Part V: Watch Mattis, Not Flynn

So apparently whenever I go on vacation the rest of the world has a busy week.

Let’s focus on the United States.

While I was kayaking in Milford Sound, National Security Advisor Lt. General Michael Flynn was excused from his 24-day-old job. Flynn has a reputation for being a bit…volatile and monochromatic, so his departure from what I consider to be the job in the U.S. government that requires the most calm, far-reaching and level-headed thinking isn’t something I consider to be all that bad.

The political issue surrounding Flynn’s dismissal is that he allegedly discussed national security matters with the Russian ambassador, and then lied to now-Vice President Mike Pence about it. If Flynn indeed told the Russians that a Trump administration would take a softer line on all things Russian over the course of a series of conversations, then this may indeed have altered the Kremlin’s response to the Obama administration’s sanctions. Among Democrats in general and more national-security-minded Republicans, this is certainly the biggest foreign policy issue of the new President’s term.

Under normal circumstances I’d agree wholeheartedly, but as I’m sure everyone with a pulse has noticed, we’re not exactly in normal circumstances these days. Instead, a far more critical evolution is taking place.

A personality I take much more seriously than Flynn is the Defense Secretary, General James Mattis. At a NATO defense minister’s summit the day after Flynn’s dismissal (when I was hiking the Kepler Track near Te Anau), the good general put the entire alliance on notice. He flatly warned the allies that they must raise their defense spending – quickly and sharply – or face the Americans backing away from their alliance commitments. Specifically he noted with a degree of subtlety that only a Marine general could muster: “No longer can the American taxpayer carry a disproportionate share of the defense of Western values. Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do.”

In my opinion, Mattis is deadly serious – hell, in my opinion Flynn was deadly serious – and both were/are executing policy not only with the full knowledge of President Trump, but are doing so because it is policy, not because of some quid pro quo with the Kremlin. The Americans are getting out of the global management business, and a rationalization of its alliance commitments – Europe included – is simply par for the course. All that remains is to see how quick and how deep the changes will be.

We might not have to wait long.

It was also reported in the past days that the Russians have deployed the SSC-8 medium-range missiles in violation of the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (or INF) signed between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The creatively-named treaty bans all short-to-intermediate range (500-1000 km, or roughly 300-600 miles) nuclear and conventional missiles by either party. The agreement served as a stepping stone to more aggressive nuclear arms reductions, and in no way is it an understatement to say that the INF remains the lynchpin of all post-Cold War U.S.-Russian relations.

Looking at a map, it’s easy to see why. The primary beneficiary is Russia (and its predecessor state, the USSR). After the agreement, U.S. military bases sprinkled throughout NATO countries can not serve as launching pads for missiles designed, essentially, to reach Russia; similarly, the removal of such missiles from Russia’s arsenal directly impacts the security of the United States’ European allies. But these missiles simply cannot reach the continental U.S.

While slight mention was made within American media about the Russian’s violation of the INF, the message is being heard loud and clear by NATO. But for all of the prodding and threats by Mattis and the White House, the reality is clear: as the United States remains determined to reduce its global military footprint, Europe faces a Russia already well into its operational mobilization while most of Europe remains functionally disarmed to respond to such a threat.

This weekend is the Munich security conference. The Munich conference involves leading defense and foreign policy thinkers from both the NATO and greater European communities. It has no direct, formal impact – it’s  just a talk shop – but it has a reputation for not only candid discussions, but being a place where top government leaderships announce fairly startling policy changes. In the past German, American and Russian leaders have indicate shifts that fairly dramatically adjusted the regional centers of power.

And this weekend Vice President Mike Pence will be in attendance.