‘Strategic empathy’: H.R. McMaster on foreign policy and China

Why We Wrote This

U.S.-China developments can change by the day. But that’s exactly why standing back to take in the long view matters. Here, historian, decorated general, and former national security adviser H.R. McMaster takes stock.

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H.R. McMaster, then the U.S. national security adviser, participates in a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 25, 2018. Mr. McMaster’s new book, “Battlegrounds,” covers his 34-year military career and his year in the Trump White House.

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Two years after leaving the White House, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster is looking back at U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War – and finds it deeply flawed. The reason? “Strategic narcissism,” an overly U.S.-centric worldview that has blinded American policymakers.

Lieutenant General McMaster, a historian and highly decorated commander, examines that pattern in his wide-ranging new book, “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World.” Overall, his goal is to inspire Americans to educate themselves about the world, and to strengthen U.S. “strategic empathy,” which he views as essential for foreign policy success. 

In this interview, he speaks with the Monitor about one increasingly urgent focus of U.S. strategy: China. The general, who was centrally involved in a major policy shift away from engagement and toward competition and confrontation, discusses Beijing’s aims, Thucydides’ trap, and what keeps him up at night.

“China is anything but monolithic, and we ought to strive to have positive relations with Chinese people and with entities that are not directly connected to or doing the work of the Communist Party,” he says. “The problem is the space available to do that is diminishing.”

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, national security adviser to President Donald Trump from 2017 to 2018, explains in the first line of his new book, “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World,” why he chose not to write a tell-all memoir of his time in the White House. 

“I wanted to ... help transcend the vitriol of partisan political discourse,” writes Mr. McMaster, a historian, author, and highly decorated commander who led U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Now retired from the military and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Mr. McMaster instead examines U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War and finds it deeply flawed. The reason? “Strategic narcissism,” an overly U.S.-centric worldview that has blinded American policymakers. In taking the job of national security adviser, Mr. McMaster says he sought to “close gaps between reality overseas and fantasy in Washington.” 

His wide-ranging account reexamines U.S. policy from Russia and China to Iran and North Korea, and from South Asia and the Middle East to the new arenas of space and cyberwar. His goal? To inspire Americans to educate themselves about the world, and to strengthen U.S. “strategic empathy,” which he views as essential for foreign policy success. Here, he speaks with the Monitor about one increasingly urgent focus of U.S. strategy: China.

Q. You were centrally involved in crafting a major shift in U.S. policy toward China – away from engagement and toward competition and confrontation. Why do you believe hopes for engagement were misplaced? What changed?

There were reasons to continue to hope. As a historian, I am sensitive to try to understand better the perspective at the time. In the ’90s there were encouraging signs, all the way up to [Chinese leader] Hu Jintao. But right after the 2008 financial crisis, a shift happened [in China]. It should have been an inescapable conclusion that China wouldn’t play by the rules, that China wasn’t going to liberalize its economy or its form of governance. That shift also occurred during a crisis of confidence in our free-market economic system, in our financial system, in who we were as a people to some extent. There were divisions in our own society, frustrations with long and inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and for many the conventional wisdom was that it was time just to manage America’s decline.

Q. To what extent has U.S. involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the global war on terrorism, distracted Washington from China’s rise?

The argument is Iraq was an unwise choice, and the unanticipated costs and consequences there were what shook our confidence. I think what emboldened China more than that was a combination of the financial crisis and the unenforced red line in Syria in 2013-14. You can draw almost a direct line between that decision and [China’s] militarization and building of islands in the South China Sea. I think they just thought we’re over, we’re not going to challenge any power militarily, not even a weak Assad regime that committed mass murder against civilians with some of the most heinous weapons on earth.

Q. Around the same time, Harvard Professor Graham Allison’s “Thucydides’ trap” idea [that war is likely when an emerging power challenges a dominant power] was gaining currency in China. What’s your take on that?

There is this false dilemma posed. Graham Allison is more nuanced than this, but the interpretation of his Thucydides’ trap analogy is that you face a dilemma between passivity and accommodation on one hand, and confrontation and disastrous war on the other. But I believe we had been on the path to confrontation because we had done nothing to compete effectively. I think our passivity was why, in large measure, the Chinese Communist Party was emboldened.

I think there has to be a flat-out rejection by the whole world of the Chinese Communist Party narrative that we are just trying to keep them down, that we are trying to block the path of a rising power because we are the status quo power – the Thucydides’ trap conventional wisdom that has emerged.

Q. What do you believe China’s leaders intend for the country’s expanded world role?

What is clear is they want to subvert the international order as it exists, and replace it with a new order that is more sympathetic to China’s interests.    

They are trying to establish exclusionary areas of primacy across the Indo-Pacific. That could be by buying a base in Djibouti, connecting it to a port in Sri Lanka. It is also the militarization in the South China Sea. It’s their action in the East China Sea and around the Senkaku Islands. It’s the coercion of the South Korean government, as the first step in trying to drive the United States off the peninsula. It’s the threatening of Taiwan. It’s the Himalayan border. Piece it together. 

They also want to challenge the United States globally. That is why they are building a dam in Ecuador, and trading debt for equity, but also getting a lock on all of Ecuador’s oil exports. It’s not an economic investment. It’s a way to gain influence. Combine that with what they are trying to do with the communications infrastructure, and data standards and protocols. They want preponderant influence over the global logistics system and the emerging data economy. In addition, they are exporting their authoritarian, mercantilist model all over the world. 

The stakes are high, because if China wins this competition, the world will be less free, less prosperous, and less safe. So it’s a competition worth getting behind now. 

Q. In your book, you talk about China’s insecurity and the fear that goes hand in hand with its ambition. Do you see validity in China’s concern about internal division and instability, and the problems it would cause for the United States and the world if China were to become less stable? 

I would just say, take a poll in Xinjiang about it, how’s it working out for them? Ask the people in Hong Kong. The whole conventional wisdom was we have more to fear from a weak China than from a strong China. I don’t see that. I don’t think it was true then when President Obama said it, and I don’t think it is true now.

Q. What keeps you up at night when you think about China?

What I think could happen is Chinese Communist Party leaders will become more anxious about losing their exclusive grip on power. What they will do to reduce that risk is to intensify the establishment of the Orwellian surveillance police state internally, and they will begin to aggressively pursue “national rejuvenation” externally with maybe a move on Taiwan. We already see threatening behavior toward Taiwan and attacks against India on the Himalayan frontier. 

Do they think they are already in a position of relative strength? This is what is dangerous. What if the People’s Liberation Army believes the steady diet of propaganda they are being fed? What are the chances they will be more likely to precipitate an incident? 

Q. What do you see as the ideal global role of China and its relationship with the U.S.?

China is anything but monolithic, and we ought to strive to have positive relations with Chinese people and with entities that are not directly connected to or doing the work of the Communist Party. The problem is the space available to do that is diminishing.

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