the Civil War, World War II and 9/11, a great crisis will bring a return to constructive political cohabitation. Maybe the solution is generational change, although evidence appears to the contrary. Maybe, as Henry Kissinger once famously said about Middle East shuttle diplomacy, there is no realistic solution — at least not for now.

It’s not a good time for the nation to be on this trajectory. We have powerful enemies — China comes to mind — which believe that America is in terminal decline, and are actively working to further that process. Mattis’ admonition to strengthen our alliances abroad is sound advice. But alliances also need rebuilding at home, to focus on the political apartheid which divides us. Otherwise, the threat could become existential.   

Jeff Goodson is a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer.