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Interviews

An Interview with Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.)

Admiral James Stavridis is a retired four-star officer in the U.S. Navy. In the Navy, he served as commander of U.S. Southern Command from 2006 to 2009 and the NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 2009 to 2013. He is also the former Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and holds a PhD and an MA in international relations from the Fletcher School. He is the author of nine books, including “Sailing True North” in 2019.

The Politic: I want to begin by asking you about a point that you make in your most recent book, Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character. You argue that there is a distinction between character and leadership. Can you describe the difference between these ideas?

ADM Stavridis: I can. Let’s start by talking about leadership. Leadership is this big door that swings through the world, and it can swing for good and it can swing for ill. Think about FDR, who leads the nation out of the Great Depression and through the Second World War. But also think about Pol Pot in Cambodia. He’s an effective leader. He mobilizes his population; but his goal is to commit genocide. They’re both leaders—so, what matters?

I think what matters most is not the big door swinging; what matters is the small hinge that big doors swing on. And that hinge is the human heart, its character. And that’s what determines whether your door is going to swing for good or for ill. When leaders undertake something, their character is ultimately what really matters in terms of outcomes.

I’ve felt for a long time that we are awash in books on leadership. There are so many of these books that they fill airports. Many of them are very good. Many are very bad. But we do not spend enough time writing and thinking about character. So, I thought, my next contribution will be about character.

I focused on the stories of admirals and the oceans because that’s what I know about. So, the book frames the lives of 10 admirals going back 2,500 years. The essence of the book is about how, while leadership is vital and important, it inevitably relies on character. That’s the hinge.

As you know, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper is a hero and residential college namesake at Yale. Given that she is one of the “Ten Admirals” from your book, I was wondering if you could speak about her impact on the Navy and what she can teach us today about character?

I would be happy to. In the Navy, we called Admiral Hopper “amazing grace” with very good reason. I was fortunate enough to meet Grace Hopper when I was a midshipman at Annapolis. Unlike many admirals, she never spent any significant time at sea; she was, as you know, an incredible mathematician and computer scientist. But drawing on her skills in those fields, Grace Hopper, through her character, determination, and empathy, literally pulled the Navy into the computer age. Her work was integral to the idea that we could use words instead of mathematical symbols to compile data, and she was key in developing one of the world’s first computer languages. But more than that, Admiral Hopper was also an instinctive mentor and leader. Toward the end of her life, she would often say that her greatest accomplishment was not the creation of computer languages, but her mentorship and guidance to so many people in and outside of the Navy.

I would also say that, of all the Admirals in the book, she is the one I would most like to go have a beer with—because of her good humor and kindness to all she met in the long voyage of her life.

Given your experience as Dean of the Fletcher School, can you talk about the role that you think education, and particularly universities, should play in the development of character?

I think we can approach this question by saying that character is formed in three ways. First, your character is going to be shaped by your family, often your parents, and the people who raise you. I was lucky enough to come from a wonderful household, and my parents shaped my character; I dedicated my book to my parents, who shaped my character long before I ever set to sea.

So, your character starts with your upbringing, obviously. Then your character is, of course, shaped by your experiences: when you succeed and where you fail. And in my case, I’ve learned. much more from my failures than I have from my successes. I think that is probably true for most of us. 

Finally, your character is going to be molded by your education. Most people go through an initial, formulaic education—normally around 16 years of school. However, my theory is that your education really begins the day you graduate from that spoon-fed, predetermined curriculum. That’s the moment when you gain ownership over your education. The choices you make from then on shape not only your intellectual firepower, but also your character.

So, I’m a huge proponent of reading throughout your life, especially after you’re done with your formal education. The easiest and cheapest way to grow is simply to read. Reading is a marvelous time machine. You can plug yourself into another experience and ask, what would it be like to speak to a Helot that fought at the Battle of Thermopylae with three hundred Spartans facing one hundred thousand Persians? What can I learn from that? What can this book, Gates of Fire, teach us about resilience? What we learn about inspiring others?

Or you can open a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court—particularly relevant for us in New Haven, Connecticut. The book is about an American engineer who is suddenly transported back in time a thousand years in the past to the court of King Arthur. By definition, he’s the smartest person on the planet Earth; yet, he can’t convince anybody of his innovations. The book, therefore, explores the difficulties of innovation, which can help us explore our own struggles and careers—in a startup, in the military, or anywhere.

My father was born in a village near Sparta and the Battle of Thermopylae was always his favorite story. He also loved the Steven Pressfield novel you mentioned, Gates of Fire.

Oh, it’s an incredible book. The best line in the book, I think, is when the Spartans are discussing the battlefield and one of them says that the opposite of fear is courage. And another Spartan corrects him and says, “No, the opposite of fear is love, because that’s what motivates soldiers on a battlefield. It’s love for each other, love for a cause, love for their families that they are defending.” And I thought that was a very profound line from a really extraordinary book.

That’s also a book I have come back to over and over again. That brings me to another point—the importance of re-reading. When you read a book again later in life, it can take on a completely new meaning. It’s amazing.

Thank you for that. Speaking of Greece—I wanted to ask about your father, who I know was a Marine colonel and a Greek American. Can you speak to the importance of being the grandchild of Greek immigrants in the United States? How has that shaped your service to the country?

First of all, I am the child of Greek immigrants who were, importantly, also refugees. They were expelled from the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s under horrific circumstances. My grandmother stood on a pier as a young girl while the city of Smyrna burned behind her. I can only imagine her fate if she had fallen into the hands of the Turkish army. She was soon rescued by Greek fishermen who came across the Aegean, eventually making her way to Athens, where she met my grandfather. They were both refugees who came to the United States to start anew.

My family’s story has had a great impact on me. I’m immensely sympathetic to what has been called the American Dream and the importance of immigrants and refugees. They have been the engine of this country again and again and again. I’ll give you a practical example. Think about the refugees from Syria, many of whom literally walk out of Syria. They come to the Aegean. They find their way onto a boat, going through Greece, mainland Europe, and then Germany, which has taken a million Syrian refugees. The Syrian refugee crisis has roiled the politics of Germany; but I’ll make a prediction. The first of those refugee families will open shops and small businesses. The next generation will be very engaged across the board in German society, and once we get to that third generation, we will see that they’re going to be running BMW. And that’s the American experience.

I’ll tell you why. It takes immeasurable courage and resilience to grab your four-year-old by the hand, put your 2-year-old child on your back and walk out of Turkey and get across the Aegean and make it all the way to Germany. I want a person like that on my team. So, there is a pragmatic side, I think, to immigration and especially to welcoming refugees. They are incredibly determined and resilient people who add to the country.

That’s my family story. In terms of the Greek American heritage, I can say that the Greek community treasures education. That’s why I was so motivated to get a master’s and a PhD in my 20s: because my community has always placed an incredible premium on education and reading.

Secondly, to me, being a Greek American is about optimism. I think Greeks, particularly Greek Americans as a community, are fundamentally very optimistic. They are people who always try and figure out the answer and believe in the country because so many of our families came from Greece and have struggled.

Finally, the Greek-American part of me takes great pride in the Greek heritage of democracy, of liberty, of what emerged from those fractious city states 2,500 years ago. This appreciation for ancient Greek heritage relates to a cover story I wrote in TIME Magazine last summer called “Democracy Will Prevail.” It’s fashionable these days to feel as though the authoritarian world is winning. But I’m not so sure.

Russia and China, of course, are big countries. Powerful countries. But they’ve always been authoritarian. Russia has never had a democracy and China’s never had a democracy other than a flicker under Sun Yat-sen in early 20th century. So, let’s take them off the table, because when you look at the rest of the world, the democratic shift over the last hundred years is staggering. We went from twenty-five democracies in the world to—depending on how you measure democracy—100 to 125 democracies. Around the world, you can see people’s ongoing desire to be their own boss, to reject dictatorship—and that’s why I would bet on democracy. I think the long sweep of history is on the side of democracy.

I want to talk about your recent op-ed about the coronavirus outbreak. You argued that the U.S. military and other state militaries might have to play a large role in combatting pandemics in the future. Can you talk about that argument, especially in light of your role in responding to the cholera outbreak in Haiti in 2010?

First of all, let us hope that we never need militaries to step in and combat broad pandemics, because that correctly implies that we are at an extreme point in fighting that battle. But we do need to discuss where we stand with the coronavirus. On a scale that runs from Spanish influenza 100 some years ago—where 40 percent of the world’s population is infected, 20 percent mortality rate—to garden-variety flu season, where are we? The short answer is that we don’t know. Right now, the mortality rate is running about 2 percent. Garden-variety flu is about 0.1 to 0.2 percent mortality. If we see that mortality rate go up or we see epidemics on other continents right now, we have an epidemic in East Asia. We don’t have a pandemic yet, but we could soon. The African continent may be particularly at risk due to high levels of immigration, industrial cooperation, and trade between China and many African countries.

So, what can militaries bring to the table if we get to the extreme end of the spectrum? Let’s go from the inside out. First of all, militaries can protect themselves. We are used to operating in bio hazard environments, and we train to fight in biological warfare environments. As a result, militaries inherently have the protective gear for the job and they’ve trained on how to put it on. They know how to how to operate wearing that gear, which is cumbersome.

Secondly, militaries have big medical establishment. In the Navy, for example, one out of every seven officers is a medical corps officer. These are big medical establishments that have major capabilities.

 Thirdly—logistics and mobility. The military is capable of moving those medical capabilities where they need to be. A good example here is the Ebola crisis in West Africa, during which we saw the military move Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals—MASH units—to deal with Ebola, along with Army, Navy, and Air Force doctors. We also helped move civilian volunteers who latched onto the military logistics stream in order to get to major outbreak hotspots.

Lastly—and I really hope we don’t get to this point—but militaries can establish quarantines. They can enforce crowd control. The Chinese military, I am sure, is quite involved in the quarantine of 50 million people in central China, starting with Wuhan, a city of 11 million. Picture Chicago, which is the same size as Wuhan: a quarantine means no one goes in and no one goes out. Local police are not going to be able to enforce that. State troopers are not going to be able to enforce that. The Illinois State Guard can’t enforce that. Only the U.S. Army, with all its big muscle and its logistics, can really enforce that. Let’s hope we don’t get to that point; but if we do, I guarantee you the military has to be involved.

I’ll close by answering your initial question about Haiti. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, there was a major cholera outbreak on the island. At Southern Command, we partnered our command and control and logistics capabilities with manpower from Chile, Brazil, Colombia. Together, we brought in generators, water purifiers, mobile hospitals, and we were able to make a major difference in combatting that epidemic.

Let’s shift to geopolitics—you were the Supreme Allied Commander Europe during President Obama’s Libya intervention in 2011. A few years later, in your book, The Accidental Admiral, you said that you still felt hopeful about a potentially successful outcome in Libya. Given recent developments in the Libyan civil war, what do you think comes next in Libya? Are you still hopeful?

First, it’s important to ask the question: if we could unwind the clock and not intervene in Libya and allow Muammar Gaddafi to have stayed in power, what would we do? Would non-intervention have produced a better outcome?

 Unfortunately, nobody knows. But in my view, despite all the pain that has been ongoing since 2011, I stand by our decision. And here’s why. At the time, we had the intelligence clearly stating that Muammar Gaddafi was going to massacre the city of Benghazi. He said he would kill people like rats. Blood would run in the streets. We saw him moving his troops, and he was poised to do it.

It was then that French and the British led the intervention under the so-called Responsibility to Protect doctrine. The United Nations passed two resolutions tasking NATO to prevent that bloodshed and to create an arms embargo and a no-fly zone. So that’s what NATO did. We did that under United Nations Security Council direction. And in the end, the Libyan people found Gaddafi and killed him. That quickly led to the civil war, which has been ongoing since.  

The situation, I think, is a bit better than it was three to four years ago. I think the talks now between the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli and General Haftar are positive. Libya still has a number of opportunities provided by its large landmass, oil reserves, and geography on the Mediterranean.

The intervention itself, I would argue, was successful. It prevented a massacre in Benghazi. But I would say that it was a good intervention with very poor follow-up. Therefore, in my view, the international community has a responsibility to be more deeply involved in and supportive of Libya. Libya does not need or want nation-building; but I think the European Union, principally, needs to step in and try to create a zone of negotiation between the Tripoli based government and Haftar’s militias. I’ve met General Haftar a couple of times during my career, and I think he is a formidable figure and, I think, a willing negotiator. So, I think there’s trade space there. But it’s going to continue to be challenging. I think we’ve got time for one more.

Given this administration’s conflicts with Iran, can you talk a bit about U.S.-Iranian relations right now? In your view, how should the U.S. approach Iran?

This administration made a decision early on to pull out of the nuclear agreement. We could have a debate about whether that’s a good decision or a bad decision. But the point is, it’s a done decision. And that deal, as it was incarnated, is not going to come back to life.

So, today we find ourselves with an administration executing what it calls a “maximum pressure” campaign, putting economic, political, and cultural pressure on the Iranians. The Iranians are responding with what I will call a “maximum disruption” campaign, because that’s the only card they have to play at this point. That is why they shoot down American drones. That’s why they attack Saudi oil fields. That’s why they put mines on tankers. That’s why they capture a British tanker and hold it for some weeks. They are trying to create a sense of disruption in the international system.

Let’s go back to the nuclear deal with the Iranians, though. There are misunderstandings on both the Iranian and American sides. The Iranians misunderstand the status of the nuclear deal: they need to realize that the deal is not coming back. And, at some point, they are going to have to re-negotiate the deal. What the United States misunderstands is Iranian pride and Iran’s self-view. Iran sees itself as descended from the Persian Empire. About 2,500 years ago, the Persian Empire ruled fifty percent of the world’s population. Iran today continues to see itself as an imperial power with great ambitions in the region and, eventually, in the world. And so, both sides are not understanding each other.

Now, how do we solve it? I would argue that the Europeans are uniquely positioned to help solve this problem right now. There is a new government of the European Union. You have Ursula von der Leyen, the new head of the EU, who is a good friend of mine. She was Germany’s Minister of Defense when I was the NATO commander, and I can tell you that I have never met a more incisive, intelligent person in my life. She’s a physician. She has seven children. She is an incredibly smart politician. Her emotional intelligence is off the charts. Europe has turned to her with good reason. You also have Christine Legarde, who just took over as President of the European Central Bank. It’s a new strong team in Europe. And, finally, Brexit is done; that’s the end of a running sore. So, now I could see the Europeans—who have been a kind of swing vote between the United States and Iran—taking a major role in this situation.

We have to negotiate a conclusion to this. No serious conclusion can happen until after the election. If there is a Democratic administration, that will be a pretty easy exercise. A second Trump administration may be more difficult, but I would not be surprised to see the administration work out a conclusion. In fact, even before the election—if they identified a political advantage in doing so—they might give the Iranians some level of modest sanction relief in return for bringing Iran to the table.

Whenever we negotiate a new deal, it needs to be about more than just the nuclear program, but also Iranian malevolent activity throughout the region and Iran’s ballistic missile program. The ballistic missile program, frankly, concerns me more than the nuclear program. So, I think there is trade space for a deal there, but it’s not going to happen without the Europeans serving as mediators. And it’s probably not going to happen until we get through this political season in the United States.

As a final question, what would you recommend as essential reading for Americans today?

Oh, what a great question. Well, first of all, immodestly, I’m gonna say a book I wrote about reading. It’s called The Leader’s Bookshelf, and I recommend it to anybody because it’s not just Jim Stavridis; it’s a book about 50 books. I surveyed 200 senior military officers and asked each of them to give me four or five books that they recommend for leaders. Then I synthesized all of that to come up with these 50 books. And there are many books inside of that book that I think help you be a better leader. 

In addition to that, I really like Richard Haass’ book, A World in Disarray. I think it’s a very good overview of the international challenges that we find ourselves facing today. And on the domestic side, I’m a fan of Jill Lepore’s book, These Truths. It’s a history of the United States and it is, I think, a good one. So, I’ll leave you with those three books: books about books, international challenges, and our country’s history.