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On Tuesday, the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs hosted a discussion on the impact of Donald Trump’s presidency on the American socio-political landscape and delved into the future of U.S. domestic and foreign affairs post-Trump. 

The event, titled “After Trump: What’s Next for America, At Home and Abroad,” was co-sponsored with the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy. It was held virtually as a Zoom webinar, and featured former U.S. Secretary of Defense and Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. James Mattis and former Jackson Senior Fellow and Commander of the United Kingdom Field Army Lt. Gen. Sir Graeme Lamb. The discussion was moderated by Brady-Johnson Professor of Grand Strategy and History Beverly Gage.

“There were over five hundred live participants [in the talk], which underscored the intense interest within the Yale community to reflect on the full range of global challenges confronting the United States and its allies at the onset of the Biden Administration,” Deputy Director for Leadership Programs at Jackson and Executive Director of the Johnson Center for the Study of American Diplomacy Edward Wittenstein wrote in an email to the News.

After introductions of the panel participants were made by James Levinsohn, director of the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, the discussion began with a reflection on the United States’ current political circumstances. Gage asked panelists about where the United States currently stands in history, given the pandemic, ongoing political turmoil and an economic crisis. She also asked about the potential longevity of Trump’s legacy, and whether a return to “normalcy” would be possible post COVID-19.

Mattis characterized the Trump presidency as being “non-traditional, populist” and difficult to frame. He described the former president as “unusual,” and that there was a “transient nature to what [Trump] introduced.”

Mattis served as Trump’s secretary of defense from 2017 to 2019, having originally resigned in 2018. His resignation letter explained that his views differed from those of Trump in topics such as treatment of allies and strategic military actions. Since leaving the White House, Mattis has become a vocal critic of the former president. He called him “the first president in [his] lifetime who does not even try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try.” 

Mattis added that the former president contributed to a decay in the country’s foreign image, though he did not believe such a change was permanent.

“Trust in America’s leadership and reliability as a security partner has been shaken, not stirred,” Mattis said. “It’s really been shaken this time, [with the Trump presidency] treating allies at times with contempt or even finding security issues as purely transactional.”

Lamb affirmed that the United States finds itself in a critical moment of its history. He made comparisons between the country’s current state to that during the Civil War — another time period characterized by division and mass change — and even made connections between president Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and President Joe Biden’s inaugural address, both of which had unifying messages.

Both Lamb and Mattis concluded that Trump’s presidency amplified pre-existing issues in the United States.

“Was [Trump] the cause or was he merely a symptom of a wider problem?” Lamb asked.

Lamb said that crises can serve as opportunities to highlight and address flaws in contemporary politics. For instance, he spoke about proper representation in elected office, and stated that political parties — both in the United States and his native United Kingdom — often do not operate in the best interests of their constituents, but their own. He suggested that internal challenges have threatened the United States’ stability, and have even attacked the country’s ethos.

“The big wake-up call from the last four years is: are we prepared to defend democracy?” Lamb asked. “If we do not defend it, then it is under attack. I see out there no shortage of other nations and entities who would wish to dismantle, divide and rule the two great democracies [Mattis and I] represent.”

Wittenstein moderated the question and answer session of the talk, where Mattis and Lamb answered questions about a variety of topics, including the rise of China as a world power and its rivalry with the United States, U.S. military culture, civil and military relations — especially in the context of the recent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — and the United States’ role in the future global order.

Both speakers agreed that the United States should restrengthen its ties with allies and further its support of existing groups that promote democracy, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO. They also affirmed that promoting domestic unity should be a long-term goal, as it would require much time to address.

However, Mattis affirmed that changes in foreign relations would have to be made. According to Mattis, “the United States would expect allies to pay more of their fair share,” and that the country should not tolerate public contempt or megaphone diplomacy.

He also suggested that it would take two presidencies to reverse America’s lost reputation and to show the world that the U.S. does not intend to go back to the status quo but rather implement real change.

 “We need you, young people, to step up with fresh ideas,” Mattis added, addressing the audience. “But please study your history, study it some more, and then study it up some more. [History] is imperfect, but it will tell you the right questions to ask.”

The talk was recorded, and will be published on the Jackson Institute website with captions in the next few days.

Wei-Ting Shih | wei-ting.shih@yale.edu

WEI-TING SHIH
Wei-Ting Shih covers volleyball as a staff reporter, and occasionally contributes to the Arts and University Desks. Originally from Taiwan and Nicaragua, she is a sophomore in Grace Hopper College double-majoring in Ethics, Politics & Economics and History.