It is a rare thing for politicians to admit flaws. Yet in a refreshingly candid speech in Abu Dhabi this week, former US defence secretary James Mattis spoke of Washington's frailties as well as its strengths and put across the strongest possible case for multilateralism. At times, he said, it might seem "like it's chaotic in Washington…It can certainly cause concern to our friends to look at this and say: 'Wow, is America coming apart at the seams?'" Yet in the face of internal divisions in Capitol Hill, he said, it was alliances such as the US-UAE relationship that laid the foundations for a stronger future, particularly in the face of the continuing threat from Iran.
Mr Mattis has been coming to the Middle East for four decades and is no stranger to the complexities of its geopolitics, nor to the rapid development that has transformed the UAE into a key strategic and business partner for the US. When he resigned as defence secretary in December last year, it was over political differences with president Donald Trump, who had just announced a withdrawal of US troops from Syria and Afghanistan. An Iran hawk, he has long warned officials of the threat posed by Tehran and its proxies, describing the regime as "the single most enduring threat to stability and peace" in the Middle East. He was also a vociferous critic of the 2015 nuclear deal. In this, the US and UAE are greatly aligned. The impact of Tehran and its proxies has been evident this week, from sabre-rattling threats to the US from Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps to attacks from Iran-backed militia on a Saudi oil pipeline. These events, as Mr Mattis said, highlight "why Iran's behaviour must change", and highlight the need for putting up a united front: "This is an area where we are in agreement." As he pointed out, unilateralism will not work in countering a threat which spans the globe. Tehran's nefarious behaviour is wide-ranging and aims to cause maximum disruption globally.
To that end, the former defence chief called for a day when the GCC is "once again back together and united" to act as a bulwark against such misdemeanours. His speech was, in essence, a call for greater unity everywhere: from the transcontinental alliance with the UAE to solidarity between Muslims worldwide. While the US is wrangling with internal struggles and figuring out its place in the world, further challenged by competition for influence from China and Russia, bonds such as the relationship with the UAE will help both "find their way back to common ground". The need to counter Iran's influence has strengthened ties with the UAE, despite the US administration's sometimes erratic Middle East strategy. With the advantage of years of experience, seasoned politician Mr Mattis is an advocate for resolving disputes through political settlements and believes "Washington needs to engage more in the world and intervene militarily less". Only by engaging in multilateral dialogue can the US really work out its role in a changing world.