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Former secretary of defense says that alliance-building is key to managing threats from China and Russia

Ex-Secretary of Defense Mattis tells ASU crowd that diplomacy is key to peace.
February 13, 2020

At annual ASU Rhodes lecture, Mattis describes America's 'power of inspiration'

America is facing threats from the world’s other superpowers, and the only way to stave them off is to foster strong relationships with other countries, according to James Mattis, the former U.S. secretary of defense.

“Allies, allies, allies. If you take the time to align the international community, you can modify other nations’ behavior. It does work,” said Mattis, who addressed a crowd at Tempe Center for the Arts on Wednesday night. His talk, titled “Thwarting Threats and Nurturing Allies in Today’s Global Affairs,” was the annual John J. Rhodes Lecture in Public Policy and American Institutions, presented by Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University.

Mattis, a retired four-star general in the U.S. Marine Corps, served as secretary of defense from January 2017 until January 2019. In late 2018, Mattis announced that he planned to resign over President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw all American troops from Syria. An angry Trump then moved up Mattis’ resignation date, essentially firing him.

“You all paid my tuition for over 40 years to learn how to defend this country, and I don’t know how to do it without allies,” he said.

“We need radar in South Korea and Japan to protect us from North Korea, so we need those allies.”

Mattis sees Russia and China as significant threats to the United States. In his resignation letter to Trump, he said those countries “… want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model.”

In his talk Wednesday night, Mattis said that the United States tried to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “rational and contributing member” of the international community in the 2000s and late 1990s, but it didn’t work.

“No nation has talked about such cavalier use of nuclear weapons as Russia under Putin,” he said.

“He mucked around in our elections, even if some people don’t believe it. He’s done his level best to change the borders in Europe, and now we have to deal with Putin as he is, not as the Putin we want.”

Mark Jacobs (left), dean of Barrett, The Honors College, and Taylor Rhodes (right), grandson of John Rhodes, take turns asking James Mattis questions about his career, service and global issues during the 2020 John J. Rhodes Lecture in Public Policy and American Institutions at the Tempe Center for the Arts on Wednesday. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Mattis believes China is untrustworthy and says that although our two countries’ economies are entwined, our political systems can never be.

“We have to collaborate where we can, on North Korea, drug trafficking and terrorism,” he said.

“But there’s no counterweight to their political party. We thought that when we brought them into our economic world, they would liberalize politically, but it didn’t work. Look at what they’re doing in Hong Kong. 

“We don’t share enough values with a country that treats its people the way they do. I don’t think we’ll ever see an alliance.”

Mattis, who served as NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Transformation from 2007 to 2010, said that one of America’s greatest accomplishments was helping to rebuild the defeated countries after World War II.

“We went to our former foes and allies and helped put them back on their feet economically,” he said.

He is a strong believer in the balance of diplomacy and military might.

“My job was to run the military operations, but my real job was to keep the peace for one more year, one more month, one more week, one more day, one more hour while the diplomats worked their magic,” he said.

“America is a great power, but our two fundamental sources of power are the power of inspiration and the power of intimidation. In an imperfect world, we need a military so tough that they want to deal with our diplomats.”

For Mattis, alliance building started at home. Before he was even confirmed as secretary of defense, he met with Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state.

“I told him that for most of my career, the secretary of state and the secretary of defense wouldn’t cross the Potomac to shake hands with each other,” he said.

“They had militarized foreign policy since the Berlin Wall came down, and we needed to get diplomacy back in the driver’s seat."

So Mattis and Tillerson met weekly.

“It was a very powerful way to go into decision-making, and it helped me a great deal on budgeting because it allowed bipartisan support,” Mattis said.

But their alliance was short-lived. Trump fired Tillerson in March 2018, and Mattis left nine months later.

In fact, Mattis was the second Rhodes lecturer to leave the administration after being at cross purposes with Trump. The 2019 lecturer was John Brennan, who served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2013 to 2017 before having his security clearance revoked by Trump.

Since his departure, Mattis has not spoken publicly about Trump, and he didn’t speak specifically about the president on Wednesday night. He did say: “I wanted to go four years and I left at two because I would not be party to going back on our word. We have to learn that we have to stick with our word.”

Mattis’ talk was moderated by Mark Jacobs, dean of Barrett, and Taylor Rhodes, CEO of Applied Systems and the grandson of John Rhodes. Rhodes said his grandfather was the embodiment of a public servant, and he asked Mattis how Americans can overcome their disillusionment with the divisive nature of the country today.

Mattis responded that America still has a potent power of inspiration, which is its strongest asset. He recounted the story of visiting a Marine outpost in Syria, where a local man was held after being caught trying to set a bomb in the road. Mattis talked to the man, who said his rage over his war-torn country led him to try to kill American troops. After being told he would be imprisoned, he asked Mattis whether, if he was a model prisoner, he and his family could eventually immigrate to America.

“The power of inspiration can go halfway around the world to a man filled with hate. He would love to sit here and have his daughters go to this school,” he said.

“On our worst day, we’re still the best thing going.”

Top image: Former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis was the speaker at the annual John J. Rhodes Lecture in Public Policy and American Institutions at the Tempe Center for the Arts on Wednesday. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now


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The nature of cities is a lifelong fascination for new Regents Professor

February 13, 2020

ASU ecologist Nancy Grimm earned top honor for her work with urban ecology

When Nancy Grimm walked through the woods as a child, she wondered how it all fit together and worked: the rain, the soil, the plants, the chemistry. She saw it was a system. But how?

Now she applies that thinking to urban ecology: How do cities and the natural world interact and affect each other? A relatively new field that took off in the 1970s, urban ecology looks at the relation of living organisms with each other and their surroundings in the context of an urban environment.

Grimm is a pioneer in urban ecology, and now the Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Ecology in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University also holds the title of Regents Professor. It is the highest academic honor, awarded to scholars who have made significant contributions to their field and are recognized nationally and internationally by their peers.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Grimm said. “It does (feel good). It’s particularly wonderful to be a longtime ASU employee and product of ASU. It’s stunning to think of how long I’ve been here.”

Forty-two years ago she came to ASU as a grad student thinking she would do her master’s degree in zoology and then head to a coast — to an oceanographic institute like Scripps or Woods Hole — and work on salt marshes and coastal ecosystems. She had dabbled a bit in stream chemistry, so she thought she’d come to Arizona and work on that.

“I got trapped, because I liked it a lot,” she said. “And I got married. So I stayed here... I often say there was a threshold point where it got to the point I stopped trying to convince them to let me stay and they started trying to convince me to stay.”

Grimm has won a bevy of awards for her work, including being elected to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors in the scientific field. But being named Regents Professor has a special resonance for her.

“They make you feel good,” she said. “They make you feel like you’re appreciated. Nobody ever thinks they’re appreciated at their home institution... These are really great, because people do think, 'I’m OK.' Of course the Regents Professor is the top.”

Urban ecology is inherently interdisciplinary. Grimm has been lauded for bringing together hydrologists, engineers, geologists, chemists, sociologists, geographers and anthropologists to study cities and their place in nature. Last year she won an award for being part of a team that created an international consensus on how to approach urban ecology: the 2019 Sustainability Science Award from the Ecological Society of America.

Other honors include her election as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; the American Institute of Biological Sciences Distinguished Scientist Award; and election as president of the Ecological Society of America, one of the highest honors an ecologist can earn.

She has more than 200 publications that have been cited approximately 30,000 times.

Reviews in the Arizona Board of Regents citation for her Regents Professorship included the following encomiums: “among the top few scientists in her field” and “foundational and pathbreaking.”

Another reviewer said, “Professor Grimm has made pioneering contributions in two major areas. She is both a world-renowned stream ecologist as well as a world leader in urban ecology and sustainability science. ... Professor Grimm’s name is nearly synonymous with desert stream ecosystems ... one of the world’s leading scientists in (urban ecology).”

Another said, “Nancy recognized early the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to solving global change problems and has been an effective champion for integrating the work of natural and social scientists and engineers to promote resilience of urban infrastructure.”

She was a founding leader of ASU’s Central Arizona–Phoenix Long Term Ecological Research, a longitudinal project ongoing for 40 years and continuously funded by the National Science Foundation for more than 20 years. The project addresses problems of urban sustainability and resilience to the impacts of climate change on water, infrastructure and ecosystem processes and services, focusing particularly on stormwater infrastructure. It has fundamentally reshaped the study of urban and natural ecosystem dynamics and the role of human intervention.

Grimm is co-director of the Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network, a five-year-old project bringing together nine cities across the Western Hemisphere to increase urban resilience in the face of climate change-related extreme events. Scholars, postdocs and staff work with city practitioners to conceive, design and implement resilient infrastructure solutions in the face of rising threats from extreme weather-related events.

A pet project is her study of a desert stream northeast of the Valley named Sycamore Creek. She has studied the creek’s ebbs and flows since 1978, and how the surrounding ecosystem responds and adapts. Funding for the project ends this spring, but students still work there and Grimm hopes a young faculty member will come in and pick up the 40-year-old study.

 Top photo courtesy of ASU School of Sustainability

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now