Unfortunately, McMaster’s boss was not on board with this approach. In McMaster’s time, he notes, President Trump often said improving relations with Russia “would be a good thing, not a bad thing,” while succumbing to Putin’s flattery and treating his criminal actions “with dismissiveness and moral equivalency.” And, of course, the repeated references to “the Russia hoax,” which meant no one in the president’s circle could discuss election interference without dreading an eruption triggered by Trump’s fear that the legitimacy of the election was being questioned.
McMaster never deals head-on with the fundamental problem — that the administration had, on paper, a defensible Russia strategy, and the president kept undermining it. Instead, he cites his top Russia aide, Fiona Hill, who, he writes, always warned that “Putin seeks to divide; Americans and Europeans should not divide themselves.”
China, the climate-changer, is, of course, immune to containment strategies. If the old Cold War was largely a military contest, Version 2.0 is a military, diplomatic, economic and technological contest. That change led to a misappraisal of the challenge: As McMaster points out, a succession of administrations convinced themselves that, over time, China would conform to a Western-built system. (Trump succumbed to a different illusion: that the Chinese were all dealmakers, like the property developers he knew.)
Crucial to McMaster’s analysis is China’s strategy to wire together its own collection of allies and dependent powers — selling them Controlled-in-China technology, from Huawei’s networks to, after McMaster departed, TikTok’s addictive app.
“It took the United States a decade and a half to understand the immensity of the Trojan horse it had let in,” he says of how the United States blindly let a Chinese telecommunications giant gain ground, while American firms exited the market. But the reader yearns for McMaster’s solution. Ban Chinese technology? Maybe — President Trump is trying — but even then China will dominate 40 percent or more of the world’s telecommunications networks. Embrace an industrial policy that will win back the market?
It is in dealing with the two biggest failures of the Trump administration, Iran and North Korea, that McMaster sounds the loudest alarms. While he was a major critic of President Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, and criticizes Obama’s aides for overlooking Iran’s support of terrorism and terrorist regimes, he reports that internally he argued for staying inside the deal and using Trump’s threats to toss it aside as leverage.
But the president wouldn’t think that many chess moves ahead, and dispensed with the whole deal a month after McMaster left. Now he fears that the United States, without allies to confront Iran, may slip into the place we are with other nuclear powers that Washington once declared could never possess nuclear arms:
“Pakistan provides a stark warning. Iran could become, like Pakistan today, a nuclear-armed state in which terrorists already enjoy a support base. The greatest threat to humanity in the coming decades may lie at the nexus between terrorists and the most destructive weapons on earth.”