Alphen, Netherlands. 21 February. President Harry S. Truman once said, “A president needs political understanding to run the government, but he may be elected without it”. Watching Month One of the Trump presidency splutter like an old car trying to start in the fourth gear I could not but help think of Truman’s wise words. However, a president can also learn. That was my first reaction to the overnight news that Lieutenant-General H.R. McMaster had been appointed (and accepted) the position of National Security Advisor. On Friday I asked, “What’s the plan, Mr President”. If McMaster is given due respect and his office the appropriate weight that is precisely what I now expect.
Who is H.R. McMaster? He is first and foremost an officer-scholar. Indeed, in some ways he was my vision and inspiration when I pioneered the idea of the officer-scholar at the Netherlands Defence Academy some years ago. However, he is not simply a great thinker, he has also been a real commander and leader. He was a successful tank commander who also understands the art and science of counterinsurgency operations (COIN). In other words, McMaster properly understands the vital relationship between soft and hard power and that the application of one without the other in campaign design is simply a recipe for failure.
Since the end of World War Two the US has supported its allies and confronted and contested peer competitors the world-over. To that end, McMaster is a disciple of General David Petraeus for whom he worked, and like his former boss believes that the use of hard power must have very clear political objectives and a proper understanding of where and how to apply it in any given circumstance BEFORE it is unleashed. Given that Petraeus is close to Secretary of Defense James Mattis it is reasonable to assume that the McMaster appointment marks a return to a more traditional concept of American power and its use. With Tillerson at State, Mattis at Defense, and now McMaster at the National Security Council President Trump’s foreign and security policy team would grace any internationalist, Realist Republican administration.
McMaster will also face a coterie of challenges. First, he needs to re-establish the NSC at the core of US foreign and security policy-making. For some time now the NSC has been marginalised. Second. McMaster needs to get the CIA, State Department, the Department of Defense, and the many other security and defence agencies that litter Washington working with the White House…and each other. Third, and by no means last, McMaster will need to come to terms with Trump confidante Steve Bannon, who is both on the NSC and enjoys the same status as the National Security Advisor. Bannon is also running what looks to all intents and purposes like a kind of shadow NSC within the White House. Given Bannon’s undoubted sway it will be interesting to see to just how far McMaster is permitted to build his own team, as he has apparently been promised.
McMaster has much to offer and his appointment will reassure Allies the world-over, both in Europe and Asia-Pacific. However, the Allies must not think this appointment marks the beginning of a return to business as before. The simple truth is that the US no longer enjoys the power supremacy it has done for most of the post-World War Two period. The Obama Administration was a kind of strategic intermission.
The sheer hard equations of power mean the Allies will need to do far more to keep Washington strong enough to ensure that America’s ultimate security guarantee to them remains credible. Sadly, listening to both Chancellor Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker these past few days suggest that Europe’s theoretical soft power should somehow be seen as burden-sharing, or as an alternative to real defence investment, worries me. To my mind such laxness shows that they really do not understand the nature of change in this world, or the reality of power.
The appointment of McMaster is quite simply brilliant and President Trump must be congratulated. Given the chance McMaster will help set course for a return to the balanced application of American spread across defence, deterrence, dialogue, and diplomacy. Nor will he be afraid to speak truth to power. His first book Dereliction of Duty excoriated the Vietnam-era Joint Chiefs for their failure to do precisely that. A failing I have seen repeated time and again during the West’s recent disastrous campaigns, and which in part inspired me to write these blogs.
There will doubtless come a crunch point. Sooner rather than later McMaster will need to speak truth to Steven Bannon, and quite possibly President Trump. And if he is to survive and prosper in the White House bear-pit McMaster will also need all of his considerable skills of persuasion, persistence, and perspicacity. For, as Winston Churchill once said, “Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way they look forward to the trip”.
So, General, let’s get down to business. There is a lot for us all to do together.