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s an undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut, I was fortunate enough to have one of those professors who dramatically shaped the way I looked at the world. In the opening days of my intro to international relations class, Dr. Elizabeth “Betty” Hanson said, “you can’t understand the world from an American perspective alone.” It was a simple phrase, but one that held such meaning and weight, especially after I traveled and lived overseas.

Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World | By Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster | HarperCollins | September 2020.

Time and time again, it seems that as the United States finds itself confronting serious foreign policy and national security challenges, Dr. Hanson’s sentiment is missing, or at least is not fully absorbed. Washington overestimates its ability to affect change on the ground, not only in general but even more so when we attempt to do so to meet the demands of the two- and four-year election cycle. For all of the talk of a new approach to foreign policy when there is a transition in the White House, there still seems to be a carry-over of assumptions about what America can do and ignorance of the history and geography affecting the crises Washington faces.

Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster highlights this masterfully in his new book Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World. While slightly bombastic in its title, McMaster explores the contemporary challenges facing the United States through the lens of his time as President Trump’s National Security Adviser.

The Strategic Narcissism of American Foreign Policy

Central to McMaster’s thesis is that the United States’ foreign policy has suffered from and continues to suffer from “strategic narcissism”. The phrase, borrowed from an essay by Hans Morgenthau, suggests that the United States only views the world in relation to itself and assumes that future events depend almost exclusively on American action.

The consequences of this are both overconfidence and resignation, in McMaster’s assessment: overconfidence in the ability of the United States to affect change in the world (regardless of history or the situation on the ground) and a resignation that underestimates the risks of inaction in the face of such intractable challenges. Perhaps more than that, strategic narcissism leads to simplistic assessments of complex situations and erroneous assumptions on which failed policies are built.

In McMaster’s view, Republican and Democratic administrations alike suffered from both in recent history. For President Bush, the overconfidence of the unipolar moment led to an underappreciation of the challenges of a post-invasion in Iraq while for President Obama, pessimism about the utility of American foreign policy—or a belief that engagement was more damaging than non-engagement—led to inaction. Both administrations suffered from erroneous assumptions about the countries with which they engaged and ignorance of the history that underpinned these challenges.

A Hybrid of History and Policy

Each section breaks down these assumptions and crafts a historical narrative that supports McMaster’s analysis of the world and foreign policy. His approach is weighty and intellectual with occasional portraits of the leaders with whom he engaged and vignettes of his experiences as National Security Adviser.

Battlegrounds is an interesting hybrid of an insider account of McMaster’s time as National Security Adviser (peppered with anecdotes from his military career), a history of the conflicts in which the United States finds itself, and a lengthy policy paper familiar to anyone in or around the think tank community. At first glance, such an amalgamation shouldn’t work, but with McMaster’s deft touch it does, and well.

McMaster’s book is a rare thing to come out of those departing the Trump administration—an analytical, critical, and cogent policy work. It is not a political tell-all; it is not an insider’s settling of scores; nor does it defend President Trump. The market is saturated with books like that, so much so that it seems as though one leaves the White House with a book deal.

In Battlegrounds, McMaster carefully reviews the major foreign policy and national security challenges he encountered while he was National Security Adviser, unpacks their history, and dissects the legion of failings. It is eminently accessible and coherently presented. That this is the case for McMaster is not surprising. His previous book, Dereliction of Duty, about the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s failings during Vietnam, is a masterpiece in its own way—deeply researched, well-argued, and damning in its conclusions.  

A Timely and Critical Appraisal

This is not to say that McMaster is not critical of the president’s policies. Indeed, throughout the book McMaster explains the National Security Council’s deliberations, the strategies finalized and presented to the president, and the rationale behind those courses of action. Yet on multiple occasions, for unclear reasons, the president, after having agreed to that strategy, abruptly changed course. Why and for what reason are not explored in this book, and that is a strength. McMaster stays in his self-defined lanes and for that, Battlegrounds is a better work.

Other critics have suggested that by not being more critical of the president, McMaster is undermining his thesis and failing to address “the most important battleground…at home”. Such criticism is misguided. McMaster’s book is stronger because he does not turn Battlegrounds into a tell-all or a score-settling work.

Ironically, the reader sees what a Trump administration foreign policy could have looked like were the administration more “normal” and operating traditionally, and had there been a functioning National Security Council. McMaster outlines a series of policies on Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, South Asia, and the Middle East that would have challenged the status quo and the assumptions that previous administrations held, and potentially changed the dynamics of the situations on the ground. Unfortunately, how these could have developed will never be known, as the administration’s chaotic decision-making process undercut many of the sensible approaches crafted by McMaster and his team, often as they were developing these policy options.

Challenging Assumptions

While McMaster might be, in the words of Ben Rhodes, “conventionally hawkish”, the former general breaks down the challenges and underpinning assumptions in a refreshing and thought-provoking way that is much needed in today’s environment.

“China’s entry into the global economy will see it transition to a more liberal nation-state.” That hasn’t happened and won’t happen. Indeed, as McMaster notes, China is becoming more authoritarian, more confrontational, and more repressive both at home and abroad.

“Afghanistan is culturally corrupt and there are ‘moderate’ Taliban who will abide by any peace accords with the United States or Kabul.” McMaster rightfully calls out the former as borderline racist and the latter as naïve. “The United States can withdraw from Afghanistan and focus on counterterrorism alone.” In reality, in McMaster’s perspective, that is an insufficient approach that will lead to strategic failure. “With more aid and assistance, Pakistan will finally stop supporting insurgent groups crossing the border.” Rather, Islamabad has no incentive to do so and sees those groups as critical for its security.

“If only we can ‘reset’ relations with Moscow and better communicate the West’s positions, tensions with Russia will ebb.” Vladimir Putin sees the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and Russia in competition with the West; cooperation may be possible but in discreet areas.  

A Rare Thing Indeed

McMaster’s Battlegrounds is a rare thing in today’s environment—a thoughtful and intellectual analysis of the current foreign and national security policy challenges the United States faces. While some will lament that he does not take the president to task for his policies or behaviors, Battlegrounds is stronger for not succumbing to the mob’s insatiable appetite for insider narratives.

Where McMaster could have taken a firmer stand is in the importance of alliances to each of these challenges. None of the foreign policy issues outlined by McMaster can be solved by American involvement alone, yet the transactional approach taken by President Trump has alienated or strained many of these allies and alliances. This is not to say that these alliances need reform or that the allies need to increase their participation (be it in terms of defense expenditure or personnel commitment), but there is a better way to go about effecting changes than denigrating foreign capitals (especially when they are contributing both blood and treasure).

Equally, McMaster does not explore the implications of resource constraints on addressing these challenges. The economic impact of COVID, the budget deficit, and the ballooning national debt—much of which is held by China—will dramatically limit America’s ability to confront foreign policy and national security challenges. Operating in a resource-constrained environment will necessitate hard choices and realistic prioritization, something which could have been explored in greater length in Battlegrounds.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment in McMaster’s book is not anything to do with the book itself, but that an erudite scholar such as McMaster was unable to implement what appears to be quite sensible approaches to contemporary policy problems. Battlegrounds is a fascinating exploration of the challenges facing America in the next four years and beyond. Successfully addressing these issues requires an honest assessment of what America can do, but more importantly an understanding of the issues on the ground, their history and geography, and a serious reconsideration of the underlying assumptions that have guided Washington’s approach across multiple administrations.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World

October 10, 2020

Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World | By Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster | HarperCollins | September 2020.

A

s an undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut, I was fortunate enough to have one of those professors who dramatically shaped the way I looked at the world. In the opening days of my intro to international relations class, Dr. Elizabeth “Betty” Hanson said, “you can’t understand the world from an American perspective alone.” It was a simple phrase, but one that held such meaning and weight, especially after I traveled and lived overseas.

Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World | By Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster | HarperCollins | September 2020.

Time and time again, it seems that as the United States finds itself confronting serious foreign policy and national security challenges, Dr. Hanson’s sentiment is missing, or at least is not fully absorbed. Washington overestimates its ability to affect change on the ground, not only in general but even more so when we attempt to do so to meet the demands of the two- and four-year election cycle. For all of the talk of a new approach to foreign policy when there is a transition in the White House, there still seems to be a carry-over of assumptions about what America can do and ignorance of the history and geography affecting the crises Washington faces.

Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster highlights this masterfully in his new book Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World. While slightly bombastic in its title, McMaster explores the contemporary challenges facing the United States through the lens of his time as President Trump’s National Security Adviser.

The Strategic Narcissism of American Foreign Policy

Central to McMaster’s thesis is that the United States’ foreign policy has suffered from and continues to suffer from “strategic narcissism”. The phrase, borrowed from an essay by Hans Morgenthau, suggests that the United States only views the world in relation to itself and assumes that future events depend almost exclusively on American action.

The consequences of this are both overconfidence and resignation, in McMaster’s assessment: overconfidence in the ability of the United States to affect change in the world (regardless of history or the situation on the ground) and a resignation that underestimates the risks of inaction in the face of such intractable challenges. Perhaps more than that, strategic narcissism leads to simplistic assessments of complex situations and erroneous assumptions on which failed policies are built.

In McMaster’s view, Republican and Democratic administrations alike suffered from both in recent history. For President Bush, the overconfidence of the unipolar moment led to an underappreciation of the challenges of a post-invasion in Iraq while for President Obama, pessimism about the utility of American foreign policy—or a belief that engagement was more damaging than non-engagement—led to inaction. Both administrations suffered from erroneous assumptions about the countries with which they engaged and ignorance of the history that underpinned these challenges.

A Hybrid of History and Policy

Each section breaks down these assumptions and crafts a historical narrative that supports McMaster’s analysis of the world and foreign policy. His approach is weighty and intellectual with occasional portraits of the leaders with whom he engaged and vignettes of his experiences as National Security Adviser.

Battlegrounds is an interesting hybrid of an insider account of McMaster’s time as National Security Adviser (peppered with anecdotes from his military career), a history of the conflicts in which the United States finds itself, and a lengthy policy paper familiar to anyone in or around the think tank community. At first glance, such an amalgamation shouldn’t work, but with McMaster’s deft touch it does, and well.

McMaster’s book is a rare thing to come out of those departing the Trump administration—an analytical, critical, and cogent policy work. It is not a political tell-all; it is not an insider’s settling of scores; nor does it defend President Trump. The market is saturated with books like that, so much so that it seems as though one leaves the White House with a book deal.

In Battlegrounds, McMaster carefully reviews the major foreign policy and national security challenges he encountered while he was National Security Adviser, unpacks their history, and dissects the legion of failings. It is eminently accessible and coherently presented. That this is the case for McMaster is not surprising. His previous book, Dereliction of Duty, about the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s failings during Vietnam, is a masterpiece in its own way—deeply researched, well-argued, and damning in its conclusions.  

A Timely and Critical Appraisal

This is not to say that McMaster is not critical of the president’s policies. Indeed, throughout the book McMaster explains the National Security Council’s deliberations, the strategies finalized and presented to the president, and the rationale behind those courses of action. Yet on multiple occasions, for unclear reasons, the president, after having agreed to that strategy, abruptly changed course. Why and for what reason are not explored in this book, and that is a strength. McMaster stays in his self-defined lanes and for that, Battlegrounds is a better work.

Other critics have suggested that by not being more critical of the president, McMaster is undermining his thesis and failing to address “the most important battleground…at home”. Such criticism is misguided. McMaster’s book is stronger because he does not turn Battlegrounds into a tell-all or a score-settling work.

Ironically, the reader sees what a Trump administration foreign policy could have looked like were the administration more “normal” and operating traditionally, and had there been a functioning National Security Council. McMaster outlines a series of policies on Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, South Asia, and the Middle East that would have challenged the status quo and the assumptions that previous administrations held, and potentially changed the dynamics of the situations on the ground. Unfortunately, how these could have developed will never be known, as the administration’s chaotic decision-making process undercut many of the sensible approaches crafted by McMaster and his team, often as they were developing these policy options.

Challenging Assumptions

While McMaster might be, in the words of Ben Rhodes, “conventionally hawkish”, the former general breaks down the challenges and underpinning assumptions in a refreshing and thought-provoking way that is much needed in today’s environment.

“China’s entry into the global economy will see it transition to a more liberal nation-state.” That hasn’t happened and won’t happen. Indeed, as McMaster notes, China is becoming more authoritarian, more confrontational, and more repressive both at home and abroad.

“Afghanistan is culturally corrupt and there are ‘moderate’ Taliban who will abide by any peace accords with the United States or Kabul.” McMaster rightfully calls out the former as borderline racist and the latter as naïve. “The United States can withdraw from Afghanistan and focus on counterterrorism alone.” In reality, in McMaster’s perspective, that is an insufficient approach that will lead to strategic failure. “With more aid and assistance, Pakistan will finally stop supporting insurgent groups crossing the border.” Rather, Islamabad has no incentive to do so and sees those groups as critical for its security.

“If only we can ‘reset’ relations with Moscow and better communicate the West’s positions, tensions with Russia will ebb.” Vladimir Putin sees the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and Russia in competition with the West; cooperation may be possible but in discreet areas.  

A Rare Thing Indeed

McMaster’s Battlegrounds is a rare thing in today’s environment—a thoughtful and intellectual analysis of the current foreign and national security policy challenges the United States faces. While some will lament that he does not take the president to task for his policies or behaviors, Battlegrounds is stronger for not succumbing to the mob’s insatiable appetite for insider narratives.

Where McMaster could have taken a firmer stand is in the importance of alliances to each of these challenges. None of the foreign policy issues outlined by McMaster can be solved by American involvement alone, yet the transactional approach taken by President Trump has alienated or strained many of these allies and alliances. This is not to say that these alliances need reform or that the allies need to increase their participation (be it in terms of defense expenditure or personnel commitment), but there is a better way to go about effecting changes than denigrating foreign capitals (especially when they are contributing both blood and treasure).

Equally, McMaster does not explore the implications of resource constraints on addressing these challenges. The economic impact of COVID, the budget deficit, and the ballooning national debt—much of which is held by China—will dramatically limit America’s ability to confront foreign policy and national security challenges. Operating in a resource-constrained environment will necessitate hard choices and realistic prioritization, something which could have been explored in greater length in Battlegrounds.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment in McMaster’s book is not anything to do with the book itself, but that an erudite scholar such as McMaster was unable to implement what appears to be quite sensible approaches to contemporary policy problems. Battlegrounds is a fascinating exploration of the challenges facing America in the next four years and beyond. Successfully addressing these issues requires an honest assessment of what America can do, but more importantly an understanding of the issues on the ground, their history and geography, and a serious reconsideration of the underlying assumptions that have guided Washington’s approach across multiple administrations.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.