'A Difference Between Knowledge and Wisdom'

An Interview with Admiral James Stavridis, U.S. Navy (Retired)

But is it still a challenge? Are there issues with governments and corruption and sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan? Absolutely. But I think we’re on the right track. Afghanistan absorbed more of my time than any other single issue, both from the European Command side, where I was responsible for preparing U.S. forces to go there; but particularly on the NATO side, where I was the strategic commander. I was lucky to have absolutely terrific generals working for me: Stan McCrystal, Dave Petraeus, and John Allen. I caught the very beginning of Joe Dunford as well, so really four wonderful commanders in the field who I think deserve a lion’s share of the credit for the progress there.

Certainly, a key operation for me was Libya, which started in early 2011. It was about eight months of high-tempo operations. We put together an arms embargo at sea with 3,000 intercepts. We did 26,000 sorties from bases all along southern Europe. We protected the people of Libya, all of this under the auspices of the United Nations. It was largely an air-sea operation. I was very pleased with the performance of NATO and the Alliance as well as our Coalition partners, which included four Arab countries and Sweden. It was not quite as big of a coalition as we had in Afghanistan, but still a substantial number of nations contributed to it. In the end, the people of Libya overthrew a brutal dictatorship. That operation was certainly a highlight of my time in the Supreme Allied Commander job.

A third area that was very challenging for me was the Balkans. But again, we made a lot of progress there. When I started, we had 15,000 NATO and Coalition troops in Kosovo. By the time I left, we were down to about 5,000 because we’d been able to maintain a high level of stability and build Kosovo security forces to help maintain a safe and secure environment. I think the Balkans continues to be a potential flashpoint, but it is vastly better than it was 10 to 15 years ago.

Fourth and finally—and this one is front-and-center for Proceedings —was piracy. When I came on scene in 2009, the situation was worsening off the coast of east Africa. At one point, 26 ships and 500 mariners were being held hostage. We saw dozens of incidents each month in the Indian Ocean off of Africa. By 2013, we had reduced that by almost 80 percent. We’re down to only a couple of ships held hostage and a handful of mariners—still too many, but a great improvement. Much of that was the result of industry changes in the way ships operated at sea. It was also the result of NATO, the European Union, and many independent countries working together, including Russia, China, and India. Now, the challenge that’s arisen is piracy off the west coast of Africa, in the Gulf of Guinea. We’re looking at potential operations there as well.

The challenge that materialized as I was leaving in May was Syria—an enormous humanitarian disaster and a vicious civil war. We have seen Syrian missiles that have flown toward Turkey. As a result, we’ve put together a NATO defense of Turkish air space using Patriot missiles, and we have to be ready for anything. It is a very unpredictable situation.

Proceedings :  How stable will Afghanistan be once the United States pulls out completely?

Stavridis: Well, that’s the big question. From everything I’ve seen, I believe that the 350,000 Afghan security forces are well trained. They’re motivated. They’re well resourced. Assuming that the Coalition leaves a reasonable level of trainers and mentors and continues to help fight with the Afghan security forces, I think we’ll be okay. If you look at recent field operations of the Afghan Army as well as counterterrorist operations in the cities, you’ll see a lot of success stories. So overall, I’m cautiously optimistic.

Proceedings :  What advice have you given your successor, [Air Force] General [Philip M.] Breedlove?

Stavridis: First, the advice I gave was to work very hard to ensure that we have a strong training, advising, and mentoring mission that remains in Afghanistan and to make sure that the Coalition stays together. Today, 50 nations have contributed troops and 80 nations are contributing financially. Those two factors, as well as working with interagency and private/public partners to build the economy, are central to beating the Taliban narrative.

Second, I advised him to watch Syria very closely. I’m very pessimistic about how that’s going to turn out. I think we need to be ready in case we’re asked to respond as we did in Libya.

Third, I also worked very hard to strengthen our relationship with Russia. In some areas we have good collaboration, including antipiracy, counterterrorism, counter-narcotics, Afghanistan (where the Russians have been very helpful), and arms control. But we do have some areas of real disagreement, including missile defense, a system that’s now in place. And we have disagreements about Georgia and the approach to Syria. It’s certainly a mixed picture.

And fourth, an area that needs much additional attention is cyber. I think we have a mismatch between our perceived level of threat and our level of preparation. In other words, we have high concerns about cyber-attacks, but our preparation, frankly, is not what it should be.

Proceedings :  It sounds like you’ve become a great juggler.

Stavridis: NATO is a big organization, and we often forget that. It consists of 28 nations that represent 50 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. That’s about half from the United States and Canada and about half from the European nations combined. It has three million people on active duty under arms and another three million in the reserves. The organization has 24,000 military aircraft and 800 oceangoing ships. During my time, at the height of the Libyan operation, I had 170,000 troops in active service on three continents. It was a very busy time. The real challenge for anyone in that job is balancing between your U.S. hat and your NATO hat. It really is all about how you manage your time.

Proceedings :  Let’s change gears here and talk about the Naval Institute. Exactly what made you want to join the organization those many years ago?

Stavridis: When I was in high school, I was editor of the newspaper. At the Naval Academy, I became the editor of The Log , the official publication of the Brigade of Midshipmen. I became “Salty Sam,” the satiric writer, my senior year. I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing and publishing, as I’ve talked about on many occasions. It was a natural transition for me as I came out of the Naval Academy to say, “What is the journal of record for this profession?” Clearly and obviously, it’s the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings , which had been around for more than a century.

When I was a midshipman, I met with [former Proceedings editor-in-chief] Fred Rainbow and talked with him about publishing and writing. He mentored me early on. I’ve written an article, I think, in every rank I’ve held. The Naval Institute matters deeply to our profession. In a sense, it’s the vessel that carries all of our ideas about our seagoing way of life. It’s also the crucible for our tactical innovation. For all those reasons, I’ve continued to be a proud member throughout my adult life, and I’m proud to continue to serve the Institute as the new Chair of its Board of Directors.

Proceedings :  How well is the Naval Institute delivering on its promises as an open forum?

Stavridis: I think pretty well. If you just look at the June issue, for example, you have a young ensign writing a controversial but a very thought-provoking article about the future of tactical aircraft. You have a couple of midgrade surface warfare officers taking a positive view of the littoral combat ship. In the pages of Proceedings , we’ve seen many negative views of that shipbuilding program. As is always the case with any new program, views differ on success, how to use it, how it’s employed. Again, I think we are all well served to turn to Proceedings to get a sense of that.

A third article that springs to mind is by Rear Admiral Rob Wray, the head of INSURV [the Board of Inspection and Survey]. Rob lays out a very interesting idea about tiering readiness in response to budget cuts. It’s something we’re going to have to address.

I think all you need to answer the question: “Is the Naval Institute relevant?” is to pick up that June issue. You’ll certainly see controversy. You’ll certainly see new ideas. You’ll read the forum itself, the Comment and Discussion. You’ll find a lot of zingers going back and forth. That’s how we get stronger, by putting our ideas out there and having the conversation. Proceedings does that very well.

I think the Naval Institute Press is also doing a very good job of publishing interesting, controversial, and cutting-edge books. Again and again, whenever I get my catalog, I see new books that I want to pick up and read. There continues to be an open forum in books, even as there is in the Proceedings , and that’s important as well.

Proceedings :  How different are the incentives for junior officers and enlisted to join the Naval Institute today from what they were in the 1970s?

Stavridis: I think we have a larger competitive marketplace than we did in the ’70s, ’80s, or even early ’90s. That’s because of the proliferation of information across so many idea factories that exist today in the open-source world. In the ’70s and ’80s, Proceedings was absolutely the beating heart of the professional forum. Today, there’s a big forum out there, and Proceedings has to work hard to maintain its centrality, recognizing that there are going to be other centers of intellectual firmament. I think we’re doing fairly well.

Proceedings :  A successful naval career seems to be an evolution between learning, mentoring, and leading. How important are each of those phases?

Stavridis: Those happen concurrently. What changes is the balance. Obviously, at the beginning of your career, you’re doing much more learning. As you move along, you’re doing more leading and mentoring. But learning continues; up to my final month in uniform, I was still learning. Throughout my four years as the NATO commander, I learned an enormous amount about the different nations and their cultures and history. It’s all part of the landscape of leading a big organization.

That translates to the most junior level, as well. I think learning is a constant. You certainly have larger leadership roles as you advance in your career. I think you have a greater responsibility to mentor as you get more senior. That part of the equation is always changing. It’s a body of work that exists in very different ways in different jobs. In other words, it’s very different being captain of a destroyer than it is being the executive assistant to the Secretary of the Navy. There can’t be two more different jobs. Those differences are what make a Navy career enjoyable.

Proceedings :  We do a lot of listening to junior people. Many of them don’t think we do enough of it. Some will tell you they are more sophisticated than their predecessors. What do you say to that?

Stavridis: I think the junior officers and enlisted today have access to much more information than their predecessors did. But there’s a difference between knowledge and wisdom. I think our junior officers and enlisted today have an enormous amount of knowledge, much more so than 20 or 30 years ago.

On the other hand, the process by which we distill knowledge into wisdom is a journey. I don’t think that’s changed so much. In that sense, I think the junior officers and enlisted today have a larger challenge than I faced because they have to synthesize so much more information and create norms and structures that allow them to use it as they become wiser and older. In a sense, they have to work harder even though they know more, and I respect them in that journey.

Proceedings :  What you would say is the key to persuading active-duty people to write?

Stavridis: First, I think the desire to read, to think about what you’ve read, and to write it down is an instinct in almost everybody. The true key is making that leap from writing it down to then publishing it, that act of courage to put your ideas out there in an open forum and recognize that not everyone is going to agree with you. Those of us who value that should encourage those who choose to take that first leap. For example, one thing I will do as the Board Chair is to read the articles every month. If four or five really stand out, I will make a point of contacting those people. I’d like to see our senior leaders do that consistently, because by encouraging our young people to stand and deliver intellectually, we will all have a far better profession.

Second, it’s using new ways of moving that information. If someone is going to take the trouble to write and have the courage to publish it, we should work hard to give it the widest possible dissemination, which means going beyond simply putting it in the pages of Proceedings , as wonderful as that is. I’m very encouraged by what we do on the U.S. Naval Institute website and our new social-networking tools. The more we can spread those ideas, the better.

Third, more prosaically, we should encourage writing through finding ways to get sponsors for contests that award prize money, life memberships, and other high-end kinds of things. And we should have conferences where we bring in and recognize those who publish.

Proceedings :  What sticks out as the number-one highlight of your Navy career?

Stavridis: I can put my finger right on that one. It was the day the USS Barry [DDG-52] won the Battenberg Cup as top ship in the Atlantic Fleet. We had an amazing Chief’s Mess, and I give them the most credit. We had a terrific crew who wanted to work their hearts out wherever they went and a very solid wardroom. The crew really pulled together to be named the top ship. That was just a wonderful professional moment and represented what being part of a crew is all about. I miss ships and the sea enormously, and I always will.



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