H.R. McMaster Stresses Strategic Empathy as an Effective Foreign Policy

The retired general and national security adviser to President Trump shared his real-life experiences with students as part of the Elliott School’s Leadership, Ethics and Practice Initiative series.

H.R. McMaster
Retired Gen. H. R. McMaster, who previously served as national security adviser to President Donald Trump, spoke to students as part of the Elliott School’s Leadership, Ethics and Practice Initiative series.
March 29, 2021

During Retired Gen. H. R. McMaster’s one-year tenure as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, “strategic empathy” was the approach he used in advising the president on foreign policy, an idea he said he borrowed from friend and historian Zachary Schorr.

“It was very important to consider the agency, the influence, the authorship over the future that others have and, in particular, to pay attention to the ideology and the emotions and the aspirations that drive and constrain the other, especially rivals, adversaries and enemies,” he said.

Dr. McMaster was speaking as part of the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs’ Leadership, Ethics and Practice Initiative series in which students learn from the leadership and the ethical challenges faced by international affairs leaders. The virtual event was sponsored by the Elliott School’s Security Policy Studies (SPS) and Master in International Policy Practice programs and the GW Office of Veterans Affairs.

Moderator Ethan Trucker, a graduate student in the SPS program, introduced the retired general by noting that he was the 26th assistant to the president for International Security Affairs and served as a commissioned officer in the Army for 34 years before retiring at the rank of lieutenant general in June 2018. A historian, Dr. McMaster is the author of the award-winning book, “Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies That Led to Vietnam,” and a more recent book, “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World.” 

Mr. Trucker asked Dr. McMaster to discuss “strategic empathy” in the context of President Trump’s trip to China in 2017. The general responded by describing the process he put in place to prepare the National Security Council staff and the president’s foreign policy chief advisers by holding small group-framing sessions in order “to lay a strong foundation for a China policy.”

He said previous administrations had assumed that China, once welcomed into the international order, would liberalize its economy and government but that didn’t happen, as the country continued to engage in “economic aggression, industrial espionage and a campaign of slow genocide in Xinjiang, repression in Hong Kong, threats to Taiwan and the land grabs in the South China Sea.”

“We concluded that the Chinese Party leadership was driven mainly by fear,” he said, “fear of losing its exclusive grip on power internally and aspiration--an aspiration to take center stage in the world, to use Xi Jinping’s language... and create exclusionary areas of primacy across the Indo Pacific region.”

Dr. McMaster said his approach to the job of national security adviser grew out of his desire to avoid the mistake of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, which rushed into the Vietnam War without clearly defined goals and objectives.

He listed his five main tasks national security adviser as:

  • preparing the president to engage on foreign policy and with foreign leaders relying on advice across departments and agencies;
  • developing a process that provides multiple options to the president;
  • communicating the decision the president ultimately makes to the appropriate people in the United States and abroad;
  • maintaining a unity of effort with international partners;
  • leading the national security council staff with “purpose, motivation and direction.”

Under Mr. Trump, Dr. McMaster said, he tried to serve the Constitution, to offer the president options in making decisions and “to be at peace with the fact that I wasn't going to last too long.”

Much of the afternoon’s discussion focused on the challenges faced primarily from China but also Iran, a country that Dr. McMaster said he would advise President Joe Biden and European allies to maintain pressure tactics against to persuade the Iranians to stop supporting terrorist activities across the greater Middle East.

During the question and answer session, Lee Woolley, a graduate student in the Master of International Practice and Policy and Security Policy Studies programs who sits on the board of the Foreign Policy Research Institute along with Dr.  McMaster, asked whether the United States would be more effective in dealing with China and Russia if it formed an alliance with other liberal democracies rather than maintain its hegemonic status.

Dr. McMaster objected to the premise. “The United States is not a global hegemon, right now,” he said.

He said that interpretation of history comes from “a new left” or “a so-called realist school” that fails to recognize the good the United States has done since World War II in prevailing against communist totalitarianism. Such thinking, he said, has led to a retrenchment and disengagement from complex competition abroad that is “regrettable.”

Dr. McMaster said the lesson of 9/11 as well as the more recent global COVID-19 pandemic is that “problems that develop abroad and grow unconstrained and unchecked can only be dealt with at an exorbitant price once they reach our shores.”

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