Former Trump national security adviser and retired general H. R. McMaster (Michael Candelori /
Empathize this: McMaster’s flawed understanding of restraint and ‘strategic empathy’

H.R. McMaster swings and misses again.

Many have already pointed out that H.R. McMaster’s recent article on restrainers is dishonest and skewed, but what has been so far largely overlooked is that the article is shallow and misguided on its own terms.  

McMaster wants to promote a middle way between the “overconfidence” of American interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq that led to “unanticipated difficulties” and the “excessive pessimism” of restrainers. In their place, McMaster proposes “strategic empathy,” which involves the careful study of how other important actors see the world as a basis for foreign policy.

What would it mean, according to McMaster, for restrainers to demonstrate “strategic empathy”?

“Strategic empathy might help at least some advocates of retrenchment qualify their adamant opposition to democracy promotion and human rights advocacy abroad,” he writes. “In recent years, protests against authoritarian rule and corruption have flared up all over the world. In Baghdad, Beirut, Caracas, Hong Kong, Khartoum, Moscow, and Tehran, people have made clear that they want a say in how they are governed.”

In other words, seeing the world through the eyes of the protesters may soften the hearts of restrainers about the good Americans might do in the world (how this is consonant with his accusation that restraint is based on an “emotional” appeal and not “reason” is left unresolved).

Americans imbibe love of liberty like mothers’ milk; they cannot help but grasp the plight of those seeking freedom. But as a guide to foreign policy, “strategic empathy” requires that we seek to understand all of the relevant actors, including the leaders of regimes we despise. This, after all, is the point of Zachary Shore’s “A Sense of the Enemy,” from which McMaster takes the concept.

Does McMaster really think that the flaw of American foreign policy has been that it is insufficiently solicitous of the demands of democracy protestors? Not even most restrainers would make such an extreme caricature of interventionist beliefs. The simplest tell that McMaster is himself not exercising “strategic empathy” is his description here and elsewhere of the struggle of democracy against “authoritarians.” No one is an authoritarian in their own eyes. Any long-lived regime abjures the belief that its authority rests on mere coercion; believes that its uses of force are legitimate and justified by the purported threats it faces; and stands for, or at least claims to stand for, some positive vision of social order. Never does McMaster try to get inside the heads of the actual leaders and decision-makers of the countries he is writing about.

Now perhaps the editor’s pen has blunted the force of this short explication of McMaster’s “strategic empathy.” But his essay length exercise in “strategic empathy” with regard to China specifically fares no better. Rather than a serious analysis of China’s “ideology, emotions, and aspirations,” it literally consists of anecdotal observations from his 2017 visit to China, matched with Talmudic interpretations.

In the Ming dynasty’s naval ambitions, we can discern China’s desire for a blue-water navy. The Forbidden City’s mixture of golden thrones and defensive architecture tells us that the Communist Party’s grip on China is equally fragile. Curiously, there was far more in the essay about ancient Chinese history than about the Communist Party’s own ideology or worldview —Marx, Lenin, Mao, or any of the actual ideological content of the Chinese regime go unremarked upon.

McMaster makes no mention of the CCP’s extensive idealogical and educational apparatus, nor of how the Party generates and enforces on Party leaders its own internal understandings of, for example, social progress, legitimacy, and global competition. Even State Council premier Li Keqiang’s remarks on the future of China’s trade are understood through McMaster’s own lens of geopolitical competition, instead of the Marxist political economy Li was trained in (this was a common American mistake during the Cold War too).

Examples of “strategic empathy” done well include journalist Tanner Greer’s “China’s Plans to Win Control of the Global Order,” Atlantic writer Graeme Wood’s “What ISIS Really Wants,” and, famously, George Kennan’s “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”. What they all have in common (along with any examples from political history) is a commitment to study and understand the adversary sustained over years, even decades. There are no shortcuts to strategic empathy. This is a serious question: has H.R. McMaster even been to China more than once?

For all the talk of “strategic empathy,” McMaster seems unable to see beyond the most indelible bias of the foreign policy establishment: that the fall of the Soviet Union has conclusively ended any idealogical contest between liberal democracy and its enemies, in the eyes of all mankind.

From this perspective, America’s enemies can be motivated by power, greed, ambition or fear, but they cannot actually believe that liberal democracy is a failed ideology which they will triumph over, and in whose terms they refuse to see the world.

McMaster’s worldview rests on the idea that a careful study of history is the best guide to the present. But he, a trained historian, is still living in “The End of History.” He has forgotten, or perhaps never learned, the first lesson of the first historian: the gods punish no sin more than hubris.