“As citizens, though, thankfully we can do more than just hope. We can engage in the sort of good-faith, learned analysis which General McMaster has provided us in Battlegrounds.”
s I argued in the lead-up to the 2020 election, our politics has grown myopically focused on a single man, Donald J. Trump. The amount of attention heaped upon this President—attention that he himself craves and his media “enemies” readily provide—has left many of the great points of public concern in American life not only unaddressed from a policy perspective but largely undiscussed in the public square.
This astounding lack of substantive public conversation during the Trump years has been most apparent in the realm of foreign policy. The Trump administration scored major foreign policy successes, yet many of these went undiscussed or at least failed to gain much news traction. President Trump presided over the trouncing of ISIS (though his isolationist impulses have threatened the staying power of that victory), as well as the formation of formal diplomatic ties between Israel and major Sunni powers (like the United Arab Emirates) in the face of the mutual threat posed by Iran. And the negative economic impacts of the trade war aside, the Trump administration’s raucous relationship with China has certainly borne fruit or at least promises to do so in due course, since it has forged what seems to be a most necessary bipartisan consensus that simply enhancing China’s economic liberalization is no longer an adequate strategy for dealing with the techno-authoritarianism and grievance nationalism of the People’s Republic of China.
Even while he warrants scorn for his unnecessary and misguided straining of political and economic ties with many of our closest allies and for apologizing for the human rights abuses of some of our most depraved foes, President Trump deserves credit for these significant successes. However, his foreign policy wins often flew under the radar, as they were swallowed up by more click-bait prone news cycles, largely of President Trump’s own making, such as his strange bromances with thugs such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Perhaps it is somewhat ironic, then, that a former member of the Trump administration, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, has written a book that eschews the tell-all narrative—the quintessential Trump-era book rife with “Oh my gosh, did he really say that?” moments for the sake of gaining access to major op-ed pages and cable news speaking slots—in favor of an incisive analysis of the great foreign policy challenges of our time. These are challenges that have been dramatically altered by the unconventional—and, in certain respects, successful—policies of the Trump White House. As such, it is essential that we begin discussing them on their own terms without the distractions and distrust spawned by the presence of President Trump. As President Trump nears his Oval Office exit kicking and screaming, Americans of all partisan persuasions must rediscover the virtues—and the necessity—of political debate that is centered far more on actual issues and policies than on individuals and personalities. With the publication of Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, McMaster has provided American citizens with an essential tool for re-shouldering these burdens of self-government—learning the facts of weighty issues and pressing challenges, analyzing past mistakes, and thinking logically about the future of American foreign policy.
McMaster, though, has provided his citizen readers with more than a comprehensive guide to 21st century foreign policy matters—essential though that is. In publishing Battlegrounds, he has also made clear—albeit implicitly at times—that various points of the American foreign policy consensus that predated President Trump’s rise (and oftentimes have persisted through his administration) must not be unthinkingly resurrected or continued. Far too many of the United States’ post-Cold War foreign policy moves, writes the retired solider-statesman, were blunders. McMaster is correct that American foreign policy makers have committed a number of costly errors in the wake of the Cold War, but only time will tell if they will heed his corrective wisdom.
McMaster’s Diagnosis of America’s Post-Cold War Foreign Policy Woes: Strategic Narcissism
The first paragraph of Battlegrounds underscores the gravitas of both the book and its author. McMaster relates that many had asked him to write an exposé of the Trump White House in the hopes that it would sway the 2020 election one way or the other. But McMaster refused, writing: “The polarization of America’s polity and that of other free and open societies is destructive, and I wanted to write a book that might help transcend the vitriol of partisan political discourse and help readers understand better the most significant challenges to security, freedom, and prosperity. I hoped that improved understanding might inspire the meaningful discussion and resolute action necessary to overcome those challenges.” With the publication of Battlegrounds, McMaster has done his part to foster such understanding.
While patriotism permeates Battlegrounds so too does a provocative argument: Building off the writings of international relations theorist Hans Morgenthau, McMaster argues that in the wake of the Cold War, the United States has suffered from “strategic narcissism,” resulting in either overconfidence (think President George W. Bush) or resignation (think President Barack Obama). Both overconfidence and resignation “share the conceit of attributing outcomes almost exclusively to U.S. decisions and undervaluing the degree to which others influence the future.” Moreover, “Both forms of strategic narcissism were based mainly on wishful thinking and the definition of problems as one might like them to be as a way to avoid harsher realities.” In short, strategic narcissism, whether it manifests itself in overconfidence or resignation, mistakes American power for an American monopoly on influence and decision-making capability in foreign affairs; it confuses the (now fading) unipolar moment of American superiority with the mistaken notion that other, lesser actors’ unique histories and preferences are, in the end, immaterial to American grand strategy.
McMaster seeks to push American foreign policy making out of the doldrums of narcissism and, instead, retether it to geopolitical reality, as unsavory as that may be at times. In Battlegrounds, the former National Security Advisor surveys the entirety of America’s foreign policy challenges. In doing so, he implores American citizens and their foreign policy establishment to eschew strategic narcissism and embrace what historian Zachary Shore calls “strategic empathy,” which is “the skill of understanding what drives and constrains one’s adversary.” Only having adopted strategic empathy, argues McMaster, can the United States’ politicians, national security officials, and diplomats invent and implement the sorts of strategies that will effectively serve the country’s national interests, avoid costly and unsuccessful military quagmires, and advance the cause of human rights and liberal democracy abroad.
McMaster’s thesis is compelling. Surely, even as the United States retains international dominance in both hard and soft power, careful consideration of the motivations, constraints, and capabilities of our fellow nations is a prerequisite for sound foreign policy. When coupled with case studies and evidence—gained from his extensive historical studies and personal experience while serving for over three decades in the United States Army—McMaster’s argument grows all the more convincing. Stemming from our immediate post-Cold War triumphalism, the United States’ strategic narcissism stands out as the primary culprit for the sense of confusion, misdirection, and weak will that ails our diplomatic and military engagements abroad.
Applying Strategic Empathy to Our Greatest Challenge: Confronting China
Where strategic empathy is needed most—and, unfortunately, where it has arguably proven most lacking—is in our interactions with our greatest geopolitical foes, China and Russia. Our failures with respect to the more powerful of the two, China, are most worrisome. McMaster notes that American policy makers’ post-Cold War assumptions that China would politically liberalize in the aftermath of economic liberalization have proven “demonstrably false.” The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “has no intention of playing by the rules associated with international law, trade, or commerce. China is a threat to free and open societies because its policies actively promote a closed, authoritarian model as an alternative to the rules-based order.” In posing a challenge to the post-World War II liberal democratic world order that the United States has played a principal role in upholding, the CCP “intends to shift global economic leadership and geopolitical alignment toward China and away from the United States.”
It took the anti-China bombast of President Trump—which was often severed from the reality of the situation but nonetheless challenged the consensus that engagement would push China towards liberalization—to shake everyday Americans, and especially their foreign policy thought leaders, out of this conceit. This was a tall task, as “Hopeful aspirations for reform overwhelmed any desire to confront China’s unfair economic practices, technology theft, abysmal human rights record, and increasingly aggressive military posture” from the George H.W. Bush administration up through the Obama administration. Post-Cold War U.S. policy with respect to China “betrayed all the elements of strategic narcissism: wishful thinking, mirror imaging, confirmation bias, and the belief that others will conform to a U.S.-developed ‘script.’”
CCP leaders like Xi Jinping never had any intention of following that script. A cursory understanding of Chinese history and the role that grievance nationalism plays in propping up the CCP’s authoritarian rule should have cued American policy makers in to this reality. In the absence of empathy, however, narcissism took root, blinding politicians, military brass, and State Department hands alike from the reality of the situation: “Chinese leaders aim to put in place a modern-day version of the tributary system that Chinese emperors used to establish authority over vassal states. Under that Imperial system, kingdoms could trade and enjoy peace with the Chinese Empire in return for submission.” The CCP has been actively working to resurrect the Middle Kingdom-style tributary system via projects like Made in China 2025 (which relies heavily on “intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer”), the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, and Military-Civil Fusion.
Rather than deluding ourselves that diplomatic engagement and strengthened economic ties will push China and Russia towards accepting the liberal world order, Americans must face up to the fact that competition and measured confrontation are needed.
While various elements of President Trump’s trade war with China were misbegotten—the fact that he waged it while also initiating trade wars with law-abiding allies was the most obvious flaw—his bellicosity vis-à-vis China has at least helped awaken American voters, politicians, and foreign policy makers to the fact that China shares Russia’s “objective of collapsing the free, open, and rules-based order that the United States and its allies established after World War II.” That order is manifestly contested by powerful revisionist nations like China and Russia. We must heed McMaster’s warnings and stay alert to this reality going forward. Rather than deluding ourselves that diplomatic engagement and strengthened economic ties will push China and Russia towards accepting the liberal world order, Americans must face up to the fact that competition and measured confrontation are needed. The maintenance of a peaceful, human rights-upholding, rules-based international order depends on our doing so.
The Costs of Strategic Narcissism: the Cases of Afghanistan and the Middle East
The United States’ post-Cold War strategic narcissism has, unfortunately, not limited itself to great power competition. In the troubled lands of South Asia and the Middle East, American diplomacy and military operations have been beleaguered by policy makers’ continued failures to take reality—however unsavory—seriously.
Strategic narcissism has long plagued the United States’ war in Afghanistan, and, unfortunately, it has persisted through the Trump administration. McMaster writes that both the Obama and Trump administrations failed to come to grips with the terroristic nature of the Taliban, deluding themselves into thinking that the Taliban “was a relatively benign organization that, with the promise of power sharing in Afghanistan, could be persuaded to renounce support for jihadist terrorist organizations.” In addition, driven by the desire to end what those on the home front had begun referring to as an “endless war,” American leaders refused to reckon with the close connections between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. McMaster laments that “the desire to simplify and shorten the war perpetuated self-delusion. Self-delusion about the enemy was the basis for America’s South Asian fantasy, in particular regarding the Taliban and Al-Qaeda as completely separate organizations.” This delusion, in turn, undergirded the Trump administration’s later hope “that conciliation with the Taliban could provide an easy way out of Afghanistan.” Rather than staying true to President Trump’s McMaster-inspired August 2017 address committing the United States’ will to supporting the Afghan government and sidelining the Taliban, the administration has reverted to extremely flawed deals with the Taliban and further troop withdrawals.
Similar bouts of wishful thinking have plagued the United States’ engagement in the ever-fraught region of the Middle East. On the one hand, American leaders failed to recognize the immense challenges of the undertaking in Iraq—particularly the difficulties of forging a way forward for Iraqis with Saddam deposed—prior to invading. On the other hand, with Saddam successfully deposed, American foreign policy makers continually failed to provide meaningful, long-term support to Iraqi elements and leaders, like former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who were committed to combatting sectarian violence. McMaster writes: “Pre-invasion willful ignorance about the complexity of stabilizing Iraq evolved into post-invasion denial about the growing insurgency and, later, into the refusal to acknowledge the evolution of the conflict into a sectarian civil war.” Whether it was the Bush administration’s hubris regarding the United States’ ability to cement peace in Iraq or the Obama administration’s flawed notion that the American presence was a core driver of Iraq’s woes (thereby precipitating the 2011 withdrawal decision), McMaster concludes that “Both approaches lacked strategic empathy because they failed to consider the agency that others, especially enemies and adversaries, had on the future course of events.”
Going forward, American leaders will have to persuade Americans that continued engagement in Middle East conflicts—engagement that is tied to geopolitical realities rather than artificial time-tables—is necessary. In the end, “Some of the region’s most difficult problems are likely to remain intractable, but without U.S. engagement, they could become unmanageable.” Indeed, as we have tragically witnessed before, the Middle East’s woes can and will threaten our own national security if left unchecked.
The dearth of American strategic empathy has proven costly in Iraq, but it could be even more disastrous if sustained in our dealings with Iran. McMaster cogently argues that American foreign policy makers have been quite correct to fear the prospect of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. That would present a direct threat to American national security, for one, and it would further destabilize the region, by incentivizing Saudi Arabia to respond in kind. Unfortunately, our worries regarding Iran’s potential nuclear capabilities have blinded us to the harsh reality of the Iranian regime: a theocratic, state sponsor of international terrorism driven by an “ideological cocktail of Marxism and Shia millenarianism.” Iranians have long provided safe harbor for Al-Qaeda and have actively fueled the sectarian violence in Iraq. Instead of confronting this reality head-on, American foreign policy makers have engaged in a decades-long drive to engage with and conciliate the mullahs in the hopes that such conciliation and good will would induce concessions and good faith from the Iranian leadership.
Americans’ flawed assumptions born of strategic narcissism culminated in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—“an extreme case of strategic narcissism based on wishful thinking.” Rather than a break from the past, the JCPOA is the culmination of a decades-long history of American leaders mistakenly hoping that conciliatory measures vis-à-vis Iran “would moderate Iranian leaders’ behavior or cause them to prioritize interests over passion and ideology.” They will not, as evidenced by the fact that once money rushed into Iran and Iranian exports boomed in the wake of the deal, “funding for terrorist organizations and IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] operations across the region soared.”
Going forward, the United States must force the Iranian leadership to make a choice: Either (1) halt their destabilizing efforts and exportation of Islamist terrorism, halt their designs on nuclear weapons, and thus be rewarded with sanctions relief or (2) continue their proxy wars and pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities, thereby ushering in crippling sanctions and United States-led, international isolation.
The Possible Contours of Post-Trump Strategic Empathy
The world that emerges from Battlegrounds is one of fraught military and ideological competition. That is, the portrait of the world that McMaster paints for his readers is an accurate one. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of China, the United States has—for too long—engaged in wishful thinking when it comes to its foreign policy and national security. Crippled by the memory of the failures of the Vietnam War, the domestic strife ginned up by the Iraq War, and the debilitating effects of our increasingly tribal, bitter, and polarized domestic politics, we have squandered our fading unipolar moment in more ways than not.
In the years ahead, we would do well to heed McMaster’s wisdom and confront the world as it is. While far from free of strategic narcissism, the Trump administration’s foreign policy has at least shaken up the conversation and challenged certain assumptions. Hopefully, foreign policy makers can take advantage of this period of flux by forging new strategies that are grounded in strategic empathy. This task will immediately fall to the Biden administration.
Time will tell whether they are up to the challenge. The early indicators—like the President-elect’s recent comments expressing his desire to work with the United States’ democratic allies to confront China strategically in various ways—are promising. One can imagine a successful Biden foreign policy that wholeheartedly takes up the essential work of rebuilding and strengthening our alliances, while also building on some of the Trump administration’s successes.
I am hopeful. As citizens, though, thankfully we can do more than just hope. We can engage in the sort of good-faith, learned analysis which General McMaster has provided us in Battlegrounds. We can re-commit ourselves to public discourse, with respect to both domestic and foreign affairs, that is grounded in history and facts. If we do so, elected officials and foreign policy makers will have no choice but to follow our lead by grounding their decisions in geopolitical realities instead of discredited dreams.
Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University and will be attending Harvard Law School in the fall of 2021. He can be found on Twitter @TomsTakes98