Peter Robinson, Uncommon Knowledge: Born in Philadelphia, Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster graduated from West Point in 1984 and later earned a doctorate in American history from the University of North Carolina. His doctoral thesis was published as Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. General McMaster served in the Gulf War, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. From February 2017 until April 2018 he served as national security adviser to President Trump. His new book is Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, which contains this quote: "At the turn of the twenty-first century, the United States was set up for a rude awakening of tragic proportions." Five years after you graduate from West Point, this titanic struggle that's lasted half a century ends essentially in victory for the West.
H. R. McMaster: Not essentially, but a huge victory for the West. Many Americans assumed this was a fundamental shift in the nature of international relations and in the nature of the competitive nature of the world. Charles Krauthammer, a very keen observer, called it the "unipolar moment." But some people assumed that there had been an arc of history that guaranteed the primacy of our free and open societies over closed authoritarian systems. We forgot that we had to compete--in traditional arenas involving information and propaganda and disinformation, different forms of economic competition.
Russia was in really bad shape in the '90s. China's rejuvenation was not in full swing. We assumed that great-power competition was passe. And this overconfidence was a setup for many of the difficulties we encountered.
Robinson: This subtitle says it all: the fight to defend the free world. But in Battlegrounds, you write that in 2019, Russia's GDP was smaller than Italy's and the United States had a defense budget eleven times larger. Why do we care about Russia?
McMaster: Because your enemies, your adversaries, your rivals, your competitors like Russia, they don't have to compete with you symmetrically. I quote my friend Conrad Crane in the book as saying there are two ways to fight the United States: asymmetrically and stupidly. You hope that your adversary picks stupidly, but what Russia has done is engage in a very sophisticated campaign of political subversion against Europe, the United States, and the West. Vladimir Putin wants to be the last man standing while he widens fissures in our societies, pits us against each other, and reduces our confidence in our democratic principles and institutions and processes.
Robinson: So they don't have to be as strong as we are to do a lot of damage, but what do they want? Why don't they want a democratic society in which everyone can prosper?
McMaster: I think what has impeded our development of sound strategy and our ability to compete effectively is we tend to mirror image to the other. W e don't give due attention to how emotions, aspirations, and ideologies...