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H.R. McMaster, who served as former U.S. president Donald Trump’s second national security adviser, is exceptional in several ways. For starters, he’s a cerebral Republican – a contradiction, you might say, given the party’s current cranial afflictions.

He’s an intimidating presence, bald and built like a tank. He manned one of them in the deserts of Iraq during the Persian Gulf war. But he’s also a scholar: a historian with a doctorate degree in military history and a couple of books to his credit. His latest is Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World.

In the Trump White House, he was different, too, in that he was a defender (one of only a few) of Canadian interests. In 2018, on the night when he heard Mr. Trump was sacking him, Mr. McMaster was socializing at the Canadian embassy.

The three-star general didn’t have much to say about that when I reached him by phone this week at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Nor did he, unlike many others unceremoniously dumped by that president, have anything negative to say about Mr. Trump.

Wasn’t the president, I asked, putting it mildly, somewhat unknowledgeable?

“No he was not uninformed,” he said. “I think he was extremely well informed.” That would be news to many, including John Bolton, Mr. McMaster’s ornery successor in the security post who called Mr. Trump “stunningly uninformed.”

Instead of settling scores, Mr. McMaster, as a leading strategic thinker in his party, wanted to discuss a more urgent subject – the need for the U.S. to confront not only Russia, but China as well. It’s clear now, he said, that they are both implacable enemies. It’s no time for triangular diplomacy, of trying to work one against the other like in the Henry Kissinger era.

“I think we ought to do the opposite. Glue the two of them together. Not only because they deserve one another,” he said, but because “they’ve professed their love for one another. They’ve sent us a message that ‘you’re over, free world.’”

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In short, Mr. McMaster was saying the U.S. needs to enter into a cold war on two massive fronts, an unprecedented and incredibly daunting prospect that could last decades.

Washington has to move on three priorities, he said. A stronger show of military might. The development of a sensible energy-security policy so as not to leave Russia with coercive power in that domain. And a reversal of supply-chain reliance on China.

President Joe Biden’s administration is doing some good things on Ukraine now, Mr. McMaster said, but blew it last year “with a number of conciliatory actions that reassured Vladimir Putin,” such as saying the U.S. would not send in its military. “We talked repeatedly about what we were not going to do. We inadvertently green-lighted Putin.”

What about Mr. Kissinger’s recommendation that Ukraine give up some of its territory to end the war and to avoid a potential wider conflict?

“He’s wrong because his comments are based on the assumption that concessions will somehow placate Putin rather than encourage him. Giving Putin an off-ramp is just another opportunity for him to look for the next on-ramp.”

Meanwhile, China’s challenge – military, economic and technological – is far more demanding from a containment point of view. But Mr. McMaster said it shouldn’t be overstated.

“Authoritarian regimes tend to look more powerful than they are. They are very brittle,” he said, listing all the obstacles Beijing faces.

He said he ran afoul of Mr. Trump by giving him policy options that he didn’t want to hear. But he contends that the policy outcomes of the Trump administration should not be overshadowed by its chaotic, reckless modus operandi – an example being the sensible agreement to modernize the North American free-trade agreement after the hell the White House put Ottawa through in the process.

Regarding all the insults Mr. Trump threw at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Mr. McMaster said the Canadian leader was hardly alone in that respect: “I would have preferred if the president had foregone some of the language that he used.”

It was the closest he came to any criticism of Mr. Trump – he evidently doesn’t want to burn any bridges.

The former president, of course, was known for his kowtowing to Mr. Putin. H.R. McMaster doesn’t want any of that, preferring to confront Russia and the other, greater megapower of China.

But what chance, given the weakened, divided, declining state of his own country, does the U.S. have against both?

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