Academic Webinar: The Role of the National Security Council

Wednesday, March 10, 2021
Christopher Morris

Fouad and Michelle Ajami Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, and Bernard and Susan Liautaud Fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute, Stanford University; Former U.S. National Security Advisor


Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

H. R. McMaster, Fouad and Michelle Ajami senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and Bernard Susan Liautaud fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University, and former U.S. national security advisor, leads a conversation on the role of the National Security Council.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Erica. Welcome to the CFR Winter/Spring 2021 Academic Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach at CFR. Today’s meeting is on-the-record, and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. We are honored to have with us today H. R. McMaster, to talk about the role of the National Security Council. We shared his bio with you, so I’m just going to give a few highlights of his distinguished career. General McMaster is the Fouad and Michelle Ajami senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He also is a fellow at the Spogli Institute and lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. He was the twenty-sixth assistant to the president for National Security Affairs. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy. He served as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army for thirty-four years before retiring as a lieutenant general in June 2018. From 2014 to 2017, he served as director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center and deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. He has extensive experience leading soldiers and organizations in war time and has served overseas as advisor to senior commanders in the Middle East, Iraq, and Afghanistan. General McMaster is author of several books, including the most recent book, Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World. So, I commend that book to all of you. So, General McMaster, thank you very much for being with us today and for your service to this country. I thought we could begin by having you describe or give an overview of policy priorities that face the National Security Council, its role, and how you see its role in preserving U.S. security.

MCMASTER: Great, great. Hey, thanks, Irina. And thanks for the great work that the Council is doing and the great work that you do all the time to keep everything going. I’m always amazed at what you do to organize us and convene us and get us all together. And thanks to all of you who are attending today, it’s a real privilege to be able to talk with you at a critical time, I think, for our nation. And I think our National Security Council and the National Security Council staff is really more important to our national security and the advancement of our interest, the protection of our nation than ever. So, you know, I’m a historian, so it’s probably pretty predictable that I would go back to the history of the NSC to provide some context. I think the priority for the NSC is really overall to improve our strategic competence, to help us compete more effectively, to advance and protect America’s vital interests in the world. And I would say those vital interests include, obviously, our security—protecting the homeland and American citizens abroad. It also, though, involves, I think, our prosperity, setting conditions for the promotion of our prosperity and our ability to create opportunities and a better future for generations of Americans to come. And that it also has a lot to do with our influence in the world, especially when you consider the sorts of competitions we’re in internationally. And in particular these days, China’s efforts to promote its authoritarian, mercantilist model at our expense.

So, I’m happy to talk about any of those policy issues, but I thought I’d go back to the founding of the National Security Council staff. And just to note that it was it was created, the National Security Council staff and National Security Council, eventually the National Security Adviser position in 1953, lagging a little bit, was created, really as a response to World War II. As a response initially to Pearl Harbor and strategic surprise. But then the observation that in war, we needed to integrate all elements of national power and efforts of like-minded partners. And that really couldn’t occur effectively within a single department of government, right? It wouldn’t be happening in the secretary of war or within the State Department. And so, the charter, from 1940, it was for the National Security Council to enable the military services and other departments and agencies in the government to cooperate more effectively in matters involving the national security. So, you can see kind of a very defense-heavy interpretation of what the National Security Council will do. That evolved over time to include a broader perspective on foreign policy, for example. And of course, this creates some tension across the government periodically, especially with sometimes the secretary of state or with the secretary of defense, but really, I think that you can think of the NSC staff in either three ways—really kind of defense heavy, as it was at the beginning and in 1947, and with the amendment of the National Security Act in 1949. But then, you could think of it more broadly in terms of foreign policy related, or you can think of it as an interdisciplinary organization that brings different perspectives and best advice to bear on the greatest challenges we’re facing to assist the president in establishing his or her priorities in the area of foreign policy and defense, and national security more broadly. And I think it is this last approach that is relevant to today, especially when you think about the complex competitions with which we are involved.

And, you know, I thought that it would be important for us maybe, as well, just to familiarize ourselves with what the National Security Act did. It established the National Security Council, this is 1947, it established the secretary of defense and integrated the Department of Defense, it established the Department of the Airport—sad day for the army—we have to admit back then in 1947. And then it also effectively demoted the service secretaries to subcabinet level, but established the CIA as well. These were big, big changes. And it caused a lot of consternation, you know, on the Hill and within departments and agencies who are always, as they are, concerned about their own institutional prerogatives. And it was in a report called the Everstat report a few years later, that’ clarified the role of the Council, right—the function of the Council should be to advise the president with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies related to the national security, so as to enable the military services and other departments and agencies of the government to cooperate more effectively in matters involving national security.

And so, this was the idea of the National Security Council that I brought with me into the job, and I’ll just tell a quick story about my first few days on the job. I was walking in my hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on my way to the Foreign Policy Research Institute—a very powerful but mighty think tank there in my hometown—to talk about Russian new generation warfare and a study we commissioned on it and our findings and recommendations. And my phone rang, and it was a partially blocked DC number saying, “Hey, can you come to Mar-a-Lago on Sunday and interview for the job as national security advisor?” This was a Friday, they actually wanted me to go the next day. I wound up going on Sunday, I interviewed, had a second interview on Monday, bumped into Ambassador Bolton awkwardly in the men’s room—they’ were trying to keep us separate from each other, but I saw him on my way in for the second interview—and then was hired that day, flew back—I didn’t live in Washington—they flew me back on marine aircraft to my home in Tidewater, Virginia, I packed a bag and I started work the next day—Tuesday, right. So, after Presidents Day weekend, and so not a heck of a lot of time to prepare. But what I was really grateful for was the opportunity to have read, and thought about, and researched and written about national security decision-making during the period in which Vietnam became an American war. And that was the book I wrote entitled Dereliction of Duty. So, I thought what I’d talk to you about is the understanding of my job that I brought into it, based on my historical research and studying the position and teaching national security from a historical perspective at West Point. And then to also just talk to you about, really what I endeavored to do to avoid the mistakes of this period in which Vietnam became an American war. I’ll try to do this very quickly and about five points on each. Right.

So, what does the national security advisor do? Well, I think you have five key tasks you have to accomplish to serve a president well. The first of these is you have to staff the president—you have to help the president prepare for any engagement on foreign policy. It could be a decision-making forum, it could be an engagement with Congress, it could be a foreign leader visit, it could be a phone call with a foreign leader—but it’s your job to staff the president. What’s unique about your role, overall, is that you are the only person in the foreign policy and defense establishment, national security establishment, who has the president as his or her only client, so you have to do your best to serve that president well, help the president establish his or her agenda and make the best decisions. The second thing you do is you run a process. This is really important. It’s a process across the departments and agencies that convene expertise, and principals and deputies—the principals committee is made up of cabinet officials with a national security-related portfolio—and run a process to develop options, multiple options—and I’ll stress this in a moment—so, the president can make the best possible decisions, and then also to assist with the integrated and sensible implementation of the president’s policies and decisions. So, it’s staffing, and then it’s the process. The third thing you do is you help communicate—you help communicate the president’s decisions and policies to the relevant audiences. Of course, that’s primarily across those departments and agencies. I tend to believe national security advisors should be a little bit behind the scenes, but when you have, apparently have introverted secretaries who don’t want to talk to the press, sometimes you have to explain these policies and decisions to the American people. And then also relevant international audiences as well, or members of the Congress, although again, the departments and agencies, because Congress has oversight of those departments, that’s the best way to do that. But on occasion, it’s important for the national security advisor to have those engagements. The fourth key task is to help ensure unity of effort with like-minded partners, and especially with like-minded liberal democracies around the world and our allies. And that’s done mainly through relationships with other national security advisors internationally, it’s a fun part of the job. Sometimes it’s with heads of state, especially if you have pre-existing relationships with them. Sometimes it’s with foreign ministers, you know, if maybe your secretary of state is’ not kind of a huggy guy or gal, they feel like they need to reach you directly or something. But of course, then always sharing that information with the secretary. But mainly it’s the national security advisor relationship. And then finally, you’re a leader, I think it’s important to recognize. You’re a leader of a National Security Council staff with extremely talented and dedicated men and women who deserve your attention and who deserve, what we call the military purpose, motivation. and direction, right. You establish, hopefully, a climate in which people are excited about coming to work, because they know they’re making a difference. They’re part of an organization that’s bound together by common purpose and mutual respect. And they’re part of an organization that is trusted and valued across the government, but also internationally, and across the private sector and so forth. So that’s your job, I think, in five tasks.

And then, what did I learn? You know, from a historical perspective. I decided, okay, well, maybe I ought to make sure that I don’t make at least the same mistakes that I called out McGeorge Bundy on when I wrote Dereliction of Duty. And the first of these was that the president and his cabinet, they didn’t take enough time to think about the nature of the challenge in Vietnam. Right, they were rushing right to action. And so, we put into place a new meeting, as part of regaining a strategic focus of the National Security Council, which we talked about that, ethical versus strategic, called a principle small group framing session. And this framing session was organized around a five-page paper that was delivered about ninety-six hours in advance of these meetings. And it was a paper that was wrapped in mainly a policy planning at State, with OSD policy, with our staff facilitating the drafting of the paper that really had just a few very important aspects of the paper that form the basis of the discussion—to frame this challenge to national security. The first of these is, what is the nature of the challenge? Trying to understand it on its own terms. The second is, what are the vital interests at stake? This is really important, because you have to explain this—so why should Americans care about this challenge? And then the third part was to view that challenge through the lens of our vital interests, come up with an overarching goal, and more specific objectives. And then very, very importantly—assumptions. Assumptions on which policy options would be based, especially those involving an assessment of the degree to which we believe we have agency, influence—we being the United States and like-minded partners—over this complex challenge. And then finally, assessing risk, but then also identifying obstacles to progress, what’s impeding us from getting to where we’d like to be in connection with this challenge, and what are opportunities? And then the paper stops, right. And then this principals committee meeting of National Security Council began with, “Hey, what do you think—do we have this right? Are we thinking about this the right way?” And then the policy coordinating committee at the secretary level—they’re listening into this. They’re getting what is often absent in Washington, which is guidance from senior leaders that will help them do the work that they need to do. And then after that discussion, about a half an hour, maybe a little bit more, we said, “Okay, now, what are your ideas? What are your ideas about how to integrate elements of national power and efforts of like-minded partners, to overcome those obstacles to progress, to take advantage of opportunities?” And then, you would get great collaboration, right? You can imagine the secretary of the treasury saying, “Well, we could sanction these entities associated with facilitating smuggling of prohibited goods into North Korea, but it won’t do any good if others don’t join us in those sanctions.” And the secretary of state can say, “Well, you know, I can work on that.” And it’s just, you can think of a million ways these conversations happened. That’s more guidance, right. And so, at the end of that, I would bring our framing to the president. When he approved it, I sent out a cabinet memo and then we began to develop options, which is point number two. Point number one is kind of combination of frame. And hey, how about having a goal and objective, right? McGeorge Bundy argued in Vietnam, it was better not to have one of those, like objectives and goals, because the president could argue well, we never wanted to achieve that anyway, if we lost in Vietnam. So that doesn’t work in war—objective is a principle of war for a reason. So, it’s important for us to establish goals and objectives. And then it’s very important to provide multiple options. I mean, I broke out my Presidential Command by Peter Rodman again. I mean, I think it’s a great book. And this is one of the points, he was a wonderful person too, I ’knew him only by reputation. But in the book, he says, “Hey, it’s a disservice not to give a president multiple options.” And this was my experience in writing Dereliction of Duty as well, right? You can’t bring a president one shiny option and say everybody agrees with that, sign on the dotted line. You know, first of all, somebody like Donald Trump, that doesn’t work, because he’ll do the opposite just to spite everybody. But then the other aspect of this is, you don’t get the rich discussion that allows you to compare and contrast courses of action, and assess differences between risk, and level of resources, and likelihood of accomplishing objectives. And so, multiple options is another important aspect, I think, of what the National Security Council staff should do for the president. And then finally, I’ll just say that I think it’s important to insulate the process from domestic political, I would say partisan political considerations. And this is why I rewrote the national security policy memorandum that established the principles committee, removed this position of strategist or chief strategist, or whatever it was, and then added in the chairman of the joint chief of staff back in for his principal military advisor, I mean, it’s crazy that, he had been removed, I think, and then, and then the director of Central Intelligence Agency, and others as well. So hey, I’ll just stop there. I know I went on a bit longer. But hey, don’t ask a historian to talk about the history of anything, Irina, if you don’t want a little bit, a little bit of extra credit,  bonus information.

FASKIANOS: That was fantastic to give us the context, as well as bring your experience to bear. So, thank you very much for that. We already have hands raised. So, you can either raise your hand by clicking on the raised hand icon at the bottom of your screen or in the “More” button if you’re on an iPad, in the upper right-hand corner, or else put your question in the Q&A box, you can write it up. And please also if you could list who you are, and oh, my goodness, so many, so many questions, raised hands. We’re going to go first to Babak Salimitari. And please tell us where you are, what institution.

Q: Hi, General. My name is Babak Salimitari. I’m a second-year econ student at University of California, Irvine. And I have more of a technical question with the role of the NSC. And that’s with presidential transitions. So, when we see one administration that’s recently elected, it takes a while for cabinet members to get confirmed, it takes a bit of time for them to be actually part of the National Security Council. So, what role does the previous group of national security folks do to ensure that the next administration can hit the ground running?

MCMASTER: Well, Babak, I think everybody who serves in government should recognize that their position is larger than themselves, that their position is larger than any partisan political consideration. So, the first is kind of just philosophical, you should want the next administration to succeed. Now, in terms of setting the tone for that, you would hope a president sets the tone for that. Of course, Donald Trump did the opposite of that. But I think what you saw is, across departments and agencies in this presidential transition, a high degree of cooperation, even in departments where you thought maybe the secretary was predisposed toward maybe not opening the door like that. I think this happened in the State Department, for example, and an example there is the declaration of the horrors of Xinjiang as genocide, I think there was a very high degree of cooperation, for example, with the incoming Secretary Blinken on that, and other very important matters in that transitional period as well. But I think it’s very important for the National Security Council staff to play a big role in this by putting together kind of continuity, books and documents, that facilitate that transition.

The most important thing I think we can do, though, is to have real strategies in place. And I mentioned the process we put in place to develop those integrated strategies. We initially identified sixteen, I think it grew to eighteen, first order national security challenges. We pose them in the form of questions—how to stabilize Iraq and make sure Iraq is not aligned with Iran, for example. And then there is a strategy associated with that. Another example is the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy that many of you may have seen. It was declassified, in the last couple of weeks in the Trump administration, it kind of got lost with all the, all the craziness and the assault on the Capitol, everything else, but it’s a document worth looking at. It’s just a foundational document. And really what that is associated with are about seven separate, integrated strategies. One of them, for example, is how to counter various forms of Chinese economic aggression. Others are more defense related, or more cyber related, and so forth. So, I think ’it’s really important to have strategies in place. And when I say strategies, what I don’t mean, is a broad kind of policy document, that doesn’t really tell you anything, right? It doesn’t’ tell you what you’re trying to achieve, and then especially, describe to the departments and agencies how they’re going to work together along with like-minded partners, to accomplish those objectives. I think a lot of what we get in Washington, what I saw when I got into Washington, and what I was on the receiving end of in places like Iraq and Afghanistan was, I would call it “policy pablum.” These are documents that are developed from the bottom up, they are therefore subjected to lowest common denominator approaches and satisficing behavior. And oftentimes, they are based more on really fantasy in Washington, than reality on the ground. And so, I think competent, well developed strategies, is probably the best way to ensure continuity. And then of course, it’s up to the new administration to certainly improve on those strategies or to reject them and take a fundamentally different approach. But I would say that would be the most important service an administration could provide, are well-developed strategies. And of course, as I mentioned in the beginning, the attitude, right, “Hey, we want you to succeed, and what can we do to help?”

FASKIANOS: Thank you. There is a written question from Shirin R. Tahir-Kheli at Johns Hopkins. “I had the honor of serving on the NSC staff under President Reagan, H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush. The size of the NSC was under thirty under Reagan, one hundred during the Bush years, and thereafter, the staff grew to hundreds.” And so, her question is, “Do you think this is too large for effective work, coordinating U.S. foreign policy? Is there an optimal size for today’s challenges, given your experience?”

MCMASTER: Yeah, so a lot of the numbers, you have to really pay attention to what these numbers are based on, right. So, these days, the National Security Council staff also includes the White House Situation Room staff, it includes the IT staff, it includes a lot of administrative functions associated with protocol and presidential visits and travel office, and I mean, I could go on, right, security clearances, and so forth, the archivists and historians. So, I think it’s important to really recognize what the support staff is, and then the real question is, what is the size of the policy staff? And I think the answer to that question is, okay, what do you want them to do? Well, you don’t want them involved in tactics, right? You do want them to be able to convene effectively the right people from across the departments and agencies to do what I described, right, to frame these complex challenges, to provide options to the president, and to assist with the integrated and sensible implementation of the plans and policies, recognizing that the real work of implementation is going on within those departments and agencies.

And so, I think that, I guess the answer to that is, that depends, right? What should the size of the Asia Directorate be these days, versus the Middle East Directorate versus Western Hemisphere versus cyber versus, you know, the Intercon, which is the International Economics division that helps bridge the work, the important work of the National Economic Council and the work of the National Security Council. So, I would say what is most important is for form to follow function. And picking a number out of the air isn’t the right way to do it. So, I would say, maybe around two hundred, maybe a little bit less than two hundred. One hundred seventy-seven1, I think is what we had for policy people, and the low point was like one hundred forty-nine , which was a pretty significant reduction from about two hundred forty in the previous administration. But, some directorates were in need of reinforcement, and I recruited the right person, right. So, when you get Lisa Curtis to do South Asia, then you just brought in LeBron James, right? I mean, you need a good supporting staff around her for example, or Fiona Hill on Russia and Europe, or if you bring Nadia Schadlow in to develop a national security strategy, or if you have Mike Bell doing Middle East, or Matt Pottinger doing Asia, okay, these are A team, wonderful people, who I think, that’s really the key—is the quality of the person, knowledge of the person—they have to have a collaborative nature about them. That was one of my kind of interview criteria, to kind of evaluate how collaborative people were. But,, so anyway, I’m sorry, I’m sidestepping your question a little bit, Shirin, but I think it’s just really, form should follow function. And it should be the right people rather than the numbers to focus on.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Going next to the raised hand—William Dunlap.


You need to accept to unmute yourself.


Okay, that doesn’t seem to be working. We will come back to you. Let’s go next to Dan Caldwell.

Q: Dan Caldwell from Pepperdine University. General, I have a historical question for you. In your excellent book, Battlegrounds, which I highly recommend to everyone on the call, you write about General George Marshall following the long tradition of American military officers, of not becoming involved in politics. And yet at the same time, General Dwight Eisenhower, who had never voted in an election prior to 1952, decided to run for the presidency. So, I’m wondering, focusing on those two historical figures, why Eisenhower chose to deviate from that long tradition that you support? And what were the conditions that led him to deviate from that tradition? And are there conditions similar to those today that would cause somebody, a retired military officer, to become involved in politics?

MCMASTER: Great, great questions, Dan. I mean,  good to see a fellow Californian out here, and thanks for your tremendous scholarship over the years. You know, I think that what we want to do is focus on the objective of the separation between the military and partisan politics, right? And that’s just to keep the military out of partisan politics as a way to ensure the professionalism of our force, and as a way to ensure that the military doesn’t threaten democracy in the way that our founders saw threatened democracy, as they viewed the bloody civil wars in England of the seventeenth century, right, that’s what they had in mind, you know, was kind of the man on horseback and the personality of Oliver Cromwell. And I’ll tell you, they did a brilliant job, I think, in establishing our constitution based on worst case scenarios. And ensuring that the military was separate from politics, of course, that broke down though over time, right, the army was dominated by Federalists initially. Jefferson, who was initially against establishing the Military Academy at West Point in 1802, did it in part to make sure that the officer corps came from all across America. Of course, the biggest breakdown in civil control of the military was when many of the officer corps became traitors for slavery in the civil war that we fought. Of course, the civil war, I mean, there always been these threats, right? The revolt of the admirals, MacArthur in Korea, I would say, Admiral Fallon, in connection with the U.S. policy toward Iraq and Iran, who overstepped, right, who crossed the line between advocating between giving best military advice and advocating for a certain policy. We want to keep the military out of the advocacy business.

So why did I do my job as someone in uniform? It was because I felt like I could discharge my duties and responsibilities there better in this charged political environment by trying to keep national security issues, away from the partisan political vitriol that we’ve all experienced. But there are certain behaviors, I think, that really can be compromising in that connection. You know, the first of these is any kind of talk of a military role in the transition of government. That was crazy, Dan, I can’t believe people were actually talking about it. And then also, I think there are certain practices that can have the maybe sometimes the unintentional consequence of holding the military into partisan politics. These competing lists of generals and admirals on who you endorse as a candidate. I think that’s, I respect my fellow washed up flag officers being able to do that. But hey, it comes with a price, I think, Dan. And then just being brazenly political, like some general officers, flag officers were in the 2016 election, for example. Or what Mike Flynn is doing now. I just think that comes at a cost of our professionalism and the importance of this bold line between the military and partisan politics. I would say what we can all do is demand better from our political leadership as well. That they not compromise the military professionalism to score partisan political points, right. Whether that’s, the president’s behavior, and his alluding to the fact that the military is behind him in a partisan way. Or, the speaker of the House, when she called Mark Milley and said, “Hey, do you have control of the nuclear process, decision making process?” and then making that public. So, it might seem like a good way to score points, but it’s dangerous, because I think it compromises our professionalism and that bold line that should exist between the military and partisan politics. Thanks, Dan.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. So, I’m going to take the next question, a written question from Jahmir King, who is an undergraduate student at Ohio University, soon to be commissioned infantry, Second Lieutenant. So, congrats. He said, sir, in your statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on global security challenges, you articulate a lot of approaches and methods in which to combat the threats of our nation is facing. You describe the education of the American people, and a lot of other initiatives that would take support from Americans. In your opinion, what is the most vital topic or policy that Americans should embrace in order to support our nation’s long-term goals?

MCMASTER: Great. Well, thanks, Jahmir, and thanks for your willingness to serve in our army, you’re going to have a great time. It’s the most rewarding career, I think you can imagine. So, thanks and congratulations. Hey, I think we all have to prioritize the challenge posed by the Chinese Communist Party and its policies in the promotion of its authoritarian, mercantilist model. And the reason I would answer your question by saying, hey, let’s focus on that, is not only because it’s an important competition from a foreign policy perspective, and an economic perspective, but it’s a competition that can help make us better, I think. It can help us focus on how do we improve on our competitive advantages? And then also, how do we invest in really our long-term future, so we can, in the face of this challenge, you’ll build a better future for generations of Americans and other citizens of the free world to come, right? And as you mentioned, there are a number of ways we can do that, in terms, I think the foremost among them is investment in education. And education that is relevant to, what a lot of people are focused on, is technological competition with the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Communist Party’s use of, really what they see as, weaknesses in our free market economic system, and our decentralized entrepreneurial system, and our democratic form of governance against us, right, and to use their higher degree of centralization, the fact that Chinese companies have to act by law as an extension of the Chinese Communist Party, and that prevented subsidies, the way that they’re subsidizing and investing in gaining a differential advantage over us in two areas, right—the ability for them to gain predominant influence over the data-driven emerging global economic system, and the global economy in a global market, and then secondly, to gain differential advantages over us in defense, right?

So hey, this ought to give us an impetus to get our own act together and to invest certainly in our own research activities, and to develop the competencies that we need in science and biomedical research and in developing next generation communications infrastructure competing in the area of what we’re seeing now is chips and computer chips and semiconductors, and space and cyberspace. So, investment in education is important from that aspect of it—to help us compete more effectively. And I would say, we need to do this as the Biden administration is emphasizing, it’s a great initiative, you know, the so-called T-10 or D10, of technologically advanced democracies working together collaboratively to maintain our competitive advantages.

But then the second area is, hey, I think education in who we are as a people—I’m really concerned, Jahmir, about our lack of strategic confidence, is the ’ way I’ve described it in Battlegrounds, confidence in who we are as a people, and confidence in our democratic principles and institutions and processes. And of course, this is related to the quadruple traumas, right, of the pandemic, the recession associated with the pandemic, the social divisions and anger over unequal treatment under the law, laid bare by George Floyd’s murder, and then this vitriolic political, dramatic season we’ve come through culminating in the assault on the Capitol on January 6. And so, I think education is part of the answer to that, too. And, I think, that is really education in the area of civics education, and in our history. I believe what we’re seeing in our society today is a destructive interaction between, whatever you want to label it, critical race theory, identity politics on one end of the spectrum, and white supremacy, bigotry and racism on the other end.

My understanding of this, as I watch this, is that that interaction is creating centripetal forces that are pulling us apart from one another, and preventing us, that these extremes are preventing us from empathizing with one another, and understanding better, really who we are as a people, our common humanity and identity. I think it’s really odd these days, it used to be, you could say, “Hey, I think we ought to aspire to colorblindness.” You can’t say that now, right? Because that means, somehow, that you’re bigoted, instead of saying something that is, quite consistent with what Martin Luther King called on all of us to do, which is to judge one another, by the content of our characters, right, not by the color of our skin. So, I don’t think we want to paper over, obviously, the obstacles that minorities face in our country, but hey, let’s just do something about it. Let’s just look for opportunities to help minorities overcome obstacles in our own circles.

Hey, what about if we focus on education reform, such that the zip code that you’re born in doesn’t limit your access to the great promise of America? Right, let’s work on practical issues together, and recognize that we have these gifts bestowed upon us from our founders, of having a say in how we’re governed, maybe first and foremost. And we can recognize it, we can recognize our republic i’s not perfect, right? It never was. From its inception, our founders knew that our republic would require constant nurturing. And I think we should acknowledge the great achievement of our revolution and our constitutional form of government, but also recognize the great blight on our history that we didn’t resolve until almost one hundred years later, when we fought our most destructive war in history to emancipate four million of our fellow Americans. Hey, we should celebrate that. But then we can also be disappointed about the failure of reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, and separate but equal, but then we can celebrate the triumphs of the civil rights movement, right, and the end, of at least, de jure segregation and inequality of opportunity, even though de facto segregation and inequality opportunity remain. So, let’s get to work on that. So, I just think this narrative of, I would call it almost a narrative of self-loathing, that predominates in academia these days, that views the founding of our republic, and our Declaration of Independence, and our Constitution, as documents designed to perpetuate slavery, for example, rather than documents that ultimately made that horrible institution untenable. So, I believe in progress in our republic, I believe that we are a force for good in the world, although we make mistakes, but anyway, I think we need to regain our confidence, not with some contrived, happy view of our history. But certainly, one that kind of rejects the orthodoxy of the new left that predominates in academia. And sadly, it predominates in primary and secondary school education these days as well. Thanks, Jahmir.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go next to Ellen Frost, who’s raised her hand, from National Defense University.

Q: Thank you very much. You mentioned a few minutes ago, some examples of a trend that I’ve observed over my long career, which is the recognition that international economic issues often have significant strategic content. Before this, energy was always recognized as strategic, but for the rest of these issues, there were still fights, security people and economic people. I was on the Bill Clinton transition team, and at that time, there was an Office of International Affairs within the National Security Council. So, I wrote a paper saying, let’s take this and expand it, but Bill Clinton had been persuaded that in order to show his commitment to the economy, he had to have a National Economic Council, which I think was a mistake. So, whether you’re looking at TPP, or China’s economic behavior, or even the EU-China investment treaty that was just signed, how do you think the NSC should handle these things? And is there a need to beef up the staff in this kind of area, or is it best left as is?

MCMASTER: Well, thanks, Ellen, for that question. So, you know, first of all, I agree completely with you, that the integration of economic policy and national security policy and foreign policy is of utmost importance. And the predominant arenas of competition, the most important and consequential arenas of competition today, often are economic. And I would say, for example, with China, right, we have a situation with China, where China is engaged in a broad range of economic activities to gain strategic advantage over us. And at the same time, we are underwriting their efforts and compensating for their bad business decisions—business decisions they take consciously to gain strategic advantage, by investments in China that have now propelled them as the number one destination for foreign direct investment. So essentially, Wall Street is underwriting our own demise. I mean, consistent with a quote wrongly attributed to Lenin, that the capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.

So, I think that this kind of integration is immensely important. How to do it, I think, is first to do it conceptually, which I think is largely done. I would credit, Nadia Schadlow, and the work that that we did with the NDC, and Gary Cohn, and others, in continuing the work that you began, Ellen, years ago, this wasn’t a new idea to integrate economic policy, obviously, with national security policy. It has its roots going all the way back to certainly Eisenhower and the new look, and so forth. But I think that what we have to do is to ensure we understand the nature of these competitions, and how competing effectively requires more effective integration.

That’s why we, in the national security strategy of December 2017, it’s a page turning document I highly recommend it, is that pillar two is’s promoting American prosperity, and in it, we coined some new phrases because you always need some new snappy phrases and acronyms, the National Security Innovation Base or the NSIB. You know you’ve made it when it when people pronounce it as an acronym. And so, I think that first, you need the conceptual foundation for that. And then, as you’re mentioning, you need organizational mechanisms to integrate efforts. I think Intercon did that between the NSC and the NSE for us.  We had very effective leadership within that organization, Ken Juster, and then Eissenstat, they both did wonderful jobs there for me, but then my successor abolished it. Well, the new administration has brought Intercon back. And I think, from what I’ve heard, anyway, that Jake Sullivan and others are really prioritizing the integration of economics with foreign policy. I’m not sure what that means to do so for the middle class, yet, but I think they’re thinking in the right direction on this, certainly.

And then, and then finally, I think it’s acknowledgement, across all the departments and agencies, that they are in competitive arenas. This is, of course, Commerce and Treasury and all, have to recognize how we work together to compete more effectively. And again, it goes back to the way these strategies are framed. And the way that the challenge itself is framed, and a particular attention to the economic dimension, and then to ensure that we identify what we have to do from an economic perspective, in terms of investments, as well as policies, and CFIUS, of course, is important. But so are our standards for investment in ways to ensure that we almost, in economic discourse, take a form of kind of the Hippocratic oath, to not do any harm to our national security interests with what we’re doing economically. So, I mean, Ellen, I could go on about this, obviously. It’s something I’m thinking about now and continue to learn about, but I think, organizationally, what’s more important in organization, I think, is a common understanding, and then the information flows and collaboration that occurs routinely, to integrate economic efforts with national security and foreign policy efforts.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’ll take the next written question from Van Monday, who is an undergrad at College of William and Mary. “The Biden administration has made it clear that the role of the NSC will change in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. What is your perspective on what the role of the NSC should be when dealing with a global health crisis?”

MCMASTER: Yeah, well, I think it’s very similar to the overall vision I laid out, which is to coordinate and integrate across departments and agencies, to give the president options, and then to assist with implementation. Now, in the national security—on the National Security Council staff, we had a Global Health Security Directorate, very capably lead, they did, I think, very good work, from a policy perspective. But we learned a lot of lessons, I think, in the ineffective response—problems in the response to COVID-19. And I think what we learned, maybe more than anything else is, that you can’t do anything physically with a policy paper, unless the departments and agencies actually act on it and implement it. And this is the director that was subsumed within another one when my successor came in, which I think probably, in retrospect, most would agree was a mistake. But really, we identified, that I think still stand out, to be really three priorities for coping with the grave threat associated with a pandemic, and the biomedical emergency associated with it.

First of these is that we have to improve global surveillance and response, such that we can identify an epidemic or a breakout quickly and then contain it close to its source. Well, okay, first of all, thanks Chinese Communist Party. We couldn’t do that, right, because of a deliberate obfuscation, the lies, keeping it deliberately from us, punishing people who were trying to ring the alarm bells about the pandemic. So that didn’t work. What do we need? Well, we need reform within the World Health Organization. I wish that the Biden administration had just waited a little bit before rejoining and said, “Hey, we’ll rejoin if,” and then fill in the blanks for what the World Health Organization would have to do to reform. But so, we are going to’ have to do this on our own. Our intelligence agencies are going to have to take this up, right, this is an intelligence problem, that we’re going to have to really get better at early warning. Second, we had to mobilize a biomedical response. This is where the vast majority of the breakdowns occurred. One of the reasons why these breakdowns occurred was because we allowed supply chains for years to become biased too much in favor of efficiency and cost effectiveness, rather than resilience. And so this is why we we’re over-relying on China for PPE, and supply chains were brittle.  Then also related to that, we can’t share information, we don’t have a common approach to procurement, a prioritization of these scarce resources, stockpiles were diminished. But also, we didn’t even have authoritative data to know what was needed and where it was needed. So, data management—we did a report on this at the Hoover Institution, I recommend it, my research assistants did a phenomenal job on it with some very concrete and useful recommendations. And then, and so mobilize biomedical response, recognizing, okay, hey, we have a federal system, we have a combination of public and private systems. So emphasis has to be on coordination across multiple levels. And then third, is where I think we’ll get the highest marks, which is biomedical innovation. And of course, there’s been a lot of investment there over the years, and it’s paying off. It’s paid off with MNRA vaccine technologies and rapid vaccine prototyping, rapid mapping of viruses, rapid prototyping, but then manufacturing at scale, that didn’t just happen overnight, right.

So, I think in terms of biomedical innovation, we get kind of an A, right? You know, every other area you get you get D’s, you know, you’re deficient, for sure. So, how do you do that? I think you have to force the government agencies to produce, I don’t think that these agencies covered themselves in glory, I think it is really the administrative state. And then, of course, what you need is you need the president, especially, to send a simple, clear, understandable message to the American public, and encourage the kind of decentralized approach. The debate these days is all about, should we mandate this, that  from the federal level. Hey, how about just giving Americans a common understanding of what works? Like wear a damn mask, instead of these inconsistent messages. So, I think communications would be the other area of big lessons from the pandemic. And we’re, going to face more of these biomedical threats. And I think what we should learn more than anything else is, hey, you can’t write like the best plan in the world, and expect to get anything done unless you really focus on implementation. And I think that’s maybe the biggest overall lesson.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s take the next question from Zoe Karch at Skidmore College.

Q: Hi, I’m Zoe Karch. I’m a junior here at Skidmore. And I’m also from California, I’m from Chico. I was wondering if you could speak to the lack of feminist discourse in foreign policy analysis and the work of the National Security Council and maybe the implications of how this could ignore more intimate forms of violence that are occurring within the domestic policy of these countries. And what do you think the prospects of this are in terms of the National Security Council? Thank you.

MCMASTER: Well, I’m not an expert at feminist discourse. But, I am a historian, and I believe that women’s issues, women’s perspectives on these conflicts, are absolutely invaluable, right, and I’ll just try to give you a couple of concrete examples. First of all, some of the greatest threats that we’re facing, these threats emanate from areas where women are consistently victimized, and they’re victimized based on ideologies that try to cloak themselves in a perverted interpretation of religion, and use that perverted interpretation of religion to justify criminal actions that are aimed to advance criminal agendas or political agendas. And of course, I’m describing the ideology of Jihadist terrorism and the way that that has created so much human suffering in South Asia, across the Middle East broadly. And I think this is the kind of perspective that’s immensely important to bring to bear to what’s happening in Afghanistan today, where we are pursuing a policy and a strategy that is not only self-defeating in terms of our interests, but is profoundly unethical.

And I think if you look at Secretary Blinken’s letter to Ashraf Ghani, it should be for feminists, a rallying cry, because essentially it suggests a degree of moral equivalency between the Taliban and the Afghan government. And it indicates really, what seems to be our approach, which is to partner with the Taliban, an odious organization that does not, it has not, in any way, modified its brutal form of Sharia, that it inflicted on the Afghan people between 1996 to 2001. So, it’s not a mystery what it would look like. And as an organization that remains, despite our self-delusional definition of the Taliban, completely intertwined with Jihadist terrorists, who are misogynistic, brutal, murderous organizations. So, I would like to see, feminist sentiment mobilized in support of all humanity, with the recognition that it is oftentimes women who are the most prevalent victims of these organizations that I think of as organizations that perpetuate ignorance to foment hatred, and then use hatred to justify violence against innocence. And this is where advocacy for education, women’s education, but education broadly, is immensely important to addressing the long-term drivers of Jihadist terrorism. So, I mean Zoe, I don’t know if that’s the answer you’re looking for, but I like to focus on practical causes instead of theories, like feminist theory, or whatever theory, because that’s how historians are kind of wired. But that’, I hope that answered your question, at least indirectly.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Jackson Blackwell, who i’s an economics and political science undergrad at Boise State University. How do you think we should frame the future of climate change and its implications on national security? How do you think climate change affects regional-specific issues such as Arctic geopolitics and the future of EU-NATO-U.S. relations in the far North?

MCMASTER: Okay, great. Hey, well, one of the last trips I made right before the lockdown last year was Boise State. I loved it. What a great town and a great university. I write about this in Battlegrounds, and I’m not just plugging the book, but I want to try to be succinct here, but there’s more in Battlegrounds about this. I’m not a climate expert, but hey, I’ll tell you, when I look at the complex problem set of climate and food security and health security and water security and energy security, I think we have to recognize that all of these challenges are interconnected with one another, and if we suboptimize for one of them, we’re going to create problems in another. In fact, you can see many examples of this where, hey, let’s go to renewable sources of energy, and in doing so, you place in jeopardy the infrastructure that’s important for water security, for example. Or you focus on food security, and you do that, mainly with inefficient irrigation, which then causes a water security and ecological issue, right? Or, for example, you say, well, we’re going to go to one hundred percent renewables, like now, right, Germany or Japan, and get rid of nuclear. I mean, I understand after Fukushima, it’s a ten-year anniversary this year, I understand why. I don’t understand for Germany, right, I don’t think a tsunami was going to come out of the Rhine river, but now, they’ve created an energy security issue for Germany. They’re perpetuating use of coal, first of all, but then also, they’re pursuing Nord Stream 2, which is going to give the Kremlin coercive  power over Germany’s economy—how’s that a good thing?

So, I just think it’s really, really important for us to look at it holistically. And so, what do you come up with? You come up with a strategy that can do a number of things simultaneously to influence global warming and reduce in particular, manmade carbon emissions. This has to go into renewables, obviously, renewables now, it’s a tremendous promise, right, associated with renewables, because they’re more cost effective. The main point being, that whatever we come up with, has to be economically viable in developing economies, because if we don’t, whatever we do in the United States in exquisite solution, it’s not going to make a darn bit of difference. Because China, India, within Africa, will continue to poison the world with’ carbon emissions, and we will make zero gain in arresting global warming. So, we need solutions that are real solutions, and are economically viable. I think that also comes from next generation nuclear, and it comes from LNG as a transition fuel, from coal, to renewables and other energy sources. And, I should say full disclosure, I advise an energy company on LNG exports from America. And I’m doing it because I think it’s righteous—it’s a good thing for American jobs and America’s economy, but it’s a great thing, because the largest reduction in carbon emissions in human history was accomplished because of cheap availability of natural gas in the United States, right. So, I think that we need that kind of a holistic approach, not this doctrinaire thing.

I mean, if you are against global warming, which we all should be, you should not, maybe, also be against next generation nuclear power, for example, because that can be part of the solution. And then of course, there are other longer range technological investments we need to make on hydrogen as an energy form, and so forth. But also, this creates other security vulnerabilities. For example, an electric car, as many of you know, it takes five times more rare earths than the internal combustion engine. Well, who’s trying to get a lock on rare earths? China. Which gets back to the important point that Ellen made, is that all of these competitions have profound economic implications. But there’s more about that in the book there. I’m not an expert on it. But I tried to—we have to break out of this craziness of the extremes dominating, right? It’s either Green New Deal, which is dead on arrival. It’s a non-solution. Or it’s climate deniers. That’s who people seem to be listening to or like to listen to. How about, let’s start the conversation with what we can agree on—hey, global warming is happening. Hey, it’s really bad. It’s manmade. And we can do a lot about it right now. And let’s make a list of things we can do about it and we agree on, and let’s get after it. I think we get a lot done if we take that kind of an approach.

FASKIANOS: Alright, so I’m going to ask one final question from Jason Gladney and tack on in the last couple of minutes. He is a PhD student at Southern Mississippi, he served as a platoon leader under you in 2005 in third ACR. So, there you go. He asked, “What would be your advice to your successor, given your experience advising the president on national security issues—something you might do differently or something you learned in the position?” And I will add on to that, we have a great group of students here, and professors. What would you leave with them, as they’re thinking about their careers, and as professors are imparting knowledge to their students?

MCMASTER: Great. Wow. Jason, brave rifles, man, great, thanks for that. Thanks for that question. And I think that, what I would say is, just recognize that you’re not omniscient, right? No national security adviser is omniscient. I’ve found that, my job is to give the president best advice from across the departments and agencies. And oftentimes when you say, “Hey, General, what do you think about,” you know, fill in the blank, right? I would say, you know, “Mr. President, let me get back to you with a full assessment of that and maybe we can have a small discussion in the Oval Office with the best experts on this topic.” So, I think be humble, obviously, and also, try to be well motivated.

Jason, I think there are three types of people that serve in any White House, right? First of all, those who are there to serve under the Constitution of the United States and to serve the elected president. There’s a second group who are there, as part of that, to give the president options and assist with the sensible implementation of his or her decisions. The second group is somebody who is there to advance their own agenda, right, on fill in the blank—trade, immigration, whatever it is—they’re not there to help the president determine his or her agenda. They’re there for their own agenda. And then sometimes that’s a careerist agenda as well. And then third, there are those who tend to find themselves in the role of saving the country and maybe the world from the president, right. And this is the kind of anonymous writer. And the problem is those second and third groups of people, they’re actually undermining the Constitution of the United States, because nobody elected them to make policy decisions. So, I think understand your role, obviously.

And then, finally, don’t hold back. You know, oftentimes, presidents want to hear only what they want to hear, right. And this was the problem with Lyndon Johnson. You know, some said this was Donald Trump’s propensity. But I resolved from the beginning that I would not do that, because if I told the president only what he wanted to hear, if I reinforced his predilections, rather than give him alternative options, it would be a disservice to him. Now, what that resulted in is me getting used up in the job. But you know, I was at peace with that, right? I mean, this was a bonus round for me in my thirty-fourth year of service in the army. And so, I had resolved when I took the job, to retire out of that job, no matter what was offered in terms of opportunities for promotion within the military, that sort of thing. And that really is freeing, and it allowed me, I think, to serve the president as best as I could for albeit a limited amount of time, but that was okay. And so, I would just say that, don’t worry about keeping your job, don’t worry about advancing your own agenda, just help the president the best you can, and then when you’re done, you’re done.

And then finally, for Irina, your last question, hey, I’m really, really concerned about, I don’t know what we call it, I mean, I don’t want to use the hot button turns, but I don’t know, I mean, I don’t really understand the labels, but, the cancel culture mentality, right, and the restrictions on humans, on freedom of speech, for example, that is now quite prevalent, I think in our society overall, and to some degree on college campuses, which ought to be the places where freedom of speech is most encouraged. And I don’t think any of us should be afraid of respectful dialogue and discourse. And I think for students and professors, maybe assess the curricula to which our students are subjected, and to ensure that curricula is not unduly influenced by any form of orthodoxy, or a particular theory, to which we’re asking students to conform.

And then for students, I would say, please just read a broad range of perspectives on everything. I think everybody these days wants to rush to an opinion, rather than to learn more about a topic, I would just say, suspend judgment longer and read and think about issues from different perspectives. And then we can all play a role in fostering civil, meaningful discussions about the challenges we’re facing, like the Council does all the time, Irina, and that’s why I love being part of it. But, I think we can all do this in our communities. I write about this in Battlegrounds, I just finished the draft afterward for the paperback, and this is the main theme, is that, hey, we all need to convene our fellow Americans and our friends internationally, to have these kind of civil, meaningful, respectful discussions. It’s just so absent, right? Social media is killing us. And it’s just, it’s polarizing us further, the pseudo media doesn’t help, and the mainstream media has become very polarized as well. If you haven’t read what Barry Weiss has written about the topic, I think it’s worth taking time to do that.

We have a lot of work to do. But we can all be part of the solution. That’s what’s wonderful about our democracy. And I would just say, finally, let’s regain our confidence in who we are, right? I mean, I think it’s the greatest strength of our democracy is immigration and people who come to our country because they want to live in a country governed by rule of law, where we all have a say in how we’re governed. There aren’t too many people trying to immigrate to China, right? Let’s take pride in that. Let’s regain our confidence as we emerge from these traumas, and have a much, much better year in 2022 and the rest of this year. than we did in 2020. Thanks, Irina.

FASKIANOS: General McMaster, thank you very much for being with us. I’m sorry we went over, but I really thought it was important to have you impart your wisdom on the personal level with the group. So, thank you very much. I dare say that Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World will become a seminal work just like your other book, Dereliction of Duty, which is still so important for people to read. So, you all should pick up both books. So again, thank you. You can follow General McMaster on Twitter @LTGHRMcMaster. And our next webinar will be on Wednesday, March 24, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Sonya Stokes, who is’ at Mount Sinai, will talk about the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccine, and pandemic preparedness more broadly. So, I hope you will join us for that. Please follow us @CFR_Academic. Visit CFR.org andForeignAffairs.com for research and analysis on global issues and thank you all again. Stay well, stay safe.


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