Civic education as a national security strategy: Former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster at ASU

Former National Security Advisor and U.S. Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster addressed Arizona State University students on October 7 as part of the Civic Discourse Project put on by the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL). 

McMaster, who served in uniform for more than three decades and in public service longer yet, commanded the attention of students, faculty, community leaders, ROTC cadets, and military officers.

McMaster covered a wide array of topics and issues over the course of the evening, but stressed the need to demand competence from the political class while also guarding against hubris. 

“We can tell our leaders to stop pretending, and demand competence,” McMaster said. “We need not wait for the political class to restore our confidence in our common identity as Americans.”

Charting a course for the future, McMaster encouraged the audience to “resolve to live well, cherish the freedoms so many fought to preserve, and to realize the motto that appears on the seal of the Republic: E Pluribus Unum.”

McMaster thanked SCETL for its dedication to civil discourse and the promotion of a classical education, and ASU more broadly for its commitment to entrepreneurship and accessibility. He said that civic education is a precondition for good citizenship.

American withdrawal from Afghanistan and competition with China

“Strategic narcissism led to self-delusion” in Afghanistan, McMaster said, a critic of the United States’ withdrawal from the nation. “And self delusion provided a rationale for self defeat. The catastrophe we are seeing in Afghanistan is the result of…incompetence.”

As National Security Advisor, McMaster repeatedly persuaded then-President Trump against withdrawal from Afghanistan.

McMaster sees American withdrawal, which he characterizes as defeat, as a concession in the larger confrontation with China, rather than an opportunity to recalibrate American strategy. 

As NSA, he co-wrote a memo titled “Strategic Framework For The Indo-Pacific,” which is credited with shifting American strategy more fully towards the Indo-Pacific region. Notably, it foresaw the increasing importance of “The Quad,” an alliance between the U.S., Australia, Japan, and India.

Education as a path to opportunity

During McMaster’s address and the discussion he had afterwards with the director of SCETL, Dr. Paul Carrese, he championed education as a means to achieving the American Dream.

McMaster said that the zipcode of one’s birth should not determine their destiny, and that school choice should be prioritized by politicians seeking equal opportunity. 

He criticized those who ascribe to the “New Left” narrative of history, where America is typically portrayed as a malevolent force, as having too low an opinion of the American founding and the nation’s revolutionary vision.

“What is great about our country is that we do have an opportunity to build a better future for generations to come.”

SCETL on October 28 will welcome Brookings Institution fellow and Atlantic contributor Jonathan Rauch for a speech entitled, “Rescuing Reality: Can Americans Have Shared Facts Again?”

Joe Pitts

Joe Pitts is a born and bred Arizonan who formerly served as the program director at the Arizona Chamber Foundation. He graduated Arizona State University's Barrett, the Honors College in 2023 with a B.S. in Management and concurrent B.S. in Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership.

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