President Joe Biden faces myriad challenges from North Korea, China and Russia, but former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is wondering aloud whether the American “experiment” in democracy will hold up here at home.

There are “internal threats right now” to the underpinnings of our democracy, Mattis said Thursday during a talk presented by the OSS Society, mentioning the astronomical $27 trillion national debt and the Capitol riots that left five dead and dozens injured. 

“What we saw on Jan. 6 fomented by a sitting president,” said Mattis, who served as President Donald Trump’s first and longest-serving Pentagon chief. “And the skyrocketing of the national debt.

“These are internal problems that I would classify with every bit as much gravity as the external problems and perhaps more so if you go back through our history and look at what this does in other nations and what it’s done to our nation when we went through periods like this,” Mattis said.

The retired Marine general offered a laundry list of foreign challenges during the one-hour talk, many of which are likely on the mind of Lloyd Austin as he takes the reins of the Pentagon. North Korea remains an “urgent problem” that Biden will likely need to confront early on, according to Mattis, while the threat of terrorism will become an “ambient threat” lingering in the background that will take a backseat as the U.S. confronts China and Russia.

But on Mattis’ mind were the words of many before him who warned that democracy isn’t the default. It needs to be protected. Especially at a time of intense political polarization and a growing threat of homegrown violent extremism.

“How many of us realize we have no ordained right to exist, that every generation has had to fight for freedom in this, what George Washington in his first inaugural called an experiment?” Mattis said. He repeated the famous quote attributed to Ben Franklin of what kind of government had been formed after the Constitutional Convention — “A republic if you can keep it” — and President Abraham Lincoln’s warning the nation “could perish” amid the Civil War.

“We don’t hear that anymore,” Mattis said. “And we’ve got to get back to that and understand how precious this is.”

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