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H. R. McMaster: How He Sees China, and the World

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And so I think we have to resist the tendency to try to define a new administration’s foreign policy mainly as an opposition to the administration that came before it.”

On December 29th, Thomas Koenig was joined by General H. R. McMaster to discuss his latest book, Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World. General H. R. McMaster graduated from the United States Military Academy and served as an officer in the United States Army, rising to the rank of lieutenant general. He served in the Gulf War, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. He later became a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and served as a National Security Advisor to President Donald Trump from February, 2017 to April, 2018. In this discussion with Mr. Koenig, General McMaster explains his views on what should be a bipartisan reckoning with the dangers of an ascendant China, why he believes that the concept of “strategic empathy” ought to be the future of the United States’ foreign policy, and his hopes for President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy strategy.

A video of the conversation is available on YouTube.

Hi, I’m Tom Koenig, and I’m joined today by former National Security Adviser General H. R. McMaster. General, thanks so much for joining us.

Hey, Tom. Thanks for having me.

So we’re here today to discuss your new book, Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, and I want to begin by asking why you decided to write this book in particular. You served as President Trump’s National Security Advisor from February 2017 to April 2018. But you didn’t write a tell-all book about White House intrigue. Many have, and many wanted you to, but you didn’t. Why? 

Tom, I’ve been disappointed about the degree to which partisan politics has us pitted against each other. And, as we’re at each others’ throats, the challenges that we’re facing aren’t going to go away. Having been on the receiving end of plans and policies and strategies developed in Washington in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, I thought it was important for me as National Security advisor to try to address what I saw as the disconnect between fantasy in Washington and reality on the ground. And I endeavored to do that as National Security advisor, but what I hope to do with the book is to contribute to a deeper and a fuller understanding of the challenges we face as a way to bring people together for meaningful discussions and a common understanding of what we have to do to build a better future for generations to come. That’s what I hope the book will do—is help contribute to a reversal of this polarization that we see at least in the area of foreign policy.

So it’s interesting there that you brought up [that] there’s an assumption that if we really talk about the substance of these issues, and we do so in a rational, respectful manner, there might be more agreement and less contempt and bitterness than we currently see in a very personality-driven politics, very tribalistic politics.

I think you’re right about that. I think the people who know the least about these issues tend to be those who are most adamant about extreme positions. So I think that this is the way to approach it. It shouldn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat or what fringe of either party in connection with China’s effort to gain a predominant position across the Indo-Pacific and challenge our free and open societies globally, with its authoritarian, mercantilist model. A Republican or Democrat shouldn’t be for that—or Russia’s effort to drag us all down under Putin’s theory that this sustained campaign of political subversion aimed at our democracies can leave him as the last man standing. And so I think that what I cover in the book are issues that should not be partisan in nature and should help bring us together I hope.

So let’s talk about the book itself a bit more. You analyze the major foreign policy challenges of our time, and you already mentioned a few: China, Russia, Iran, jihadist terrorism, etc. And there’s an underlying argument that you put forth that since the end of the Cold War, from the 1990s onwards, U.S. foreign policy-making has been plagued by what you call “strategic narcissism.” So can you tell us a bit more about strategic narcissism, what it is, what it’s main variants are, and what a better alternative approach to foreign policy-making might look like going forward?

Tom, thanks—strategic narcissism is a term used to communicate and describe our tendency to define these challenges that we’re facing only in relation to us and to assume that what either we decide to do or what we decide not to do is decisive toward achieving a favorable outcome. Now, this is a problem mainly because it’s self-referential and because it doesn’t acknowledge the agency, the influence, the authorship over the future that others have. And, as a result, we tend to base our plans and our strategies, again, based more on fantasy and what we would like the world to be, instead of this competitive environment that we’re in. And so the argument of the book is to counter that strategic narcissism with strategic empathy. And this is really an effort to understand what drives and constrains the other and, in particular, to pay attention to emotions and ideology and aspirations.

So I wanted to get into strategic empathy. So that’s the corrective you offer for strategic narcissism. The world is a place full of independent actors, national and international, with their own histories, interests, capabilities, motivations, grievances. And, as Americans, in our discussions about foreign policy and how we formulate that policy, we have to take that into account. So in order to flesh that out, that idea of strategic empathy a bit more I wanted to apply it to a specific case, like a case study of China. Because I think that’s one of the most important challenges of our time, if not the most important. So I guess the question is two-pronged. How have we fallen prey to strategic narcissism vis-à-vis China in the past? And going forward, what would a policy, what would a China policy, defined by strategic empathy really look like?

For far too long, we clung to the assumption that the Chinese Communist Party, having been welcomed into the international order, would play by the rules, and, as China prospered, it would liberalize its economy and eventually liberalize its form of governance. Of course, we know now that that was not the case. But we clung to that flawed assumption for too long because of strategic narcissism—because we defined China as we would like China to be instead of recognizing that the Chinese Communist Party is driven by fear mainly, fear of losing control. That’s why the party is obsessed with control and extending and tightening its exclusive grip on power internally. But the party is also driven by aspiration. This is this aspiration to realize the China dream and to realize this vision of national rejuvenation. And so we undervalued the degree to which emotion and ideology drives and constrains Chinese Communist Party. And as a result, we didn’t compete with China.

So, an effective approach would be to recognize what China is driven by: What were the factors that drive the party? What is the party’s strategy to allay its fears by tightening its grip on power internally? We see manifestations of that with over a million people in concentration camps, forced labor camps, the use of the social credit system, and their effort to perfect this technologically-abled Orwellian police state, the extension of the party’s oppressive arm in Hong Kong. I could go on obviously. But then, also, we see this internationally, with this effort to achieve national rejuvenation by exporting this authoritarian, mercantilist model. [There is] an effort to create servile relationships across the Indo-Pacific region and beyond that are exclusionary in nature: that China would be able to achieve a dominant position at the expense of the United States and other free and open societies. And so it’s that recognition that, then, is essential for us to be able to compete effectively. And, Tom, what we did is—because of our strategic narcissism, this definition of China as we would like it to be—we vacated critical arenas of competition. 

And so now, the argument in the book is to re-enter those arenas and to compete more effectively, not just the United States, but other free and open societies working together to counter China’s promotion of this authoritarian, mercantilist model because it’s important to all of us, Tom. I mean, if China succeeds, the world will be less free, less prosperous, and less safe.

And part of that competition—as you just mentioned—it’s working with allies; it’s not just us. But another layer of that is [that] it’s not just the U.S. government; it’s the private sector. The private sector has a role here. And you mentioned in your conclusion that, obviously, one of the great strengths of American society is our capitalist free-market open society and open economy. But, at the time, the private sector has a role to play here on these various battlegrounds, especially, I would think, with China. Can you speak to that? What are businesses, particularly multinational firms, etc., what should they be doing? What would the U.S. government want from them in this competition with China?

Well, Tom, this is a really important point. And this is one of the reasons why I wrote the book. Because the competitions that we’re engaged in today, competitions that will determine, really, whether future generations can enjoy the freedom, the prosperity that we’ve enjoyed in our lifetime, they cut across the public and private sector. And what China has done is pursued effectively the strategy of co-option, coercion, and concealment. To co-opt governments but also companies, with the lure of short-term profits or the promise of Chinese investment. But once you’re in, once you’re dependent on China for access to their market or once you’re indebted to Chinese national banks, they use that relationship to coerce you: to coerce you to support their strategy and to support their aggressive foreign policy. And then they conceal all this as just normal business practices. 

So it’s really important, I think, for businesses, in particular, to almost take a Hippocratic Oath associated with doing business with China. Just first, try not to do any harm. And that harm, I think, can occur in three primary areas. One is the transfer of technology. The transfer of technology that especially would give China an advantage in the emerging data-driven global economy, or militarily, against our military. Too often, companies readily give up sensitive technologies and know-how for access to the Chinese market. And then, of course, that transfer to a Chinese company, which has to act as an extension of the Chinese Communist Party, is plugged directly into the People’s Liberation Army or into companies that are going to try to gain an unfair advantage.

I think the second key area is to not compromise for short-term profits in a way that jeopardizes the long-term viability of your company. And I think this is an important responsibility to shareholders—because you might do really well in the next few quarterly reports, but after you transfer your technology, you’re going to be driven out of business. Because what China does is subsidize these industries in a way that allows them to produce products at an artificially low price, and then dump them on the global market. After they restrict your access to their market, after they get what they want, then they try to drive you out of business internationally.

And the third area in which we should do no harm is to not aid China in perfecting this technologically-enabled Orwellian police state with a range of artificial intelligence technologies. I mean, I used a statistic in Battlegrounds. In recent years, investment from U.S. venture capital and private equity firms in Chinese artificial intelligence companies exceeded U.S. investment in U.S. artificial intelligence companies. That’s just wrong, right? So, I think that this is a competition that certainly cuts across private and public sectors. And all of us need to work together to compete effectively against China’s authoritarian, mercantilist model.

I think the good news is that, slowly but surely, the public conversation about China and our relationship with China [are] starting to reckon with these realities that you’re laying out today, slowly but surely. So we seem to be, perhaps, tending in the right direction on this front. And to change course—and to start to get towards the close here of this quick interview—I want to talk about the Middle East and about the incoming Biden administration, specifically with respect to Israel. Since you left your post as National Security Advisor, a lot has changed in the Middle East. And even in the past couple of months, a lot has changed, especially as Israel has begun to normalize relations with some countries like the UAE, Morocco, and some others. So, these facts on the ground have changed, and, thus, assumptions should probably have to change with them. After reading Battlegrounds, you talk about having to reassess assumptions as you go forward and as you implement and formulate policy. So, in the Middle East, what are you expecting, what are you hoping for from the Biden Administration, especially with respect to Israel? And what assumptions now have to be challenged?

This is really a very important issue as to what the Biden administration’s approach to the Middle East is going to be because the Obama administration saw the Middle East mainly as a mess to be avoided—and saw our disengagement from the Middle East is an unmitigated good. That’s, in large measure, because the administration defined its policy mainly as in reaction to the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. And so I think we have to resist the tendency to try to define a new administration’s foreign policy mainly as an opposition to the administration that came before it.

And so what would this mean for the Middle East? It would mean to see the Middle East as an area in which there is a humanitarian catastrophe ongoing: a humanitarian catastrophe that has huge political ramifications, not only in connection with the refugee crisis and how that’s putting strain on fragile countries within the region, but also how it’s affected Europe as well. And how the cycle of sectarian conflict, sectarian civil war in the region, is empowering nefarious actors, including jihadist terrorist organizations, who can portray themselves as patrons and protectors of beleaguered Sunni communities. And Iran, who is interested in keeping the Arab world perpetually weak so it can apply the Hezbollah model broadly in the region, in which it has weak governments in power that are beholding to Iran for support while Iran grows militias that can be turned against those governments if those governments act against Iranian interests. And, of course, what Iran wants to do is to threaten Israel with destruction and, ultimately, to place a proxy army on the border of Israel. So, it is the breaking of that sectarian civil war that can get the Middle East back on a slow course towards more security and stability, alleviate the humanitarian catastrophe, and lead to better security for Israel and U.S. interests in the region—and also to reduce support for jihadist terrorist organizations.

The Abraham Accords is a tremendous development and one that ought to be capitalized on. And why is it important? It’s important because the recognition of these countries—this is the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, Sudan, and now Morocco—of Israel, it removes this idea that there’s a religious war in the region. It helps reinforce this idea in the Quran that we’re all people of the book and ought to coexist together. It doesn’t allow jihadist terrorists to make the claim that this is a religious war. It removes that ideological cover from their political and criminal agendas. And it also reduces Iranian influence because it’s a recognition that the interests of these countries align with those of Israel, especially in connection with defending against Iran’s four-decade-long proxy war against the “Great Satan” (the United States), the “Little Satan” (Israel), and the Arab monarchies. 

And so this ought to be an opportunity, be viewed as an opportunity. It ought also to be viewed as an opportunity to build on this from the outside-in, to try to get to some kind of enduring peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians as well. Now, that’s a tall order. There are a lot of reasons why that is very, very unlikely to happen. But I think there ought to be a strong case for the Biden administration to remain engaged in the Middle East, and to try to take advantage of these recent positive developments, and to do so with an emphasis on breaking the cycle of sectarian violence. And I would say, importantly, don’t let the pressure off of Iran. And what I’m most fearful about in terms of the Biden policy is nostalgia for 2016 and going back to the Iran nuclear deal, which was always a bad deal and would be an even worse deal if it were pursued today without first trying to force the Iranian leadership to make a choice. They ought to try to make them make a choice between either behaving like a responsible nation and being welcomed back into the international economy and into the international order, or continue to support terrorist organizations and foment sectarian violence across the Middle East. And if they do that, they’re going to have to suffer the cost of economic isolation.

A lot has changed, and we can hope, in that region, that the Biden administration will reckon with those changes and reckon with the realities on the ground and the nature of that in other regimes. And to do that, hopefully, they will crack open Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World. We’ll wrap it up with that. Thank you so much, General McMaster.

Hey Tom, thanks for the privilege of being with you.

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