James Stavridis Interview

James Stavridis is the 12th leader of The Fletcher School since its founding in 1933. A retired Admiral in the U.S. Navy, he led the NATO Alliance in global operations from 2009 to 2013 as Supreme Allied Commander. He also served as Commander of U.S. Southern Command, with responsibility for all military operations in Latin America from 2006-2009.

December 20, 2013


FSR: What do you think are the three major challenges and opportunities for U.S. national security when you look at the next ten years?


DEAN STAVRIDIS: Number one is cyber. It’s explosive. Every day you see new manifestations of the collision between our concerns about privacy and our need to protect ourselves. I think cyber is top on my list.


The second one may surprise you -- it’s biology. I think that over the next ten to twenty years, there will be enormous changes in the fabric of society as a result of biology, principally because of the ability to manipulate the human genome, the ability to create energy biologically, the ability to change life expectancy, to enhance human performance. I think all of those will have profound implications in security, and I don’t think many people are thinking or talking about that right now.


And I would say the third is in the field of unmanned systems. So, it’s robotics,it’s what are

commonly called drones, it’s undersea unmanned vehicles, it’s surface ocean unmanned vehicles – robots, if you will, and also, here is the interface between biology and technology. I think those are three areas that are going to be profoundly important. Those are functional areas, as distinct from geographical crises we could point to. 

In that sense, I’d say North Korea is probably at the top of my watch list of concern. So is Iran. No surprises here. And I would say the third, somewhat functional, somewhat geographical challenge that straddles the two is trafficking – the movement of narcotics, cash, weapons, God forbid, weapons of mass destruction, over global transit lanes that are created largely to move narcotics, but are serviceable for moving other things. So that’s kind of my shopping list of things I’m really worried about. 


FSR: One of the more interesting developments of the 21st Century has been the rise of private military companies, like the former Blackwater, Triple Canopy, and the like. Do you see these firms as evidence of greater public-private partnership, or as something different? Are these new proxies? How do these organizations coexist with governments committed to the rule of law, transparency, and democratic decision-making?


DEAN STAVRIDIS: I think they’re both. I think they’re both private-public cooperation mechanisms, and, companies that are engaged in kinetic and occasionally very violent operations.


There are private contractors who do construction, who do humanitarian response, who do disaster relief, they tend to be criticized in the public sphere, but companies that do construction, back office, logistics, intelligence functions that I think can very well be done by the private sector.


If the question is, are we going to move toward a world of private armies or, let’s say, private platoons, or private battalions, I don’t think so. There’s a novel by Steven Pressfield, called The Profession, and it postulates a near future in which there are serious, standing formations of troops that can be hired to go conduct military operations. I think that’s highly unlikely. I think the systematic application of offensive violence will remain in the realm of nation-states for the foreseeable future. So, I’d argue that the private-public cooperation in this sphere is very positive, in its largest dimension, and is somewhat problematic but I think is relatively, relatively controlled and managed in the private security firms who do defensive operations, say on large tankers that are moving through the seas, they have private security on them often, protective details for senior people moving around violence-torn areas, I think that’s manageable and sensible. On the far side of it, to get into the idea of, “I’m going to hire a battalion to go create security in a war-torn province in my country,” I think that’s unlikely.


FSR: Slightly different, going towards the more geographical areas – you’ve tangentially mentioned Asia. What do you think is the best way to manage the rise of China from a US perspective?


DEAN STAVRIDIS: As I’ve often written, and thought about, we have to do it collaboratively. What we cannot afford to do is to drift into some kind of a Cold War model, where we’re simply going to build walls between ourselves and the Chinese, which we did, unsuccessfully, during the Cold War, with huge parts of the world. I think the relationships are mature enough to prevent that, the question is, where are the potential zones of cooperation with China in the international sphere? I think they range from humanitarian operations, partnering with the Chinese to do hospital ship work, to do response to epidemic, pandemic sorts of things, potentially, doing construction of wells, and clinics, and schools.





















Second, I would say there’s a potential zone of cooperation with China in the high North. China’s very interested in the Arctic, it’s an area of the world that they don’t have a natural geographic footprint but would like be involved, and I think it’s in the interests of all to see what will be, probably, the largest national economy by the middle of this century involved in very constructive ways as we manage a very challenging region.


Thirdly, I think the maritime sphere offers potential for cooperation with China, in everything from deep sea-bed mining to undersea navigation and surveying to emplacement of fiber optic cables, et cetera et cetera. So the many maritime projects that I think are potential – and the salutary effect of that kind of work is that, as is obvious, a lot of the potential conflict with China also revolves around the maritime sphere. Balancing that with other, more constructive projects, I think, makes an awful lot of sense.


Fourthly, traditional exchanges in the security dimension, I think, would be useful with China. For example, war college to war college; language training back and forth; creating a committee to look at observers for each other’s exercises; participating in each other’s exercises.


And fifthly, I think the specific problem and challenge of North Korea will not be solved without China’s cooperation and assistance, and I think that’s actually an area of opportunity, particularly as we see the young leader begin to flex his muscle, and take North Korea in a really challenging direction for the international community. So there are five areas, there are many, many more. We need to focus on those, recognizing there will be places we disagree, as in the South China Sea, as in the Spratlys, as in our views about Syria, et cetera.


FSR: Many of these come under your thesis of building bridges instead of building walls.




FSR: I would like to push back just a little bit. There are areas where China is flexing its muscle that we are very concerned about. The various island situations in the South China Sea, the very poor human rights record, not only inside China, but also outside - as Chinese firms and the Chinese government interacts with other governments, they create a moral hazard, where really bad regimes are given incentive to remain bad, because China doesn’t care about human rights, and that’s something that’s a core American value – to go out there, and to spread freedom. Where do you think the United States should push back, or set certain red lines to manage China’s rise?


DEAN STAVRIDIS: Well, I’m going to push back on your pushback, and say that if you go back and play the tape, right at the end of all those zones of cooperation I said that, “we must recognize where we disagree.”


And, in those instances, I think it’s very important that we maintain our higher moral standards, and that we continue to criticize China for its behavior, for example, as we have, in standing up two new Air Defense Identification Zones, in their extremely poor record on human rights, in their environmental damage they create globally, in their positions in the United Nations Security Council regarding places like Syria. So, the question is always in these situations, long-term, do you get better results by simply building a wall, and saying, “you’re a pariah, we’re not going to work with you, and we’re going to put our military forces around your periphery until you do the right thing”? Is that a good strategy? I don’t think so.


I think a much better strategy is to find the areas where we can cooperate, recognizing there are going to be areas where we disagree, and, as you say, push on those hard, as we should - specifically, I think anything China does that impinges on freedom of navigation is an area we should push back on; human rights is an area we should push back on – but, as I look at the long throw of history, withholding cooperation does not incentivize better behavior. I think it’s the opposite. I think cooperation, over time, incentivizes better behavior. It’s a fundamental point you can have a discussion about, and one can argue on both sides of it, but my view is, use soft power, recognizing that soft power without hard power is no power.


So you really have to do both, and as you’ve heard me say before, it’s kind of a rheostat; you can’t approach life as an on and off switch – “China bad, turn off switch, don’t work with them”; “China good, wonderful, turn on light switch” – it’s not like that, it’s a rheostat that you have to dial in.


FSR: What I’m curious about is how an organization like NATO, that’s created in a different security environment, responds to some of the threats and challenges that you mentioned earlier – trafficking, transnational criminal organizations, cyber; with the empowerment of individuals, non-state actors, hacker collectives, that sort of thing. I’m just wondering how you shift NATO’s focus.


DEAN STAVRIDIS: Well, I think we need to look at NATO, and, I would argue NATO has done a fairly good job of reinventing itself post-Cold War. Here’s an organization that was locked in a bipolar structure for years, a massive alliance facing another massive alliance, across a wall that we built. Fortunately, that wall came tumbling down in the late 1980s, early 1990s, and NATO went through a period of real soul-searching. Well, maybe we should dissolve the alliance. There were serious discussions about doing that – you know, it was kind of the “mission accomplished” argument. I think NATO, prima facie, just look at it, has made the transition.


Today there are 150,000 NATO soldiers, and sailors, and airmen operating on three continents, doing five or six operational missions, right now. During my time as the SACEUR [Supreme Allied Commander Europe], we pushed toward 200,000 people when the Libyan operation was going and, side-by-side with Afghanistan, with the Balkans, with the piracy operations, missile defense, Syria, et cetera. So I would argue the alliance has done a fairly good job of making the shift.


I would kind of think of it as a computer program. So, if NATO 1.0 was the Cold War, we all know what that was, I think what you have now is NATO 2.0, which is a very muscular organization, 28 members, probably going to add a few more in the next few years – Macedonia and Montenegro – and involved globally on three continents very much outside the borders of Europe. I think the question is, what does NATO 3.0 look like? And I think that that conversation is about to unfold. And I would guess that NATO 3.0 will be kind of a blend of those two. In other words, it will be less inclined to lean forward into global activity than it has been in the last 15 years, but I think it will still have to address transnational activities. You can’t hunker down in Fortress Europe and hope that the hacktivists, and variety of trafficking challenges, and the movement of weapons and cash are not going to come and create ill effect in Europe and in the United States.


So, I think NATO 3.0 will be a blended organization that will probably have a bit of a larger focus on the borders, the alliance will be somewhat more internally looking, but I think because of the transnational nature of the security challenges, NATO will have to have a continuing ability to move outside. Another way to put that is that, I don’t think NATO will be a global actor, but I think NATO will be an actor in a global world.


FSR: Last question, when you look at US missions abroad, mostly backed by the Department of Defense and the Department of State, and even NATO missions – we work very closely with the militaries of fragile states. Does that create incentive for military dominance over the civilians over the long run? In other words, if you look at all the money we gave, the equipment, the effort, to the Afghan National Security Forces specifically, in an area that doesn’t have a good record of democracy, do we create an imbalance? And if we do, how do we try to rectify that?


DEAN STAVRIDIS: I think it is possible that we create an impression of security driving the challenge, and Afghanistan’s probably an example of that. Because the military aspect is so muscular and so capable and has so many resources, I think it can create an impression of the military being the driving force in solving a situation. And that’s kind of a cartoon version of it.


Having spent a fair amount of time in Afghanistan, I think the strong actors are, in fact, the civilians. Hamid Karzai is driving the problem. I defy you to even name an Afghan general. It just hasn’t worked out that way. Same thing in Colombia. If you look at the Colombia counterinsurgency experience, it’s been the political leadership that has driven it. It’s Uribe that saved his country, it’s Santos that’s going to deliver the peace agreement. Name a Colombian general? Name a Colombian admiral? I’d say the same thing in the Balkans. It’s been political actors who have solved these things. I think the era of military dictatorship, while I wouldn’t say it’s over, we’ll certainly see examples of it, but I think it’s increasingly more difficult for the military to drive and be on top of events than it was let alone 20 years ago, let alone 50 years ago.


Second point, where it’s the U.S. and NATO involved in these exercises of trying to build the Afghan National Security Forces – there’s a large component of teaching, mentorship, engagement, from the US and NATO militaries to our counterparts in Afghanistan, as there was in Colombia, as there was in the Balkans, to make sure that civilian leadership is respected, and is the dominant force.


In other words, we come out of a culture in the West, thankfully, of civilian leadership, not military leadership; and, when we go to do partnered operations, we work very hard to make that point, and to underline that constantly. And that occurs at every level on the chain of command, from my conversations with my very good friend General Karimi, the head of the Afghan National Army, to the very lowest levels, when our company commanders and our platoon commanders and even our sergeants are well-taught and communicate to our Afghan counterparts that it’s civilian leadership who is in charge, not us. It’s rule of law. And are there instances of failure in that, particularly on the tactical level? Of course. But I think the thrust of the message has gotten across in Afghanistan, I would argue, in Colombia, and the Balkans, in Africa, and in other places.


"There’s a potential zone of cooperation with China in the high North. China’s very interested in the Arctic, it’s an area of the world that they don’t have a natural geographic footprint but would like be involved.."