The Need to Compete on Multiple Battlegrounds: An Interview with Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster
Interviewed By Octavian Manea
“The truly competent and effective militaries adapt to the reality they confront rather than attempting to make reality fit their prewar assumptions. (…) the most important factor is an understanding of the political and strategic framework within which a conflict is occurring.”
Williamson Murray, AMERICA and the FUTURE of WAR. The past as prologue (2017)
In Battlegrounds, you emphasize the need to regain strategic competence, display strategic empathy and the need to defend the Free World. How would you characterize your NSA legacy from the perspective of US grand strategy?
I hope what I was able to do as National Security Adviser and in the book was to make the case for improving our strategic competence, but first try to understand challenges to our security, prosperity, to our influence in the world on their own terms. Pay particular attention to the ideology, aspirations and emotions that drive and constrain the other, particularly rivals, adversaries and enemies. In short, display strategic empathy. It is a step we often skip and as a result we proceed without a fundamental understanding of the nature of the challenge, what is at stake, and we don’t make explicit assumptions about the degree of agency and influence we have over that particular challenge.
What I hope I did in the job was to deepen our understanding of the crucial challenges, to understand how the recent past produced the present as the first way of projecting into the future, understand what the true stakes are and therefore what our goals and objectives ought to be and make recommendations about how to work together with likeminded partners to take advantage of opportunities and build a better future for generations to come.
Your post-Cold War biography suggests quite a journey. November 1989 (West Germany), February 1991 (Desert Storm), February 2005 (Tal Afar), February 2017 (Philadelphia, RNGW). Different battlegrounds, different wars. Historically, what is driving the change of the character of war? How did the character of war change over the past 30 years? What drove the change?
The character of war is always changing. That is because, as Carl von Clausewitz said, war is a continuous interaction of opposites. That interaction includes us, our military forces, but our overall foreign policy and the integrated efforts to achieve our objectives with determined adversaries, enemies and rivals who recognize as Conrad Crane says that there are two ways to fight: asymmetrically and stupidly. Our adversaries are always trying to find ways to avoid our strengths, to take advantages of opportunities against us. We saw this with the attacks of 9/11, which were efforts to bypass our military and attack us asymmetrically. We also saw that in connection with the unanticipated length and difficulties with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our enemies there, by engaging in an insurgency against us, were able to avoid our strengths and attack what they saw our weaknesses.
Increasingly we are seeing our adversaries attack our will to sustain our foreign policy and our efforts abroad. This is an aspect of Russian New Generation Warfare (RNGW) and an aspect of what the Taliban were able to do. In 2017, 2018 and 2019 the Taliban were in a very difficult position, but we lost our will and actually engaged in negotiations and in an agreement with the Taliban that strengthened them far more than they deserved. In a perverse way, we partnered with the Taliban against our partner the Afghan government.
The war is still a contest of wills and what we have seen is our adversaries recognizing that. We didn’t recognize that to the extent we should have and that put us in a fundamental disadvantage.
A key concept at the core of Battlegrounds is that of “strategic narcissism”. What failures can we point to because of the strategic narcissism? What makes strategic narcissism more likely?
Strategic narcissism is our tendency to define the world only in relation to us and therefore to assume that whatever we do will be decided by our desires and outcomes. Strategic narcissism is flawed because it doesn’t take into consideration the agency, influence, and the authorship over the future that others have. Because strategic narcissism doesn't consider that agency, we tend to engage in optimism bias, wishful thinking and ultimately self-delusion. We develop policies and strategies based on preferences rather than what the situation demands. There are many examples of this.
In the 1990s we can find such an example in the assumptions that underpinned US foreign policy in that period - the belief that the arc of history guaranteed the primacy of free and open societies over closed and authoritarian systems, the assumption that great power competition and rivalry was a relic of the past and the assumption that the military technological dominance delivered what the orthodoxy of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) believed to be full spectrum dominance over any adversary. The 1990s were a time when we engaged in over-optimism and hubris and we failed because of strategic narcissism to adjust to realities.
Certainly after the 2007 denial of services attack to Estonia by Russia or the 2008 invasion of Georgia we should have reassessed the relationship with Russia. But we didn’t. We continued our disengagement, the withdrawal of large forces from Europe, we were very slow to become aware of and try to counter RNGW. Starting in 2008, Russia was engaged in a sustained campaign of subversion against Europe and against the West in an effort to break apart Europe, to polarize societies within the European countries and pit them against each other to weaken them from within, weaken the transatlantic relationship and NATO as well. We were very slow to wake up to that threat and this is more the reason why I commissioned this Russian New Generation Warfare study after the invasion of Ukraine so at least the Army should be prepared to counter what we saw as new capabilities and Russia’s efforts to accomplish its objectives below the threshold of what may elicit a military response.
Another example is our policy towards Iran. What I emphasize in Battlegrounds is how our policy towards Iran was mainly one of reconciliation based on the assumption that the Iranian regime would change its very nature and stop its four-decades-long proxy wars against the US, Israel and the West. That hasn’t happened and it is not going to happen as long as the ideology of the Revolution continues to drive the supreme leader and the IRGC.
In Iraq we continued fighting the war looking for disengagement in itself. In 2004, 2005 and 2006 we had a strategy that was accelerating the transition as Iraq was becoming engulfed in vast ethno-sectarian violence. It was a rush to failure based on self-delusion and wishful thinking.
Another example of strategic narcissism is the China policy. For a long time our China policy was based on the assumption that once it was welcomed in the community of nations, China would play by the rules, would liberalize its economy and, as it prospered, it would liberalize its form of government.
We were way too slow to recognize these failures because of our strategic narcissism and our lack of strategic empathy - the effort to understand these complex challenges from the perspective of the other and pay particular attention to the emotions, ideologies that drive and constrain the other. We were way too slow to let go the assumptions that underpinned fundamentally flawed policies and strategies.
You emphasize also the importance of the framing sessions. There is this temptation today to focus on the great power competition, while at the same time ignoring/deleting the lessons of the complex post-9/11 COIN campaigns. But a closer look to how great power competitors behave today highlight attacks on cohesiveness and legitimacy, subverting the rules of the road, trying to shape hearts and minds and the human terrain, harnessing/nurturing/exploiting domestic grievances inside the West. All are features reminding of an insurgent repertoire. China and Russia learned to be insurgents. They behave like insurgents and are quasi-insurgent powers. Framed in this way, how should a COIN practitioner approach a great power competition with insurgent features/characteristics? More broadly, how do you see the role of irregular warfare in the context of great power competition?
The experience in irregular warfare, and insurgency and counterinsurgency is immensely relevant to the challenges we are facing today. We still have a problem associated with insurgencies and terrorist organizations in the Greater Middle East.
We always try to say “let’s forget that kind of war, that was not the kind of war we prefer to fight” – the more conventional ones that have decisive outcomes, although in reality they never do unless you consolidate gains in the political sustainable outcomes. We always want to leave these forms of warfare behind because they are difficult and frustrating. But when you do leave, like we did from Iraq in December 2011, we’ve learned that wars don’t end when one side disengages. The problem is that the disengagement left the space to jihadi terrorists and Iranian proxies, thereby creating an ideal environment for the return of sectarian violence and the establishment of ISIS. By 2014 we have a situation where ISIS is in control of a territory the size of Britain and is engaged in creating one of greatest humanitarian catastrophes since WW2.
At the same time, the great powers are also borrowing the tools of insurgents. You could say that the Russian sustained campaign of political subversion and disruption is a form of insurgency in trying to exploit fissures in society, to polarize us, to pit us against each other and accomplish its goals by driving groups to extreme positions that ultimately reduce the confidence in our democratic principles, processes and institutions in Europe and the US. There is also the example of Russia using proxies (the little green men in Crimea) or supporting the Assad regime with mercenaries.
It is really important for us to understand that we have to compete on multiple battlegrounds in these conflicts. These are battlegrounds that involve not only military tools, but also require us to bring law enforcement, financial, economic actions and informational efforts to isolate these enemies from their sources of ideological support. In the book I argue for strategic competence and part of that is the recognition that it is the synergistic integration of all elements of national power with the efforts of like-minded partners that is essential for an effective strategy and policy.
The 2017 NSS notes that the foreign adversaries exploits the reality that the “US views the world in binary terms, with states being either at peace or at war.” Are the US and the West more broadly, closer to embracing a mindset that reconceptualizes and expands the notion of war/ conflict to compete effectively in the space between war and peace? Including projecting a true whole-of-government approach in the relevant theaters of competition?
Conrad Crane said that there are two ways to fight – asymmetrically and stupidly. You would hope that your adversary would pick stupidly as Saddam Hussein did in the 1991 war. But what Russia has done is to come with a new generation warfare – an effort to accomplish objectives below the threshold of what might elicit a military response. This is an area where we have to become much more effective in competing and to combine all elements of national power to go after Russia’s networks (including organized crime networks), that mobilize to sustain its campaign of political subversion, engage in cyber-enabled influence warfare and undertake a whole-of-nation effort to disrupt us. We are getting much better at this. We are much more competitive in cyber space and we are much more competitive in employing all elements of national power against malicious cyber actors. You see this with the multiple indictments and sanctions against entities and individuals within the Internet Research Agency (IRA).
I would really like to see NATO continuing its efforts to generate the political will and to marshal the full range of tools that we need to counter this pernicious form of aggression. We are in space now and at a time where we have to combine these tools from a multinational and multilateral perspective almost continuously. That includes informational and financial actions, economic sanctions and I think a way to think about this is that we have to be able to map the networks that are operating against us, understand what they are trying to achieve, what their strategy is, see closer these networks of people, money, weapons, narcotics and be able to attack them and those who provide them with impunity and freedom of action. We have to do this from a multinational perspective. We tend to use these tools discretely, fragmented, one at the time, but it is best to go after these networks holistically and try to attack multiple aspects and nodes within that network simultaneously and go after the vulnerabilities and isolate them from their sources of strength.
You emphasize the need for strategic empathy. And this applies both to adversaries and allies. I think that Pine Gap (the Australian Netflix series) gives us a really good insight into the contemporary Chinese playbook seen through Australian eyes. An example is the Chinese-owned firm that is trying to coopt the local Aboriginal community by offering a very tempting financial deal - pouring billions into the economy, building roads and train lines, employing thousands of people. In exchange the Chinese will receive the exploitation rights for a pipeline that will cross over a critical piece of real estate that will give the Chinese front-seat access to the Pine Gap base. The whole logic is well-projected by the Chinese businessman: “the Americans play chess where the object of the game is to kill the other king. A fast attack. Total victory....But we play GO where the object of the game is to gradually own the most territory slowly acquiring a winning position which is a completely different approach to life” (and war, I would add). So South China Sea, maritime and land Silk Roads, key strategic acquisitions in the West, A2/AD posture, 5G, civil-military fusion. How would you describe the essence of the Chinese strategy as we see it today?
What China is trying to do is to create exclusionary areas of primacy across the Indo-Pacific and to challenge the US globally. As you mentioned, they are taking a sophisticated approach combining economic and financial tools with a military that has grown immensely, investing 800% since 1994. Through the integration of military, economic, cultural, technological and informational tools they have the ability to pursue a strategy of cooption, coercion and concealment. They coopt countries and companies with Chinese investments and once they coopt you by indebting countries or by convincing companies to transfer essential technologies, they coerce you to give up intellectual property and support Chinese policies and objectives or to give China control and influence over important infrastructure (especially 21st-century communication networks). In fact, they want to have a preponderant power and influence over the emergent data economy. They want also to be able to control the market on critical raw materials (the rare earth minerals in particular) and the global logistics network, the geostrategic hubs – this is why they are running boats in the Panama Canal, why they have a base in Djibouti or why they over indebted Sri Lanka and then traded debt for equity to control their ports. These are a broad range of tools in support of this effort at national rejuvenation, which means that China wants to gain a position of preponderant power at our expense. What China is doing increasingly is exporting its authoritarian model in supporting other corrupt authoritarian regimes to gain control and influence them in a way that excludes and displaces the influence of the United States and its key partners.
It is a very sophisticated strategy of cooption, coercion and concealment. They conceal this aggression as normal business practice. They pursue three overlapping policies - the “Military-Civil Fusion” (there is no distinction between a so-called private company and the Chinese government because they all have to act by law as an extension of the government), “Belt and Road Initiative” (whose purpose is to place China at the hub of trade routes and communications networks but also setting a debt-trap for countries) and “Made in China 2025” (designed to transform China in a high-tech power including through forced technology transfer).
It is extremely important for the world to recognize this. It is not a US problem; it is a Free World-Chinese Communist Party problem. We have to reenter this competition that we vacated based on flawed assumptions, especially the one that China would play by the rules, liberalize and become a so-called responsible stakeholder. It didn’t happen. Quite the opposite is the case.
Do you think that Xi Jinping and his team could ever conceive living within the current rules-set or that we have to live with two major blocs and systems competing with each other over the next decade or so?
The only way to convince them is to counter the sustained campaign against us and to impose costs such that the Party can continue as an institution but can achieve enough of its dreams and its national rejuvenation only if it stops the oppression of its own people (and I am thinking in particular the cultural genocide campaign in Xinjiang as well as the oppression across the country through the technological enabled Orwellian surveillance police state in China) or it can accomplish enough without doing so at the expense of the Free World.
You are part of a generation with profound battlefield experience that fought in the US/Western interventionist campaigns of the post-Cold War era. How should we reflect on it? What are the broader lessons of Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya? We live in a time when a new type of “Vietnam” syndrome is on the rise. What should we learn realistically?
Realistically, we should recognize that it was our short-term mentality that lengthened and complicated the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and made the costs so heavy. To quote Conrad Crane again, we have never been able to never do it again. Our adversaries actually have a say. We have to remember that we have invaded Afghanistan and fought alongside the militias that opposed the Taliban only after the most devastating terrorist attack in history. What is also very important is that the consolidation of military gains politically to get to a sustainable outcome in war has never been optional. It is an integral part of the war effort. Now we have this false choice presented of nation building in our image or disengagement. It is really about the political consolidation of military gains to get to those sustainable outcomes, unless of course the military operation is a raid, by definition a military operation of short duration, limited objectives and planned withdrawal. Military operations are not ends in and of themselves but the results of one instrument of power that should be coordinated with others to achieve sustainable political goals.
Are you worried about the domestic resilience of the West, including the US? In these electoral times we see increasingly a process of tribalizing ourselves and projecting more like Sunni vs. Shia/Hutu vs. Tutsi mentalities. The bipartisanship as well as the space for the middle ground is shrinking. Foreign adversaries are watching and searching for opportunities to exploit all these societal cleavages. How should we approach this? Can we come back? Is too late?
I wrote in Battlegrounds about the need to regain our confidence, confidence in who we are, in a common identity as Americans, confidence in the Free World and confidence especially in the democratic principles, institutions and processes. One of the ways to reverse the polarization that we see in our societies is education. Education about our own history, about the tremendous benefits of having a say in how we are governed, of living in a rule of law system instead of an authoritarian regime that can violate the rights whenever it wants, the benefits of being in a system where we can exercise freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly. We have to celebrate our strengths and we have to recognize that our democracy always has been and will remain a work in progress. Thankfully we all have a say and we can all be a force for positive change. Education about who we are, but also education about the crucial challenges we face is necessary so we can recognize the need for all of us to come together and for us to work together for a better future.
You started your post-Cold War era journey in Coburg, West Germany. We shouldn’t lose the symbolism of this - the city of Hans Morgenthau. How would you define yourself – a realist, an idealist, a mix between both worlds?
The labels are tough for me. I am an idealist in connection with the fundamental universal human rights. At the same time you have to be pragmatic as well and to recognize that we are guided by our principles but also by what we can achieve. I am an internationalist, I guess, because none of the problems we face today can be solved by any country. The US cannot solve the problems on its own. So we have to work together in our common interest but also based on the values and the principles that we share across Free World. That is why the subtitle is The Fight to Defend the Free World. We are in this together so it is really the time to reassess these crucial challenges that we face.
In short, a principled realist I would say, to quote a famous op-ed you wrote early in your tenure as NSA.