In the latest development in the endless drama playing out at the White House, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis decided to step down. The departure of the last advocate of multilateralism on Team Trump may send the administration's "America First" agenda into overdrive.
The international community now faces the challenge of maintaining global stability by stopping President Donald Trump's government from behaving recklessly. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is perhaps uniquely positioned to play a key role in achieving this task.
Mattis, a former U.S. Marine Corps general, was unable to persuade Trump to drop his plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. While that clash with the president is what ultimately drove the defense chief to quit, Mattis' letter of resignation made it clear that he was deeply fed up with Trump's administration, which does not pay sufficient heed to the existing international order.
In his letter, Mattis said that "we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies." It was as though he was admonishing Trump himself.
The president seems to believe that there is little benefit to keeping U.S. troops stationed overseas, and that it only squeezes public finances. Trump is said to want to pull U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, as well. Some fear that such a drawdown would enable extremist militant groups, such as the Islamic State group, to regain strength.
While it is true that the days of the U.S. serving as the world's sole policeman are gone, if it abandoned all its international roles at a time when there is no blueprint for the future, the world would plunge into chaos.
A U.S. retreat would have a huge impact on Japan, which wants to push ahead with a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" vision aimed at countering China's aggressive maritime advances by reinforcing its partnerships with the U.S., Australia and other allies.
Commenting on the selection of Mattis' successor during a press conference, Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya said, quite rightly, "We hope that the U.S. policy of working with its allies, which has been pursued by Mr. Mattis, will continue [under the new defense secretary]."
Though meddling with another country's appointments of government officials violates diplomatic protocol, Japan should not hesitate to remind the Trump administration that the Japan-U.S. alliance is in America's interests, too. Now is the time for Japan to take advantage of Abe's close personal relationship with Trump and approach the White House through diplomatic means.
In 2019, Japan will hold the rotating chairmanship of the Group of 20 summit of world leaders. The Abe government has a duty to use this opportunity to rebuild the international order.