Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World (Overview)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Battlegrounds" by H. R. McMaster. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How can the U.S. bolster its influence in the world? Why isn’t it stronger than it is?

The United States has an attitude problem. It views the world through a self-centered lens, based on the assumption that U.S. actions and policy decisions are the main driving force behind global events. That’s the view of General H. R. McMaster, who writes about this in his book.

Continue reading for an overview of Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World.

Battlegrounds by General H. R. McMaster

McMaster explains that America’s “attitude problem” comes in two flavors—unwarranted optimism about the U.S.’s ability to solve other countries’ issues and self-recrimination that all the world’s problems are somehow the U.S.’s fault for interfering. Because of this distorted worldview, McMaster contends the U.S. and its democratic allies are losing influence on the global stage at a time when authoritarian aggression is on the rise and the balance of power in the world is realigning.

Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World was published in 2020. In this book, McMaster, who served as U.S. national security adviser, says the U.S. needs a strong dose of empathy—in particular, the ability to see the world through the eyes of its competitors and adversaries. The conceit of American policymakers is that the U.S. is the fulcrum of the world. This blinds them to the goals and ambitions of rival powers such as Russia and China while denying the historical and emotional motivations that underlie the actions of other national leaders. Gaining a more realistic view of the nations and groups with which the U.S. contends will better prepare the democracies of the world to defend against threats and compete in the modern global landscape.

McMaster is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the White House from 2017 to 2018. As a professor of U.S. military history, McMaster wrote a previous book, Dereliction of Duty, which focused on the policy failures that led to the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam. Battlegrounds derives from McMaster’s work to frame national defense strategies during the early years of the Trump administration.

(Shortform note: In Dereliction of Duty, McMaster argued that while the U.S. ostensibly supported the South Vietnamese government to prevent the spread of Communism in southeast Asia, President Lyndon Johnson adopted a military strategy that prolonged U.S. engagement while bolstering his public image back home. From the commitment of U.S. forces in 1964 to the fall of Saigon in 1975, millions of Vietnamese and nearly 60,000 Americans were killed. In the U.S., the Vietnam War’s lasting cultural legacy is an overriding reluctance to commit American forces to overseas conflicts without short-term, clear-cut objectives—a stance that can be self-defeating, as McMaster explains in Battlegrounds.)

We’ll explore McMaster’s criticism of the faulty assumptions driving U.S. foreign policy, his assessment of the threats America and its allies face across the world, and the steps he believes the U.S. must take to stay competitive on the changing global stage. We’ll also contrast McMaster’s views with those of other experts on diplomacy and defense while placing his assessments in their larger context and updating some of his book’s information based on events that have taken place since its initial publication.

American Assumptions

McMaster describes how poor fundamental assumptions have clouded U.S. foreign policy in ways that are detrimental to itself and other nations. We’ll look at these flawed assumptions and how they’ve played out in multiple corners of the world.

Capitalist Democracy

McMaster explains that, after the Cold War, the U.S. was gripped by a euphoric sense of hope that the ideological battles of the 20th century were over. Americans’ overriding assumption was that democratic governments and capitalist economies would flourish in the post-Soviet world, without any great effort or support from the U.S. itself. This attitude has led to policies of appeasement toward dictatorial regimes, such as those toward China and Iran, in the hope that they will eventually “soften,” as well as the removal of U.S. support from nations in transition, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where democracy had the potential to flourish if protected from disruption by extremists.

Military Strength

The U.S.’s self-serving assumption that America’s political and economic values are universal leads to another erroneous conclusion—that any threat to democracy can be stamped out by the simple application of overwhelming military force. McMaster criticizes the reductionist nature of this fantasy that incurs long-term consequences in pursuit of short-term goals.

Ever since Vietnam, the U.S. has been averse to any protracted military engagement and has instead focused on achieving short-term victories without any corresponding long-term commitment. McMaster says this is an exercise in denial—military action must always be tied to political policy goals to be effective.  The consequences of ignoring this fact can be seen in the U.S.’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In its attempts to keep military goals focused and narrow, McMaster argues that the U.S. creates the very long-term entanglements it wants to avoid.

The Other Point of View

America’s self-centered worldview isn’t limited to its most recent military conflicts—it has defined the U.S. foreign policy ever since the nation took on the “superpower” mantle. McMaster suggests that the solution is for the U.S. to learn to see through the eyes of its allies and adversaries, to recognize them as independent agents with their own historical and emotional motivations, and to understand how those motivations drive their actions.


After the Cold War, the U.S. expected that the new Russia would become one of its allies in the democratic world. However, under Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leadership fights to return to the glory days of the Soviet Union, with its new authoritarian regime fueled by wealthy oligarchs instead of Communists.

Russia can’t compete economically with either the U.S. or China. So, instead of building Russia up, Putin’s strategy is to tear other countries down. Russia’s aggression and bluster toward the West is a mask to hide significant economic weaknesses at home.


Whereas Russia hearkens back to the relatively recent age of Soviet supremacy, the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are driven to return their nation to the era when China was the center of the world.

In order to transform China into the world’s economic axis, McMaster asserts that the CCP uses a combination of infrastructure spending, predatory lending, and industrial espionage to reach its goals.


Unlike Russia and China, which are pushing for dominance on the world stage, the people of war-torn Afghanistan face a daily struggle for survival. Nevertheless, Afghanistan poses a threat to world peace as a refuge and training ground for multinational terrorist organizations. McMaster describes Afghanistan as a tragic missed opportunity where the U.S. had a chance to foster peace and failed due to inconsistent policies and its flawed understanding of the history and character of the Afghan people.

The Middle East

While the Middle East’s sectarian violence is rooted in divisions that are centuries old, it’s fueled today by agitating factors (such as radical Islamist groups and the Iranian government) with vested interests in maintaining the chaos. McMaster explains the Middle East’s tangled history, the motivations of Iran in particular to disrupt its Arab neighbors, and the U.S.’s bungled approach to diplomacy and military action in the region.

McMaster argues that Iran’s conservative leaders harbor a deep hatred for the whole Arab world and seek to sow discord throughout the Middle East. They do this by providing funding and support for terrorist groups. Meanwhile, the removal of secular dictatorships, such as in Iraq by the U.S. invasion and in other countries during the Arab Spring movement, had the unintended side effect of uncorking the bottle of sectarian conflict.

In the Middle East, the U.S. has squandered many chances to build coalitions and protect democratic governance, while instead focusing on military objectives as a way to limit its exposure in the region. By trying not to get involved in “another Vietnam,” the U.S. eschewed long-term political commitments that may have been more beneficial in the long run.

North Korea

McMaster paints the North Korean government as the most oppressive regime in the world and possibly the most dangerous due to its leader Kim Jong-un’s desire to acquire nuclear weapons. McMaster explains how a history of conflicting diplomatic strategies has led to the current untenable situation, and how defusing the situation with North Korea will require coordination of the U.S.’s allies in the region.

What’s needed to halt North Korea’s aggression is a coordinated effort toward economic and technological isolation of the country by the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and even China. Such an alliance will be difficult to achieve because of the region’s historic animosities. Most important of all is making China understand that a nuclear North Korea would be a danger to them as well.

Necessary Pivots

While none of these global challenges can be ignored, they can be met so long as the American people and their leaders set aside their simplistic, self-centered worldview and embrace long-term goals instead of short-term objectives. McMaster sets out strategies the U.S. should adopt in order to help defend the free world and remain competitive as a leading world power.

Answer Aggression With Vigilance and Truth

McMaster insists that the U.S. must stand firm against authoritarian forces in the world that view democratic nations as a threat to their power. McMaster recommends that the U.S. and NATO increase their military preparedness, specifically as a defense against Russian aggression. Diplomatic ties across the world should be bolstered against China’s divide-and-conquer economics. In the Middle East, the long-term goal should be ending sectarian conflicts while partnering with law enforcement and allied intelligence networks to cut off funding and support for terror groups. Meanwhile, America must engage with the community of nations to let aggressor states know that violent action is not a viable path to their goals.

The U.S. must go on the offensive and regain ground in the world of cyberspace. America must maintain control of its information infrastructure. McMaster says the U.S. should establish information paths into oppressed societies, both through online media and by befriending communities of ex-pats.

Harness the Power of Pluralism and Education

While America’s collage of differing ideas, cultures, and institutions can make it slow to react as a unified whole, McMaster argues that it also represents the country’s greatest potential. Making use of that potential may require removing the bureaucratic barriers to cooperation among government, academia, and industry while renewing the country’s focus on education as a means to empower all levels of society.

McMaster says that America’s diplomatic missions abroad, especially in places like the Middle East, should promote recognition of equal rights for all groups, not just the ruling ethnic or religious majority. To drive the point home, the U.S. should welcome more immigrants from abroad.

However, for such a strategy to work, the American people have to be on board. To achieve this, McMaster insists that education should once again be made a national priority. In addition to the sciences and humanities, though, emphasis must be given again to teaching civics in schools and universities.

Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World (Overview)

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of H. R. McMaster's "Battlegrounds" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Battlegrounds summary:

  • Why the U.S. has lost influence on the global stage
  • The bad assumptions that cloud U.S. foreign policy
  • Strategies the U.S. should adopt in order to help defend the free world

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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