The United States suffers from a “strategic narcissism” that results in international missteps and catastrophes, retired Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster said in a recent conversation with eminent journalist Lowell Bergman of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
“Americans tend to define the world only in relation to ourselves,” said McMaster, who served for 13 months as National Security Advisor under President Donald Trump and is now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. “We tend to create an understanding of the situation that comports with what we would prefer to do rather than what the situation demands.”
In a spirited conversation, the Army combat veteran and author of Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, weighed in on topics ranging from the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal to the war in Afghanistan, the conflict in Syria and dealings with China. He compared the “over-optimism” of the George W. Bush administration, which tended “to undervalue the costs and the risks of action,” to the “pessimism and resignation” of the Barack Obama administration, which tended to “underestimate the costs and risks of inaction or disengagement.”
“The complete disengagement from Iraq in 2011 and declaring that war over … left ISIS ultimately in control of territory the size of Britain,” he said.
McMaster declined to delve too deeply into the details of what it was like to work for Trump, but criticized the president for making false claims and raising doubts about the security of the electoral system. The U.S. Cyber Infrastructure Security Agency has “vastly improved” the electoral system, he said.
And while the U.S. has had to endure 2020’s “quadruple crisis” — the COVID-19 pandemic, the recession, social and racial divisions laid bare by George Floyd’s murder and a “vitriolic, partisan presidential election,” — McMaster expressed confidence in the nation’s democratic institutions.
“Our founders set up a system of government based on a bunch of worst-case scenarios,” he said. “We don’t want to be complacent about the strength of our democratic institutions, but we also ought to not be unrealistically pessimistic about it.”
Chancellor Carol Christ, who introduced the event, noted the urgency of discussing America’s leadership in world affairs.
“I can’t imagine a more timely moment to have this conversation where we’re all thinking about the challenges facing the free world,” Christ said.
McMaster’s talk was co-sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, the Institute for International Studies, and the College of Letters and Science.