General McMaster knows where the West went wrong, and can help President Trump make it right

February 23, 2017

This article was also featured in The Telegraph.

It has become fashionable in some quarters to see President Trump’s election as somehow constituting a terminal blow to the Western-led liberal international order. The problem with this is that it allows chronic errors at the heart of Western strategic thinking to continue to go unaddressed.

There are, however, exceptions to this – and none more relevant today than the new US National Security Adviser, Lt. Gen. McMaster. In one of his last public engagements in his previous role as the Army’s chief “futures” thinker, delivered at Policy Exchange three weeks ago, General McMaster laid out a potential blueprint for America’s strategic approach to global security challenges.

Even before the new administration came into office, some key military thinkers like McMaster were clear on just how precarious the West’s strategic situation had become. At Policy Exchange, the General said that, against a background of “sophisticated strategies devised by Russia and China”, we are facing “the highest chance of war for the past 70 years.” The idea that “we need to start winning again” was already in the ether before President Trump adopted it as a campaign slogan. This, at least, is one area of consensus between the White House and the broader US national security establishment.

At Policy Exchange, General McMaster declared that “our defence policy has been based on three fallacies.” The first, he said, was the idea “that we can rely on our technological edge to maintain strategic military advantage.” This is a top-level recognition that some fashionable concepts, like “full spectrum dominance”, are past their sell by date. Adversaries are catching up with the US in key military technology while retaining their traditional advantages in terms of numbers.

According to General McMaster, a tech-heavy approach to military strategy has not only led to smaller conventional forces, but has also led to a “raiding mentality” with the intensive use of instruments like special forces and drones. In the General’s words, we need to “integrate all elements of power: military, political/diplomatic, economic” and to go beyond the narrow military focus in dealing with today’s threats.

Secondly, the General referred to the mistaken belief that the world is “self-balancing”, which led the Obama administration to make a “virtue” of a “more humble foreign policy” and of disengagement. McMaster himself is a historian, having written a well-received book on the Vietnam era, and he spoke of the continued influence of “the New Left interpretation of history”, with its self-loathing focus on Western “guilt” as the root cause of foreign policy problems. This, in part, explains the emphasis on disengagement as the solution in the Middle East.

The corrective, in General McMaster’s view, is to “emphasise forward positioning of forces,” because “deterrence by denial is what is effective.” In this version of grand strategy, America needs a closer relationship with its allies. Writing obituaries on the western alliance is premature and unhelpful. At the same time, “leading from behind” will be a thing of the past.

Wrapping up his raid on the fallacies that have impaired US strategic thinking in recent times, General McMaster attacked the idea that the US can advance its interests largely – or even, in some cases, solely – through proxies. The lesson that has been drawn is that there is no substitute for American power. While proxies and allies remain at the heart of America’s strategic approach, there is also a clear need to “emphasise our ability to influence” them, using the “full range of our national power” for that purpose.

So what does this mean?

Towards the end of his speech, the General also mentioned the need to “think in competitive terms again”, citing a recent essay by Nadia Schadlow that warned of the “serious political competitions underway for regional and strategic dominance”. This may turn out to be the most significant indicator of the change in American grand strategy which is likely to follow. A wider problem with Western strategic thinking has been at play: put simply, after the Cold War we stopped thinking about our adversaries in competitive terms, and switched to a “risk” or “threat-based” model; they did not.

Great power competition never stopped. We just chose to ignore it as the “unipolar moment” dawned and as the West – America especially – basked in its “peerless” status. We mothballed the sophisticated ability we had acquired during the Cold War for calculating military balances – or, as the Soviets called it, the “correlation of forces” – and for understanding the true “power” of our adversaries, in all its manifestations.

High-level interest in this “net assessment” approach was apparently being revived amongst elements of the new US National Security Council staff even before the arrival of General McMaster, but the notion has not had much purchase in recent times. In the 1990s there was no need for it, as there was no “power” rival in sight. And after 9/11, with terrorism top of the list, the “risk framework” concept took full possession of all Western “strategic” thinking.

In conjunction with other fallacies of the kind enumerated by General McMaster, this has proven highly detrimental to America and the West’s strategic “performance” over the past fifteen years. Any risk-based formula is by definition un-strategic: among other drawbacks, such  neat categories of risk oversimplify a complex landscape; it takes a passive, short-term approach rather than dealing with underlying causes; and it struggles to consider threats in their full context. It is not difficult to see why such a way of looking at the world would blind Western strategists to the emergence of things like: “hybrid warfare”; the resurgence of Russian conventional military capability; or the expansion of Iran’s military footprint across the Middle East.

Most importantly, a risk-based approach makes it difficult to see the whole picture of an integrated enemy strategy which uses propaganda campaigns, proxies and other forms of power  alongside conventional forces. It is therefore of limited use in proposing effective counter-measures or preventing unwelcome surprises.

General McMaster’s speech at Policy Exchange is a clear sign that these realities are being confronted head-on at the highest levels in the Pentagon – and now, thanks to his new role, at the White House. This important change of perspective comes at a time when worry about the future direction of the West is amply justified.

What Western leadership needs – apart from the sort of front-footed and practical attitude shown by the Prime Minister in her Philadelphia speech – is an understanding of what is really wrong with the West’s strategic performance.

General McMaster’s latest address to Policy Exchange – entitled ‘Future threats and their implications for U.S. Military Strategy’ – was delivered here just over three weeks ago on 25 January 2017. Watch it in full below:

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