Navigating World Politics

Fletcher Dean James Stavridis recounts in a new book lessons he learned as the first naval officer to serve as military head of NATO

James Stavridis and Barack Obama

After five years in the Navy, James Stavridis thought he’d had enough of military life—law school beckoned. He told his commanding officer, and soon received a call from Mike Mullen, the future chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who had mentored Stavridis when he was a student at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Mullen offered him a deal—stay in the Navy, and he’d get to go to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts for graduate school. But it’s not a law school, Stavridis pointed out. Mullen persisted, and Stavridis soon headed to Massachusetts, where he earned a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy and a Ph.D.—and then went on to an illustrious naval career before returning to Tufts in 2013 as dean of the Fletcher School.

Stavridis, F83, F84, recounts the story in his new book, The Accidental Admiral: A Sailor Takes Command at NATO (Naval Institute Press), published this month. Part memoir, part current history and part management advice book, it mostly covers the years when Stavridis was the supreme allied commander of NATO and head of the U.S. European Command, positions he held from 2009 to 2013. It was a tumultuous time. Stavridis describes dealing with Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, the Balkans, Russia and Israel, piracy and cyberterrorism—not to mention trying to marshal consensus from the 28 NATO member countries, never an easy task.

Tufts Now talked with Stavridis recently about his book and what he learned as the first naval officer to serve as military head of NATO and the U.S. European Command.

Tufts Now: You write about Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Israel—what were some of the lessons you learned about the greater Middle East?

James Stavridis: First, I learned that the U.S. needs to continue to be engaged. If we walk away from the region, we see the kind of chaos and anarchy that follow. That’s really the lesson about what’s happening today in Iraq—the U.S. departed in 2011 without leaving a relatively small contingent of trainers and advisors, and you see things just kind of fell apart. The second point is that we don’t have to use combat troops. We can do this by training local forces. I would argue we did that quite well in Afghanistan, and I think that we will see a relatively successful outcome there.

A third lesson is that we should work with coalitions. Libya, Afghanistan and even Iraq were built on large coalitions, with Afghanistan being the largest with about 50 coalition partners. A fourth lesson is to follow the money. So often these groups we are fighting use funding like oxygen to a fire, so when you can cut off the funding, particularly with respect to narcotics and corruption, it’s a very good tool to have in your kit.

Fifth, I would say play the long game. Hard power is necessary in the short term, but if you want to solve the problem in the long term, soft power—education, strategic communications, literacy training, medical facilities—is how you create a civilization, a society that is functioning. And that takes an enormous amount of time.

You argue in favor of intervention in Syria.

I do. We should have intervened two years ago. If we had intervened then, I don’t think we’d be seeing the rise of ISIS right now. I’m not talking about huge numbers of boots on the ground like we had in Iraq or Afghanistan. I’m talking about a training program for the Syrian resistance movement, for safe zones so they could operate effectively for humanitarian aid. So yes, I believe in measured, sensible levels of intervention.

In the book, you are pessimistic about relations with Russia. Where do you see that going long term?

I think as long as President Putin is in power, relations between the U.S. and Russia will be problematic. I think he has a deep-seated dislike of the United States in general, and NATO in particular, and a world view that it’s a zero-sum game between the U.S. and Russia. I think that’s a mistaken view, and I think it’s also a failed strategic approach for Russia.

The United States tried to improve relations with Russia in 2009 with the so-called reset policy, and as I talk about it in the book, we have consistently tried to find zones of cooperation with Russia—counterterrorism, counter-piracy, counter-narcotics, arms control, Afghanistan. There are many places we can and should cooperate with the Russian Federation. But I think President Putin has a personal animus that will make that very difficult. He dislikes the United States deeply, and I think the long-term future of that relationship is going to be rocky.

In one chapter you talk about “convergence,” saying it keeps you awake at night. Explain that.

The two things that I fear will converge are trafficking routes—which today are used to move narcotics, people, weapons, cash—and weapons of mass destruction. If and when a violent extremist organization were able to construct or obtain a weapon of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical or biological—my great fear is that there will be a convergence with these trafficking routes. There are, for example, semi-submersible submarines that come from Colombia with 10 tons of cocaine in their holds. So if you can put 10 tons of cocaine in a semi-submersible and drive it to the United States, what else can you put in the hold of the ship?

The North Koreans are probably not going to launch a nuclear weapon at the U.S., because we would know exactly where it came from and we would respond. However, they might provide such a weapon to a violent extremist group or organization, which could then go to a cartel and move that weapon into Galveston harbor or Long Beach harbor or Norfolk harbor and kill hundreds of thousands of Americans. That is very worrisome; it’s this kind of looming tower out there.

We always say that 9/11 was created by a failure of imagination, that we were unable to imagine that kind of attack. This is the kind of attack we should imagine.

James Stavridis inspects sailors at a NATO change of command. Photo: NATO/Edouard BocquetJames Stavridis inspects sailors at a NATO change of command. Photo: NATO/Edouard Bocquet
How can we stop it?

You go after the weapons of mass destruction—and I think we do that quite effectively; our entire intelligence apparatus is focused on that—and you go after trafficking routes, but we don’t pay enough attention to that. We think of them as a nuisance, that they are a criminal activity that the FBI and DEA should worry about. I would argue that there’s a real national security threat on those trafficking routes that we should explore.

What are some of the key leadership traits you learned on the job?

At the top I would always put this philosophy of leader as servant—the captain as servant of the crew. At the end of the day, any successful leader needs to spend a great deal, maybe a third of her time or his time, focused on the people in the organization.

Tied to that is a philosophy of never, ever losing your temper. I think it’s very counter-productive for leaders to get angry. That’s not to say you accept low standards or you are endlessly optimistic without good reason; a leader has to be a realist. But temper and anger are always losers in any leadership situation. Simply being kind to people and friendly and outgoing and treating everybody the same in your organization is crucial.

Number three is managing your time. As a NATO commander, I tried to spend a third of my time on people, a third on operations—the day-to-day business—and a third on long-term planning and thinking.

And then another really crucial attribute of a good leader is strategic communication—the ability to give speeches, to write, to get up on your feet in front of a crowd and inspire them. Those aren’t magical gifts; they are skills you develop.

Lastly, I would say collaboration. So many leaders tend to think they are the smartest person in the room. If I’ve learned one thing in my life, it’s that no one of us is as smart as all of us thinking together.

In the book, you write about dreaming that you’re back on a warship. Do you still have that dream?

I do—all the time. Another way to ask the question is, do I miss the Navy, do I miss those days? I don’t. I’m quite happy here and very happy with my career in the Navy. I loved being at sea. I loved being around sailors. I loved being the NATO commander. It was a wonderful time of my life. But I’m enjoying these new challenges. This is a wonderful life, and it’s wonderful to be at Tufts University.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at

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