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  • Donald E. Hester

National Security Threats Facing the United States: Insights from H.R. McMaster

In the course "National Security Threats Facing the United States," by the Great Courses, renowned expert H.R. McMaster discusses a variety of complex and evolving threats faced by the United States. McMaster covers a wide range of topics, including external and internal threats, theaters of war, and the importance of history and strategic competence in addressing these challenges. His perspective and expertise are invaluable in understanding the complex and evolving threats facing the United States.

A good summary of the course would be Sun Tzu's famous maxim: "Know Your Enemy and know yourself."

External Threats

External threats to the United States include typical nation-states and terrorists such as Russia, China, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. McMaster also emphasizes the threat of climate change and the risk of nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula. Additionally, he discusses the ideology driving Iran's aggression towards the United States and its allies and the historical practices and ideology of proxy wars.

During the course on national security threats faced by the United States, an interesting point was raised about North Korea. It was highlighted that North Korea is the only family-run communist state, which contradicts the very idea of communism being for the benefit of the proletariat and avoiding an elite ruling class. I had not realized that far from achieving a utopia, the North Korean people have a megalomaniac as a dictator. I thought the point of communism was to avoid an elite ruling class. So much for that.

National security is a complex and multifaceted issue, and for McMaster, energy security is an integral component of it. In particular, energy security entails access to raw materials for energy and the ability to be energy independent from other nations. When a nation becomes too reliant on another for its energy needs, it can put its national security at risk. Therefore, being able to secure access to energy resources and to produce energy domestically is a crucial component of national security strategy. As the world becomes more interconnected, the competition for resources will only intensify, making energy security an increasingly important consideration for any nation seeking to protect its interests.

In my opinion, the concept of energy security is closely related to the economic warfare, as it deals with the accessibility of raw materials for energy and the independence of a nation from other countries in terms of energy supply.

Internal Threats

McMaster also identifies two problems the US has in addressing national security threats: strategic narcissism and lack of strategic empathy. He defines strategic narcissism as focusing on what we want rather than what the situation demands, and strategic empathy as the ability to understand what drives and motivates adversaries and their ideology. He emphasizes the importance of understanding emotions and aspirations that drive and constrain our enemies and adversaries as well as our allies and friends.

The term Strategic empathy comes from author Zachary Shore, and he defines it as: "the ability to think like their opponent. Strategic empathy is the skill of stepping out of our own heads and into the minds of others. It is what allows us to pinpoint what truly drives and constrains the other side. Unlike stereotypes, which lump people into simplistic categories, strategic empathy distinguishes what is unique about individuals and their situations. To achieve strategic empathy, you must first identify the information that matters most."

Theaters of War

In addition to typical warfare, McMaster highlights the need to address warfare on multiple fronts, such as space, cyberspace, economic, ideological, and psychological. He briefly discusses cyber warfare and the importance of information warfare, but doesn't go into specifics such as misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation.

During the course on national security threats, the topic of cyber warfare was discussed briefly, but I felt that it deserved more attention. While the speaker did provide a high-level overview, I think that given the breadth and depth of the topic, a more comprehensive analysis was warranted. Cyber warfare is a constantly evolving and vast field that poses significant risks to national security. Therefore, it is crucial that we pay greater attention to this issue and take steps to mitigate potential threats.

Learn From History

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." George Santayana from his book "The Life of Reason"

In addition to emphasizing the importance of strategic competence and historical understanding, McMaster also stresses the need for leaders to make informed decisions and keep the public well-informed about national security matters. He explains that the consequences of a lack of strategic competence and historical understanding can be catastrophic, as seen in numerous past conflicts and failures. McMaster urges leaders to be mindful of their biases, such as confirmation bias, which can lead them to seek out information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs rather than considering all available evidence. Similarly, he warns against the bias toward optimism, which can lead to an underestimation of potential threats and risks.


In his analysis, McMaster acknowledges that partisan politics and political maneuvering can sometimes hinder national security efforts. Politicians hear what they want to hear. He notes that politicians may prioritize their own reelection over what is best for the nation. While recognizing that the US is not without flaws and is still a work in progress, he asserts that democracy is still the best form of government.

McMaster's view that democracy is resilient is not shared by everyone. Some people, including myself, think that democracy is fragile and can be easily undermined. It is important to recognize that we can be the authors of our own destruction if we do not take care to protect our democratic institutions. History has shown us that democracies can be overthrown from within and that we need to remain vigilant to ensure that this does not happen. While democracy may be the best form of government, we need to recognize that it is not perfect and that it requires constant attention and care to ensure that it remains strong.

During his talk on national security, McMaster shared some key takeaways that we should keep in mind. He emphasizes the importance of being knowledgeable about our enemies, understanding their motives and ideology, and being aware of our own biases. Additionally, McMaster highlights the significance of energy and technology as vital components of national security and underscores the need to stay ahead in these areas. It is also essential to view warfare as a continuous and multifaceted challenge rather than as a single, isolated event. By being mindful of these points, we can better position ourselves to effectively address the complex national security threats facing the United States.

Overall, "National Security Threats Facing the United States" is an excellent resource for anyone interested in understanding the current and future national security threats facing the United States. McMaster's insights on strategic competence, understanding adversaries, and warfare on multiple fronts provide valuable perspectives on national security.



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