Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Strategic Challenges Facing the Biden Administration: Advice from a Former National Security Advisor
Strategic Challenges Facing the Biden Administration: Advice from a Former National Security Advisor

Strategic Challenges Facing the Biden Administration: Advice from a Former National Security Advisor

Original Orbis piece: Interview with General H.R. McMaster, “Smarter Strategies for the Twenty-First Century,” Orbis 65:2 (Spring 2021).

Reasons for Revisiting: General H.R. McMaster, who served as National Security Advisor (2017-18), made several comments that are extremely relevant for the Biden administration in his recent interview in Orbis.

First, President Joseph Biden will be engaged with the key U.S. partners at the Carbis Bay G-7 Summit, but which will also include India, South Korea, and Australia—the embryonic nucleus of a proposed D-10 (group of the ten leading democracies). Yet, there are important differences among these states over issues from climate change to how to deal with Russia and China. President Biden will then engage with the NATO Alliance, a group that has also experienced divisions over policy priorities.

McMaster’s comments about the vital importance of “strategic empathy” are critical as the United States formulates its approach to these two critical summit meetings. As he observed,

“Strategic empathy,” a term I borrowed from the historian Zachary Shore, is the most important antidote to the problem of “strategic narcissism”—the tendency to view challenges and opportunities abroad only in relation to us, and to assume that what the United States does or decides not to do is decisive to achieving favorable outcomes. Strategic narcissism undermines our competence because we do not pay adequate attention to the agency and authorship over the future that others have. . . . “Strategic empathy” encourages policymakers or strategists to view complex competitions from the perspective of others, particularly rivals, adversaries, and enemies. We need to comprehend what they see as their preferred outcomes in competitions and understand the ideologies, aspirations, and emotions that drive and constrain their behavior and their actions. Strategic empathy prevents us from engaging in mirror imaging and wishful thinking. Understanding the other cultivates an approach that strategy and policy based on what the situation demands rather than what we might prefer. . . . So, if we fail to understand what motivates and drives others, we are less likely to deter conflict, and disadvantaged in war as well as competitions below the threshold of military conflict. . . . It is important to apply the lens of “vital interests” to any problem or situation. When you consider what is at stake, it is possible to craft overarching foreign policy goals as well as more specific objectives.

While in Europe, the President is also expected to have a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. What should he understand about what motivates the Kremlin in global affairs? And how should the United States be addressing the challenge posed by China? McMaster notes:

We have to recognize that both Moscow and Beijing have become much more adept at challenging us while operating below the threshold that might elicit a military response. Russian “new generation warfare” uses disruption, disinformation and denial. Chinese aggression employs co-option, coercion and concealment.

To compete effectively the United States and our allies must become much more adept and agile in competing in new domains like cyber and in integrating all elements of national power—including our diplomatic, economic, informational and law enforcement tools. The United States and our allies must impose higher costs when Moscow or Beijing act against our vital interests.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.