THE ACCIDENTAL ADMIRAL: A SAILOR TAKES COMMAND AT NATO
By Adm. James Stavridis, USN (Ret.)
Naval Institute Press, $32.95, 246 pages
A 1976 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Adm. James Stavridis served for 35 years on active duty in the Navy, commanding destroyers and a carrier strike groups in combat, and for seven years as a four-star admiral, the last four years of which (2009 to 20013) were spent as the first Naval officer chosen as Supreme Allied Commander for Global Operations at NATO.
Because NATO had previously been commanded by Army and Air Force generals, he viewed his appointment as somewhat “accidental;” as was, he writes, his decision to stay in the Navy after fulfilling his post-Annapolis active duty requirement. His intent was to leave and attend law school. But Adm. Mike Mullen, later chairman of the Joint Chiefs but at the time an officer in the Navy’s bureau of personnel, arranged for the Navy to send him to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
“I pointed out that Fletcher was not a law school but a school of international relations.” Adm. Mullen’s comment: “It has ‘law’ in the name. And it is hard to get orders to it. So you better take it now.”
He did, and today he views that as “the pivotal moment in his career.” It was at Fletcher, where he earned a PhD and where today he serves as dean, that he “learned to appreciate the key interplay of politics, economics, finance, business, culture, language and security.” While there, he also began developing an important idea, “one that I have written this book to share.”
The idea is basic: “the world is a diverse and complex place. And single point ‘silver bullet’ solutions for its problems will almost always fail. Unilateral action is usually a disappointment; alliances, partnerships, and friendships are everything.”
The emphasis on partnerships and friendships, both personal and professional, is central to his view, as witness his friendship with Russia’s Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin, always hoping through that friendship to help persuade Vladimir Putin to deny the dictates of his “darker angels.”
But he now believes those “darker angels” have taken over. Today Mr. Putin “brings back every bitter taste of the Cold War like a bad vodka hangover,” with actions that “badly rattle the old ghosts of Europe.”
He writes, often movingly, of other friendships, and mounts straightforward defenses of Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, one of whom succumbed to the temptations that have caused the fall of heroes since the world began; while the other, an ascetic warrior-intellectual, simply didn’t understand that today’s journalists never cut slack for unguarded alcohol-induced remarks.
Among his operating principles, Adm. Stavridis puts special emphasis on communications: “Ideas must be spread through effective strategic communication using the social networks where the world lives today.” He may be the military pioneer in this area. In October 2011, he tweeted his recommendation to the North Atlantic Council Ambassadors that hostilities in Libya be ended. “News organizations picked it up, and soon the story of the ‘first war whose end was announced on Twitter’ was making the rounds.”
During his four years at NATO, there was ample opportunity to put his principles to work — Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, “cybercrime, cyberterrorism, piracy, missile defense, defense funding cuts” — all of which he dealt with in exemplary fashion. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it, these “were just a few of the enormous challenges he superbly handled as Supreme Allied Commander.”
Adm. Stavridis has been variously called a “renaissance admiral,” “a military intellectual,” “the best of the new breed of military officers.” All appropriately laudatory, but I suspect he’d settle for something simpler — the son of a man who set a high standard by serving as a Marine Corps officer for more than 30 years, perhaps; a devoted husband and a proud father, who was chosen to speak to his daughter’s NROTC graduating class; an accidental admiral, a sailor and a patriot, whose success and service to his country was no accident at all.
He concludes with a tribute to the Fletcher School and high praise for its faculty and the quality of its students. It’s an honor, he tells us, to have been chosen its dean, and his work there is highly rewarding.
Nevertheless, he writes, “I will miss .the Navy, the ships, the sailors, and the boundless sea. The cap and gown of academia are comforting, but I will miss putting on those uniforms — Whites, Blues, and Khakis — the cloth of my nation.”
“I shall miss it terribly.”
• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is a co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).