The Fight to Defend the Free World
By H. R. McMaster
On his first morning as President Trump’s national security adviser, in 2017, H. R. McMaster invited me to drop by his office. He had heard that The New York Times was getting ready to report on a classified U.S. operation that attempted to sabotage North Korea’s missile programs with cyberstrikes. “Is this the revelation of the modern-day Enigma codes?” he asked, the military historian searching for an analogy from the World War II operation to crack German ciphers.
It was a bracing start for what turned out to be a wild 13-month effort to devise a modern-day security strategy for a president with no experience, more interest in cutting deals than designing a long-term strategy — and an unwillingness to sit for intelligence briefings, much less discussion of containing an angry, decaying Russia or of a 50-year plan to compete with a rising China. So “Battlegrounds” is, at its heart, the McMaster strategic plan that might have come to fruition had he worked for a president who was interested in strategic plans.
Long before he walked into the West Wing, McMaster was the closest thing the Army had to a soldier-scholar. His book about Vietnam, “Dereliction of Duty,” was a devastating account of how the United States had a flawed decision-making process that was largely based on self-deception.
In many ways, “Battlegrounds” is the sequel, seeking to ask the question of why — not whether — the United States, at another moment of protests in the streets and bitter partisan divides, is losing its ability to shape the world. But the answers this time are different, in McMaster’s view.
The key to his argument is that America is suffering from what Hans Morgenthau called “strategic narcissism,” or, in McMaster’s words, “the tendency to view the world only in relation to the United States and to assume that the future course of events depends primarily on U.S. decisions or plans.” It’s hard to argue with that premise: Every new president comes to office assuming that the world is waiting for direction from Washington. Some countries are. Others are looking for power vacuums they can fill, each in its own way.
That’s been the story of the past two decades. Russia has emerged as a disrupter, knowing that it has neither the money nor the technology to take the United States on directly. China has become a builder — why threaten to cut undersea cables, as Vladimir Putin’s submarine force does, if you can dominate global communications? As Rob Joyce, an N.S.A. official who worked for McMaster as the White House cybersecurity coordinator, said: “Russia is the hurricane. … China is climate change.”
McMaster realized that, and devoted much of his time in the West Wing to writing a “National Security Strategy” that would reorient the United States away from nearly two decades of counterterrorism and toward countering Moscow and Beijing, which he called “revisionist powers.” It was an impressive document. Unfortunately, the president under whose name it was published, aides concede, did not read it.
“Battlegrounds” expands on the written strategy — the one the White House has barely mentioned since it was published — and makes a strong case for containing Russia, pushing back on Chinese influence and using American leverage, and allies, to confront Iran and North Korea. What Washington needs, McMaster argues, is an integrated approach that recognizes that the old tools that drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991, when McMaster served, are pretty useless 30 years later.
He starts with Russia. “The United States and Europe were ill prepared for Russia’s toxic combination of disinformation, denial, dependence and disruptive technologies,” he says, a recognition that what happened in 2016 was not that America’s radar was off. It’s that the radar was never built. Fortunately, it has since been pieced together, and in the 2020 presidential contest, everyone from Facebook to Twitter to the United States Cyber Command has been pushing back. Disinformation has been blocked, clumsily. Botnets that spread ransomware that could be directed at election systems have been taken down, at least briefly.
Unfortunately, McMaster’s boss was not on board with this approach. In McMaster’s time, he notes, President Trump often said improving relations with Russia “would be a good thing, not a bad thing,” while succumbing to Putin’s flattery and treating his criminal actions “with dismissiveness and moral equivalency.” And, of course, the repeated references to “the Russia hoax,” which meant no one in the president’s circle could discuss election interference without dreading an eruption triggered by Trump’s fear that the legitimacy of the election was being questioned.
McMaster never deals head-on with the fundamental problem — that the administration had, on paper, a defensible Russia strategy, and the president kept undermining it. Instead, he cites his top Russia aide, Fiona Hill, who, he writes, always warned that “Putin seeks to divide; Americans and Europeans should not divide themselves.”
China, the climate-changer, is, of course, immune to containment strategies. If the old Cold War was largely a military contest, Version 2.0 is a military, diplomatic, economic and technological contest. That change led to a misappraisal of the challenge: As McMaster points out, a succession of administrations convinced themselves that, over time, China would conform to a Western-built system. (Trump succumbed to a different illusion: that the Chinese were all dealmakers, like the property developers he knew.)
Crucial to McMaster’s analysis is China’s strategy to wire together its own collection of allies and dependent powers — selling them Controlled-in-China technology, from Huawei’s networks to, after McMaster departed, TikTok’s addictive app.
“It took the United States a decade and a half to understand the immensity of the Trojan horse it had let in,” he says of how the United States blindly let a Chinese telecommunications giant gain ground, while American firms exited the market. But the reader yearns for McMaster’s solution. Ban Chinese technology? Maybe — President Trump is trying — but even then China will dominate 40 percent or more of the world’s telecommunications networks. Embrace an industrial policy that will win back the market?
It is in dealing with the two biggest failures of the Trump administration, Iran and North Korea, that McMaster sounds the loudest alarms. While he was a major critic of President Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, and criticizes Obama’s aides for overlooking Iran’s support of terrorism and terrorist regimes, he reports that internally he argued for staying inside the deal and using Trump’s threats to toss it aside as leverage.
But the president wouldn’t think that many chess moves ahead, and dispensed with the whole deal a month after McMaster left. Now he fears that the United States, without allies to confront Iran, may slip into the place we are with other nuclear powers that Washington once declared could never possess nuclear arms:
“Pakistan provides a stark warning. Iran could become, like Pakistan today, a nuclear-armed state in which terrorists already enjoy a support base. The greatest threat to humanity in the coming decades may lie at the nexus between terrorists and the most destructive weapons on earth.”
North Korea, of course, already has those weapons — and a lot more fuel for them now than when the Trump administration arrived with its threats of “fire and fury” if they were not turned over immediately. It was the president’s ego that got in the way.
McMaster knew, he says, that as soon as Kim Jong-un proposed a summit, the president “would find a historic first meeting between a North Korean leader and a U.S. president irresistible.” Not a single weapon or missile has been dismantled. But the sanctions regime is in tatters, undercut by Russia and China.
Which takes me back to McMaster’s question his first day: Are we facing the “modern-day Enigma codes”? It turns out the Enigma this time is us. Americans want the unrivaled power, the global influence, and the economic growth and freedom that come with it, the kind we enjoyed with little challenge at the end of World War II and then, briefly, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But we want it free — without the strategic investments in the world, without forward-deployed troops, without marshaling the power of technologies America largely invented.
The biggest of McMaster’s “Battlegrounds” is here at home.