Herbert Raymond McMaster is able to look back on a long career in the United States Army. When the Iron Curtain fell in Europe, he was stationed in Bavaria as an officer in an Armored Cavalry Regiment that patrolled the border between West and East Germany. In February 1991, he commanded a battle during the Gulf War in Kuwait in which 28 Iraqi tanks were destroyed within minutes.
In February 2017, Donald Trump appointed the three-star general as his national security adviser. Once in the White House, McMaster quickly locked horns with the president. He urged the U.S. government to stand by its European partners and advised the president not to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, which made him a target for Trump’s chief adviser Steve Bannon, who wanted the president to pursue a populist course.
The right-wing website Breitbart, where Bannon had worked for years, launched a smear campaign against McMaster. When McMaster later publicly contradicted Trump and declared it was "undeniable” that the Kremlin had interfered in the 2016 presidential election, it didn’t take long before the president fired him. Today, McMaster, 58, is a researcher at Stanford University in California. His new book, "Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World,” was published by HarperCollins in September.
DER SPIEGEL: General McMaster, you witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain firsthand in November 1989 -- as a captain in the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment stationed on the West German border to East Germany. It was one of the greatest American foreign policy triumphs of the 20th century. Now, however, China is rising to become a new world power and Russia is obviously trying to manipulate the American presidential elections again. How could it come to this?
McMaster: We won the Cold War, but victory gave us over-optimism and complacency In the United States and Europe, we thought that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, free and democratic societies would finally prevail. We believed that the era of great power competition was over and that the peoples of the world would from now on tackle the great global problems together. The victory in the Gulf War in 1991 also reassured us that the U.S. and NATO militaries, because of our strength and technical superiority, were unbeatable. All of these assumptions proved false and resulted in a bitter disappointment.
DER SPIEGEL: To what extent?
McMaster: The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks proved that a box knife is enough to hijack an airplane and murder 3,000 people. In addition, global power competition is coming back: China is threatening its neighbors in the South China Sea and trying to suppress the freedom movement in Hong Kong. And Russia dreams of being a great power again, which was shown, among other things, in the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine. The Europeans reacted too slowly to this, and the U.S. also made the mistake of withdrawing troops from Europe as Putin became more aggressive.
DER SPIEGEL: Who is the greatest threat to the free world at the moment? Russia, China -- or Donald Trump?
McMaster: It is certainly the revisionist authoritarian regimes of Russia and China. But maybe even a bigger threat may be the loss of confidence in democratic institutions and processes. This problem existed before Trump. He reflects more than amplifies divisions in our society. Our loss of confidence is due in part to unchecked globalization that left many American workers without jobs. Many felt abandoned by the political establishment. Then came the financial crisis that made a bad situation worse. The financial crisis also encouraged China to take advantage of the perceived weakness of our free market economic system and act even more aggressively on the world stage.
DER SPIEGEL: Many of the U.S.’ partners view the man in the White House and not China and Russia as the main threat. According to a poll published just a few months ago, Germans trust Vladimir Putin and Chinese ruler Xi Xinping significantly more than they do Trump. How do you explain this rather sobering finding?
McMaster: I think it expresses a remarkable level of self-loathing and moral equivalency that is the bane of the West these days. We all live in democratic countries. We enjoy the rule of law, a free press and a market economy that rewards initiative -- and at the same time, we fail to recognize how much autocratic countries stifle human freedom.
DER SPIEGEL: You had no illusions about the president’s character when you took up your post in the White House. Why did you choose to serve this man anyway?
McMaster: I saw it as my duty to serve any elected president. Since joining the military, my role model has been General George Marshall. He was the architect of the American victory in World War II and then planned the reconstruction of Europe. Marshall never took part in an election in his life. I did the same thing. I am not a supporter of a party; I do not want to be drawn into political trench warfare. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, as a soldier, I had to implement strategies that made little sense to me. They were based on some fantasy in Washington, but not the reality of the war on the ground. So, I wanted to take the opportunity to correct the strategic deficits that we have already talked about. I wanted the president to be able to base his decisions on the best possible analysis and expertise. But of course, I also had an inkling that it would be challenging to serve in the toxic partisan environment.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you know that your term in your position was coming to an end when the right-wing website Breitbart started a campaign against you and the hashtag #fireMcMaster began circulating online?
McMaster: It was meant to make my job impossible. Behind this are people who weren't interested in serving the president, but had their own agenda. I chose to ignore it and focus on my job.
DER SPIEGEL: You’re talking about Steve Bannon, who was then Trump’s chief strategist, right?
McMaster: It was a number of people who saw the effectiveness of our process as an impediment to their narrow agenda.
DER SPIEGEL: Bannon and others wanted the president to follow an isolationist course. You successor was John Bolton, the fiercest hawk in the Republican foreign policy camp.
McMaster: There may be an element of poetic justice in that contradiction.
DER SPIEGEL: In your book, you primarily describe Russia as a threat to the free world. What is dangerous about Putin?
McMaster: Putin doesn't feel bound by our moral standards. For example, there is irrefutable evidence that the Russians shot down a passenger plane over Ukraine in 2014. Putin tried to kill former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal with a nerve agent, endangering the lives of thousands of British citizens. Most recently, he tried to poison the regime critic Alexei Navalny. Putin denies all of this. He believes the West is weak and he can get away with murder, sometimes literally.
DER SPIEGEL: Many Germans remember another Putin who gave a speech in fluent German in the German federal parliament at the end of September 2001 -- a few days after the attack on the World Trade Center -- and who campaigned for peaceful coexistence between the U.S., Russia and Europe. Was it a mistake to turn down Putin's outstretched hand?
McMaster: In the 1990s, the U.S. and the Europeans paid billions to Russia to help the country transform itself into a market economy. That failed because a criminal patronage network spread across Russia, which first brought down Boris Yeltsin and then promoted Putin's rise. In a speech in 2000, Putin himself declared that he wanted to restore his country to its old national greatness. We should not make the mistake of holding ourselves responsible for the most egregious acts of our enemies. This is what I call strategic narcissism in my book.
DER SPIEGEL: Many Russians say that after the end of the Cold War, the West paid too little attention to the country's strategic sensitivities. George W. Bush wanted Georgia to join NATO in 2008. Barack Obama called Russia a "regional power.”
McMaster: (laughs bitterly) Ok, all right. We offended Putin, and that is why he is now allowed to run a campaign to undermine our democracies? I suppose it also explains why Putin is allowed to oppress his own people and bend the Russian constitution so he can remain czar until 2036? That really makes no sense to me. As for the enlargement of NATO and the EU, should we really have said "no” to nations that have regained their freedom: "We are very sorry, but you are not allowed to join the EU because Russia does not want you to”?
DER SPIEGEL: No. But the U.S. didn't care about Cuba's sovereignty either when it supported the attempted coup in the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and imposed a sea blockade on the island during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
McMaster: The sovereignty of a country that doesn't give a damn about human rights? I'm sorry, but I just don’t by that moral equivalency.
DER SPIEGEL: There is a consensus across party lines in Washington that the German government should stop the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project with Russia. Do you agree?
McMaster: Of course. Why do our German allies want to give Putin, of all people, influence over their economy and energy supply? Nord Stream 2 is based on a corrupt deal made by a former German chancellor who sits on the board of directors of a Russian state-owned company. The U.S. helped build a postwar order that has given Europe, and especially Germany, enormous advantages. It is sad for me to see that our German friends have not done more to counter the Russian czar who is aggressively undermining our democracies and our alliance.
DER SPIEGEL: Trump’s challenger Joe Biden is promising to regain the trust of the country’s partners if he wins the election. Is that even possible? With Richard Grenell, the Germans experienced a U.S. ambassador, who helped ensure that almost 12,000 American soldiers are withdrawn from Germany.
McMaster: The troop withdrawal is a mistake, there is no question about that. On the other hand, we have seen these fluctuations in U.S.-German relations several times. The Germans oscillate back and forth between the rejection of an American troop presence and the paranoia that we Americans are leaving them in the lurch. That was already the case during the Cold War. But know who will bring us back together? Vladimir Putin. I think he can be relied on because in the end everyone will understand how determined he is to divide us.
DER SPIEGEL: It appears that Trump came close in the summer of 2018 to declaring the U.S.’ withdrawal from NATO. Should the NATO partners be preparing for the possibility of Trump taking that step during a second term in office?
McMaster: NATO is more important than ever. There are new dangers that require common defense: cyberattacks on our communication channels or the digital processing of our financial transactions. Putin helped make the mass murder in Syria possible and thus created a refugee crisis that led to political upheaval in Germany. NATO is more important than ever to confront these and other emerging threats to our security and way of life.
DER SPIEGEL: But Trump is encouraging the Russian president to test NATO’s dependability.
McMaster: That's why it's important for Germany to show how much it stands for the alliance and stands strongly against Putin’s campaign of subversion. For example, by increasing its defense spending.
DER SPIEGEL: Your successor, John Bolton, announced a few weeks ago that it was conceivable that Trump would leave NATO in a second term.
McMaster: I think the likelihood of that is very slim. We are not a monarchy. In such a decision, Congress would also have a say.
DER SPIEGEL: At the beginning of Trump's term in office, experienced military officials and business people joined the government to protect the president from his worst reflexes. Is that even possible?
McMaster: Above all, I think it's the wrong understanding of job. The only man elected in the White House is the president. If someone is deliberately undermining the president's agenda, he is working against the American constitution and ignoring the sovereign will of the American people.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you not to blame if you refuse to warn against a president who clearly has no respect for the democratic rules and who does not even want to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power in the event that he loses?
McMaster: I clearly condemned the president's words. They are wrong and a danger to our democracy.
DER SPIEGEL: John Bolton has made it absolutely clear that he thinks Trump is incompetent. It appears that you feel the same way. Why don't you say it?
McMaster: There is a strange tendency in the U.S. to hold Trump responsible for all evil. He certainly contributed to the division in American society, but he is more a symptom than the cause. If Republicans and Democrats are constantly at each other’s throats, we will not be able to solve our country's most pressing problems or strengthen our response to adversaries.
DER SPIEGEL: Will you break your habit on Nov. 3 and vote for the first time in your life?
McMaster: I will vote, but I will not engage in partisan politics.
DER SPIEGEL: General McMaster, we thank you for this interview.