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Five Questions with Sine Fellow Lt. General H.R. McMaster

The Sine Institute is proud to announce its roster of Spring 2021 Sine Fellows and Distinguished Lecturers, which includes Herbert Raymond (H.R.) McMaster, retired United States Army lieutenant general and former National Security Advisor (2017-2018). Also known for his roles in planning and leading operations in the Gulf War, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, Lt. General McMaster has just published Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, which examines the most pressing U.S. national security threats and the importance of “strategic empathy” in addressing them.

Lt. General McMaster, thank you for joining us, and for your willingness to participate in the Sine Fellows Seminar Series. Why did decide to accept our invitation and serve as a fellow at this time?
“I think it is really crucial to understand the challenges to our security, our prosperity, and our influence in the world. [Discussing] those challenges and how to overcome those challenges with students at American University is a tremendous opportunity.”

What do you hope students gain from your seminar series?
“I hope that students refine their approach to learning about complex challenges. I think that any good course at the university level should aim to help students understand better how to ascertain those complex problems: not to tell them what to think about them, but to really understand better how to ask the right questions, . . . keep an open mind, hear a variety of perspectives, and make their own judgements.”

What academic course do you wish you had had the opportunity to take at the beginning of your career?
“Later in my career I got the opportunity to read, research, and write about history. It occurred to me after having some challenges and life experiences before graduate school that I wish I had been able to study more history as an undergraduate. I really think that the study of history helps generate such humility, and a recognition of the complex causality of events. It helps you resist the urge to oversimplify complex problems and to recognize the human dimension of the challenges and opportunities that we face. You can’t go wrong with the study of history, because it is only an understanding of how the past influences the present, that we can begin to think clearly about the future.”

Could you talk about the top foreign policy and national security priorities for the incoming administration?
“I think the top priority has to be the competition with the Chinese Communist Party. If the Chinese Communist Party succeeds in its ambitions, the world will be less free, less prosperous, and less safe.

“In the near term, it is important to recognize that we still face a grave threat from jihadist terror organizations. It is important for us to remain engaged with partners to ensure that terrorist organizations never again develop the capability to commit mass murder on the scale of 9/11, the most devastating terror attack in history. In many ways, these groups are even more dangerous today than they were on September 10, 2001: [they are] an order of magnitude larger than they were at that time, and they are pursuing more and more destructive capabilities.”

What do students of policy and international affairs need to understand about “strategic narcissism,” or the U.S.-centric worldview described in your new book, especially within a new administration that will not pursue the “America First” policy of the past four years?
“I think it is very important to understand the challenges we are facing through the perspective of others, particularly our adversaries and our rivals. The future course of events, we have to recognize, doesn’t hinge only on what we would like to achieve or what we decide to do or decide not to do; others have agency and authorship over the future. Our tendency to define the world in relation to us, puts us at a competitive disadvantage.”

As a Sine Fellow, Lt. General McMaster will lead discussions and study sessions with students and convene and participate in campus-wide events throughout the year. Learn more about his seminar series and scheduled sessions.

The Sine Institute of Policy & Politics at American University is of the nation’s premier forums for the study and discussion of the most urgent challenges of the 21st century. McMaster joins its third class of Spring Fellows, a selection of renowned U.S. and global experts in national security, social justice, diplomacy, business, and the media.