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McMaster and the Myths of Empire

McMaster uses the same "paper tiger image" to portray China as an unstoppable aggressor that can nonetheless be stopped at minimal risk.
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Ethan Paul dismantles H.R. McMaster’s “analysis” of the Chinese government and shows how McMaster abuses the idea of strategic empathy for his own ends:

But the reality is that McMaster, and others committed to great power competition, is actually playing the role of Johnson and McNamara. This shines through clearest in McMaster’s selective, and ultimately flawed, application of strategic empathy.

Just as Johnson and McNamara used the Joint Chiefs as political props, soliciting their advice or endorsement only when it could legitimize policy conclusions they had already come to, McMaster uses strategic empathy as a symbolic exercise in self-validation. By conceiving of China’s perspective solely in terms of its tumultuous history and the Communist Party’s pathological pursuit of power and control, McMaster presents only those biproducts of strategic empathy that confirm his policy conclusions (i.e. an intuitive grasp of China’s apparent drive to reassert itself as the “Middle Kingdom” at the expense of the United States).

McMaster calls for “strategic empathy” in understanding how the Chinese government sees the world, but he then stacks the deck by asserting that the government in question sees the world in exactly the way that China hawks want to believe that they see it. That suggests that McMaster wasn’t trying terribly hard to see the world as they do. McMaster’s article has been likened to Kennan’s seminal article on Soviet foreign policy at the start of the Cold War, but the comparison only serves to highlight how lacking McMaster’s argument is and how inappropriate a similar containment strategy would be today. Where Kennan rooted his analysis of Soviet conduct in a lifetime of expertise in Russian history and language and his experience as a diplomat in Moscow, McMaster bases his assessment of Chinese conduct on one visit to Beijing, a superficial survey of Chinese history, and some boilerplate ideological claims about communism. McMaster’s article prompted some strong criticism along these lines when it came out:

McMaster’s narrative is all the more deceptive because he claims to want to understand the official Chinese government view, but he just substitutes the standard hawkish caricature. Near the end of the article, he asserts, “Without effective pushback from the United States and like-minded nations, China will become even more aggressive in promoting its statist economy and authoritarian political model.” It is possible that this could happen, but McMaster treats it as a given without offering much proof that this is so. McMaster makes a mistake common to China hawks that assumes that every other great power must have the same missionary, world-spanning goals that they have. Suppose instead that the Chinese government is not interested in that, but has a more limited strategy aimed at securing itself and establishing itself as the leading power in its region.

Paul does a fine job of using McMaster’s earlier work on the Vietnam War to expose the flaws in his thinking about China. McMaster has often been praised for his criticism of the military’s top leaders over their role in running the war in Vietnam, but this usually overlooks that McMaster was really arguing for a much more aggressive war effort. He faulted the Joint Chiefs for “dereliction” because they didn’t insist on escalation. Paul observes:

McMaster’s tale of Vietnam is, counterintuitively, one of enduring confidence in the U.S.’s ability to do good in the world and conquer all potential challengers, if only it finds the will to overcome the temptations of political cowardice and stamp out bureaucratic ineptitude. This same message runs through McMaster’s tale about China: “If we compete aggressively,” and “no longer adhere to a view of China based mainly on Western aspirations,” McMaster says, “we have reason for confidence.”

McMaster would have the U.S. view China in the worst possible light as an implacable adversary. Following this recommendation will guarantee decades of heightened tensions and increased risks of conflict. McMaster’s dangerous China hawkishness calls to mind something that Jim Mattis said about him regarding a different issue when they served together in the Trump administration: “Oh my God, that moron is going to get us all killed.” His aggressiveness towards China is not driven by an assessment of the threat from China, but comes from his tendency to advocate for aggressive measures everywhere.

As Paul notes, McMaster is minimizing the dangers and risks that his preferred policy of confrontation entails. In that respect, he is making the same error that American leaders made in Vietnam:

Like Johnson and McNamara before him, McMaster is misleading both the public and himself about the costs, consequences, and likelihood for success of the path he is committed to pursuing, and in so doing is laying the groundwork for yet another national tragedy.

McMaster’s China argument is reminiscent of other arguments made by imperialists in the past, and he relies on many of the same shoddy assumptions that they did. Like British Russophobes in the mid-19th century, McMaster decided on a policy of aggressive containment and then searched for rationalizations that might justify it. Jack Snyder described this in his classic study Myths of Empire thirty years ago:

Russia is portrayed as a unitary, rational actor with unlimited aims of conquest, but fortunately averse to risk and weak if stopped soon enough. (p. 168)

McMaster uses the same “paper tiger image” to portray China as an unstoppable aggressor that can nonetheless be stopped at minimal risk. He wants us to believe that China is at once implacable but easily deterred, insatiable but quick to back off under pressure. We have seen the same contradictory arguments from hawks on other issues, but it is particularly dangerous to promote such a misleading image of a nuclear-armed major power.