General H.R. McMaster served as a commissioned officer in the US Army for thirty-four years. He retired as a Lieutenant General in 2018 after serving as the United States 26th National Security Advisor. Today, McMaster is the Fouad and Michelle Ajami Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is also the Bernard and Susan Liautaud Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute and lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.
McMaster designed the future army as the director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center and the deputy commanding general, futures, of the US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). As commanding general of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, he oversaw all training and education for the army’s infantry, armor, and cavalry force. He has commanded organizations in wartime including the Combined Joint Inter-Agency Task Force—Shafafiyat in Kabul, Afghanistan, from 2010 to 2012; the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq from 2005 to 2006; and Eagle Troop, Second Armored Cavalry Regiment in Operation Desert Storm from 1990 to 1991. McMaster also served overseas as advisor to the most senior commanders in the Middle East, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is author of the bestselling books Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World and Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. McMaster is the host of Battlegrounds: International Perspectives on Crucial Challenges and Opportunities
In this interview, I speak to Gen. H. R. McMaster, Former National Security Advisor to the United States. We discuss the current state of global security, the security and foreign policy challenges facing our world, and whether we should be hopeful for the future of global peace.
Q: What has been the predominant foreign policy narrative of the Western world since the Cold War?
[Gen. H. R. McMaster]: Drawing upon the wisdom of retrospect, there seems to be a narrative forming that critically reflects on the aftermath of the Cold War. We struggled to label this unique era, opting eventually to refer to it simply as the “post-Cold War period.” Looking back, it’s clear that this phase was characterized by a pervasive optimism that, in hindsight, seems somewhat misguided.
Our hopes for this new epoch were anchored on a number of presumptions. Firstly, we believed that the trajectory of history had irrevocably cemented the dominance of open, free societies over their authoritarian counterparts. Additionally, we were convinced that the era of intense rivalry between powerful nations was a thing of the past.
Thirdly, we were confident that America’s impressive technological, economic, and military might would indefinitely secure our safety. We also entertained the notion that a global cooperative of nations would foster an international community working in harmony. Unfortunately, this idealized term seemed more an illusion than reality.
Our belief in international cooperation was pinned on the promise of resolving global issues through organizations such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization. We were hopeful that together, we could promote health security and human rights, making strides through bodies like the Human Rights Council.
However, the painful reality that emerged was that these assumptions were largely unfounded. Not every nation, nor their leaders, shared this future vision. The disparities in our global perspectives became painfully clear as our grand expectations were steadily eroded.
[Vikas: is there enough public understanding in this regard?]
[Gen. H. R. McMaster]: In a democracy, an informed citizenry can act as a driving force for more robust and effective foreign policies and strategies related to national security, thereby fostering peace and encouraging prosperity. However, the lack of such comprehensive education has been a stumbling block, I believe. Consequently, the public has often been swayed by periods of excessive optimism, as we experienced in the 1990s, only to have the pendulum swing towards a sense of pessimism and resignation in the 2000s.
However, if we could enhance our understanding of the multifaceted challenges we face, we could take greater control of our collective destiny. By learning about our limitations, we can work collaboratively towards building a brighter future. Education is the linchpin in this process.
Focusing on education about the past serves a dual purpose: it humbles us by revealing our past missteps, while simultaneously broadening our perspective on what is achievable. Ultimately, it’s this duality that encapsulates the invaluable role of education in shaping our future.
Q: What are the objectives of Russia in today’s world?
[Gen. H. R. McMaster]: Undeniably, the objective of this individual has been made apparent through the actions taken over the past two decades. Since stepping onto the scene in 2000, there was a clear intention of returning Russia to a position of national prominence, a goal that’s remained constant.
The strategy deployed to achieve this involves the expansion of Russian influence across territories formerly under the Soviet Union and countries previously part of the Warsaw Pact. It also extends to other global regions, reflecting an ambition for Russia to be recognized as a major world power. The aspiration to revive a form of the Russian empire is perceived as a personal mission, yet there’s an undeniable awareness of certain power constraints.
There are notable limitations tied to the economy, particularly the lack of diversification, and to the military, which is frequently characterized as inept, corrupt, and structurally weak. The conceptualization of victory for Russia involves destabilizing others through a multifaceted approach. This involves politically subversive campaigns, potential use of insurgencies, and leveraging organized crime networks to further national interests.
There’s an unapologetic willingness to associate with reprehensible figures, such as the Assad regime in Syria. This allows for a dual role: that of both the instigator and the peacekeeper, especially in regions like the Middle East. Even in the face of conflict, there’s a consistent push to expand influence horizontally, from West Africa to the Middle East.
His actions have also been evident in Europe, including direct interference in elections. Recent activities in Moldova and impending involvement in Bulgaria’s upcoming election are testament to this. Furthermore, the stoking of Serbian nationalism in Southeast Europe reveals the extent of the meddling.
What makes him dangerous is an unwavering determination; those who suggest potential exit strategies are overlooking a key aspect of his character. Any off-ramp simply provides an opportunity for him to seek the next on-ramp.
Q: How can we protect ourselves against the potential threats we face from China?
[Gen. H. R. McMaster]: Why don’t we start with a fundamental step – ceasing to fund our own downfall? For years, we held onto the belief that welcoming China into the international order would prompt them to abide by established rules, liberalize their economy, and make their governance more democratic. Contrary to these expectations, however, China has turned its state-controlled, authoritarian economic model into a weapon against us, while we’ve made minimal adjustments.
We’ve consistently funnelled funds into China, which essentially undergirds their financial system. Our investments extend to companies that are crucial to the military capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army. US firms and other international entities keep forming joint ventures with Chinese companies, lured by the promise of accessing the expansive Chinese market.
Unfortunately, the norm has become that these Chinese companies expropriate intellectual property and sensitive technologies. The Chinese state then backs a local champion company, subsidizes it, and blocks the international company from the Chinese market. Subsequently, goods produced at artificially deflated prices are offloaded onto the international market with the intent of driving competitors into bankruptcy. This pattern has repeated across numerous sectors, and there are signs that it might soon affect companies like Tesla.
It’s vital for business leaders, like Elon Musk, to be forewarned. This pattern has spelled doom for many companies before, and history could well repeat itself.
[Vikas: What are your views on China’s support for North Korea?]
[Gen. H. R. McMaster]: China’s goal is to establish exclusive zones of influence across the Indo-Pacific region, including Northeast Asia. It sees North Korea as a strategic pawn – a wedge to disrupt our relationships with key allies like South Korea and Japan. Additionally, North Korea serves as a buffer zone. The volume of trade flowing between the Korean Peninsula and Japan is staggering and vital not only for China but also for the global economy.
China is therefore inclined to restrict the United States, South Korea, and Japan from gaining significant sway in Northeast Asia. Its strategy involves supporting the world’s sole hereditary communist dictatorship – the Kim family regime, a government threatening global security with extremely destructive weapons.
At first glance, one might question the logic of this approach. Why would China want a nuclear-armed North Korea? After all, North Korea has shown a willingness to trade weapons with anyone, even attempting to sell its nuclear program to Syria until Israel thwarted their efforts by bombing the nuclear reactor in 2007.
And then there’s the domino effect: if North Korea possesses a nuclear weapon, how long until South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam also pursue nuclear capabilities? Polls suggest a majority of South Koreans are in favour of possessing nuclear weapons for their defence.
This path seems to be a grave miscalculation on the part of the Chinese Communist Party leadership, particularly because they have the leverage to control the situation. They exert immense power over North Korea, controlling 96% of its trade, including vital commodities like fuel, crucial for missile launches.
If President Xi Jinping genuinely wanted to resolve the crisis, he has the means to do so. A comparison can be made to the United States’ approach in the 70s and 80s when South Korea was pursuing nuclear weapons. The US offered protection under its nuclear umbrella, dissuading them from nuclear armament. Perhaps it’s time for China to consider a similar approach.
Q: Can we find resilient peace in the middle east?
[Gen. H. R. McMaster]: The United States has relinquished its influence in the Middle East by consistently doing so across multiple administrations, notably during the Obama-Biden administration. Even the interim administration in the latter years of Trump’s term proclaimed an imminent departure from the region. Although we often declare our intention to leave, we never fully do, and in doing so, we inadvertently hand over influence to Russia and China. The prevailing attitude, particularly during the Obama administration, was that the Middle East was merely a chaotic mess to be avoided. We believed we should pivot away from it and focus on the “real” issues like China and possibly Russia. However, the competition with China and Russia is unfolding right within the Middle East.
What has happened is that by relinquishing our influence, we have encouraged China and Russia to become even more active in the region. Russia has re-established its presence there in a manner not seen since the 1970s, when Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon brokered the agreement between Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. This, in my view, is a significant mistake. The current situation in the region can be seen as an extension of Russian and Iranian influence. Russia plays a crucial role in enabling Iran. In Syria, for instance, Putin is promoting what I refer to as Putin’s Potemkin peace plan. He urges regional leaders to collaborate with him in legitimizing Assad and maintaining his power. In return, Putin promises to work diligently to reduce Iranian influence. However, Assad is actually more reliant on Iran and its proxy army in Syria than in Russia. Therefore, we are likely to witness a perpetuation of the cycle of sectarian violence, despite the ceasefire in Yemen, which does offer some hope considering the horrific humanitarian catastrophe occurring there.
Iran will persist with its so-called forward defence strategy, which essentially acts as a forward offense, aiming to keep the region perpetually weakened and embroiled in conflict. This serves Iran’s goal of expanding its influence in the region and posing a threat to the existence of Israel. Ultimately, that is the true objective of the Iranian dictatorship.
Q: Do you feel we need to be more alert to global security?
[Gen. H. R. McMaster]: The tragedies of 9/11 and COVID-19 should serve as stark reminders that security threats, whether originating from jihadist terrorism or health crises, can come at an immense cost once they reach North America. Therefore, it’s vital that we actively engage at an international level, not with the aim of resolving every problem but to prevent them from worsening.
The assumption that situations in the Middle East can’t deteriorate further is fundamentally flawed. It’s always possible for things to get worse, as witnessed in 2013/14 with the unenforced red line in Syria and the subsequent refugee crisis affecting not only regional countries but Europe as well. Each time we assume the Middle East can’t spiral further; it invariably does. As Ken Pollack noted years ago, the region doesn’t follow the Las Vegas principle: what happens in the Middle East doesn’t stay there.
Therefore, sustained active engagement is critical. And the reality is, we are engaged – in Iraq, in Syria, and in the ongoing fight against ISIS. We maintain significant military capabilities in the region. Yet, by declaring our wish to withdraw and by making concessions to Iran in hopes of securing a nuclear deal, we’ve compromised our credibility and influence.
Q: Is it too late for the US to rebuild global influence?
[Gen. H. R. McMaster]: No, it’s certainly not too late. History reminds us of periods when our influence had dwindled, like the 1970s during the oil embargoes and energy crises. Regaining lost ground will take time, but the process will be significantly extended if we don’t start rebuilding now.
What’s crucial is that American citizens and Congressional members demand a more competent foreign policy from the administration in Washington. The current administration was responsible for the flawed strategy during the Obama era, and they’ve essentially returned to office to double down on the same approach.
The main characters from the Obama years, whose Middle East policy was primarily shaped by the President’s opposition to the Iraq war in 2003, are back in play. Interestingly, in their bid to steer clear of perceived mistakes from the George W. Bush administration, they’ve ironically replicated them – think of the unenforced red line in Syria and the total withdrawal from Iraq.
Remember in December 2010 when Vice President Biden called President Obama to thank him for ending the “goddamn war” in Iraq? Yet, by 2014, we were back to battle ISIS, a terrorist group that had captured territories the size of Britain and had become the most destructive terrorist organization in history.
Furthermore, they intervened in Libya in North Africa but failed to establish any political order after the Gadhafi regime. Libya, despite its size, with a population of just 6 million, could have been stabilized if the US had collaborated with European and regional allies.
The mindset that the US needs to focus on disengagement has been detrimental. It’s time to shift gears and actively work towards re-establishing our influence.
Q: What gives you hope for the future?
[Gen. H. R. McMaster]: Democracies possess an inherent resilience, while authoritarian regimes, despite appearing formidable, are notably fragile. For instance, China, in its race to surpass the free world under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, has generated various vulnerabilities within its economy. Over-leveraged debt, especially at local and provincial levels, a looming real estate crisis, and a self-inflicted crackdown on the tech sector all contribute to these weaknesses.
Add to that the reputational risks becoming increasingly apparent to companies investing in or doing business with China. The Chinese Communist Party’s ongoing campaign of slow genocide against the Uighurs and their attempts to construct a technologically driven Orwellian police state should serve as clear warning signs. Investing in companies like Hikvision or even Four Paradigm, which assists the People’s Liberation Army’s battlefield artificial intelligence, should incite shame.
Therefore, we must cease enabling our own downfall regarding China. Moreover, Putin’s regime is far weaker than it seems.
So, what instils hope in me? Consider the courage and valour of the Ukrainian people, who continue to fight for their freedom. Their struggle should inspire us to appreciate our freedoms within the United States and the wider free world.
What’s troubling nowadays is the propensity to prefix ‘institutional’ or ‘structural’ before every challenge we encounter, and the uptake of postmodernist philosophies and various critical theories. These approaches disempower individuals, promoting a narrative of victimhood.
This perspective risks leaving our youth with a toxic mix of anger and resignation. Instead, we should encourage them to look to the Ukrainians for inspiration and help them understand that they are in control of their futures and can actively work towards a better world.
In a democracy, citizens have a say in governance. Therefore, if we’re concerned about the barriers faced by disadvantaged communities in accessing America’s promises, we should take action. Demand improved education. Demand better opportunities.
I remain optimistic about our country’s future. This period reminds me of the 1970s in many ways. However, just as we did then, I believe we can rebound, strengthening, and nurturing our republic.