The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg
James Stavridis: Fair Winds and Following Seas
Chuck Rosenberg: Welcome to The Oath. I’m Chuck Rosenberg, and I am honored to be your host for another thoughtful conversation with a fascinating guest. Jim Stavridis retired from his beloved United States Navy as a four-star admiral. In his storied Navy career, Jim held some of the most important and sensitive posts in the military. In his last post, however, he made history. Jim Stavridis was the first four-star Navy admiral ever to serve as the supreme allied commander of NATO. Every one of his predecessors, dating back to Dwight Eisenhower, was an Army general. On the Oath, Jim discusses the history structure and purpose of NATO and why it remains so important today to the safety and security of the United States and to our NATO allies. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Jim Stavridis had a truly remarkable life at sea in service to our nation. His tales of sacrifice, humility, and leadership are important and timely. Jim Stavridis is also the author of four books, his most recent book: Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character, has just been published. Jim’s Starvridis, welcome to The Oath.
Jim Stavridis: It’s an honor to be with you, Chuck.
Rosenberg: Thank you for having us to your beautiful home in north Florida.
Stavridis: As we are recording this, we are, of course, watching a hurricane season, so my major question for you: is do you know how to fill a sandbag?
Rosenberg: I do and I’m willing to work.
Stavridis: Let’s hold that thought–depending on how the season unfolds.
Rosenberg: Congratulations on your brand-new book: Sailing True North.
Stavridis: I’m very proud of it. It’s an interesting book, I think. It’s not about leadership, which a lot of people assume, but it’s a book about character, about how we lead ourselves. There are so many books of leadership–or a wash in leadership books. I think we are overweight in thinking about leadership and underweight in thinking about character. That’s why I wrote the book.
Rosenberg: You come from a military family. Your father was a Marine officer. Talk a little bit about your parents–and the reason I ask is because in your new book you make a list of your heroes, and at the top of that list are your mother and father.
Stavridis: Indeed, they are. And the book is dedicated to them. My parents were a classic American love story, got married in the 1950s. I came along in the mid 50s and we promptly moved to Athens, Greece. We’re Greek-American, that’s a big part of our culture. My father, as you said, was a Marine, and so he was assigned at the U.S. embassy there. So, we moved there in the mid 50s and lived in Greece for three or four years. And I came away with a love of Greece and Greek culture, but also just a deep respect for my father, and that continued through my life. And when I went off to Annapolis, Chuck, I went with the intent of becoming a Marine infantry officer just like my father.
Rosenberg: What happened?
Stavridis: The first year, everything was great. I was kind of working out with the Marines in the class. And then, the Navy sent me out on, what we call: “youngster cruise.” So, at the end of your freshman, year you are assigned to a U.S. Navy warship. So, they sent me to the USS Jouett in San Diego, California, and the ship got underway as the sun was setting. I walked up on the bridge. I was like St. Paul on the road to Damascus. I just knew I wanted to be a sailor. So, I went home and told my dad that and I thought he’d say: “that’s great, son,” you know, being a sailor. No, he was kind of upset. He got over it about 25 years later when I got my first star.
Rosenberg: He forgave you.
Stavridis: He did. In all seriousness, he was 100 percent supportive. But, what he wanted, and this is really the essence of the oath, he wanted me to serve, and felt very strongly about that is I do for my children.
Rosenberg: How about your mother?
Stavridis: My mother came from Pennsylvania, never went to college, yet is among the most intellectual people I know. She reads two to three books a week, she’s 89, in perfect health. And the other day, I called her up and I said: “Ma I’m reading this really interesting novel written by a Hungarian author.” And before I could say a word about it, she immediately identified the author and then recommended two more books for me to read by Hungarian writers. So, it’s a good example, the fact that you don’t have to have a glittering degree in life. You can educate yourself. And that’s really what my mother did. So, from her, I got my love of reading and books, and from my father, I got my love of service and serving the country.
Rosenberg: Did you know you wanted to go to the Naval Academy, was that a goal when you were a kid?
Stavridis: It was. As soon as I was old enough to understand how you became an officer in the Marine Corps, I knew that I would want to go to Annapolis. And partly it was just the glamour of the Naval Academy, it’s a beautiful campus. Anybody who goes and walks there is going to want to go to Annapolis. I always say each of the military academies kind of reflect the character of the service. Annapolis is on the Severn River, it’s got sailboats going by, it’s full of light, it has a big open beautiful maritime field to it. West Point is forbidding.
Rosenberg: It’s a little dark.
Stavridis: It’s dark. And it sits up on a bluff above the Hudson River. And lastly, the Air Force Academy is just this gorgeous, postmodern architecture that you feel when you walk in that campus, that you’re going to literally go flying up into the Colorado mountains before the day is over. And so, I went to Annapolis, that put me on the path to be either a Marine or a navy officer. As we all know, ultimately, I chose the sea.
Rosenberg: Living in Annapolis and being in San Diego will do that to somebody, wouldn’t it?
Stavridis: It will. And of course, we’re in my home in Jacksonville, Florida, which is another major naval concentration.
Stavridis: Beautiful–Mayport Naval Station, Norfolk Naval Station, Pearl Harbor, Yokosuka, Japan. My point is: the Navy is going to send you to beautiful places on the coast. The army is going to send you to dusty forts somewhere in the interior of this land. For me, it was an easy choice.
Rosenberg: You’re right, I think charmingly, in your book: The Accidental Admiral, about your entering class in 1972 at Annapolis, that there were 1,400 plebes–and tell our listeners what a “plebe” is please.
Stavridis: A plebe is a freshman at the Naval Academy.
Rosenberg: There are 1,400 plebes, and only two of you became four stars. In your book, you say: “one was obvious, and the other was not.”
Stavridis: The obvious one was—today, General John Allen, who is 6’2, strapping, strong, black belt karate, Marine. You would have picked him out of that lineup of 1,400 immediately on the day we walked in. You would’ve pick me out and you would have said: “don’t they have a height requirement in this place?” I am a man of, I would say, a normal height. Others would say modest height, but in all seriousness, John Allen and I became the closest of friends at Annapolis and our careers intertwined again and again, and flash forward 30 years, or so, and general John Allen is working for me as the commander of our mission in Afghanistan. He is in command of 150,000 NATO troops. I’m his boss. So, we, we swam together in the sea for 30 plus years. I have the most enormous regard for him.
Rosenberg: Many of our listeners will know this, some will not: how extraordinarily rare it is to get a fourth star in our military. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Stavridis: Most people would say that Stavridis is probably not a four-star due to some kind of computer error, but just to do the numbers, let’s take the Navy: there are about a million people in the Navy and we have 12 four star officers, typically maybe 10. The odds of even becoming a 1 star admiral are extremely small. And I will say this: I think making 06, which is captain in the Navy, or colonel in the Marine Corps, is a totally due process kind of event. If you’re good, and you deploy, and you take the risks, you will make 06. Beyond that is kind of a random walk. It has to do with where you get stationed, who gets to know you, whether your ship deploys into combat, or it goes into a shipyard–just matters of timing and luck begin to play. So, I always say actually there are three random things in the military. One is: flag selection, as I just described. One is: deep selection, which is getting picked up ahead of one of your classmates–that happens very rarely. And it’s kind of a random walk. And the third thing: is the awarding of medals at times appears quite random as follows You will look at the rack of ribbons you’re wearing on your uniform, and every officer, if he or she is honest, can look at one of those medals and say: you know, I got the bronze star for that operation but really wasn’t me, it was really the colonel who was putting the plan together, and every officer will also have a medal that got away–that they feel is: “well, wait a minute. I should have gotten the Legion of Merit for that tour, but I just didn’t” There’s a lot of random built into that, and it’s a good way of saying that in all of our lives, so many things were a matter of luck and chance.
Rosenberg: And also of good mentors and teamwork, which is another way of saying there isn’t typically a lot of “me” in public service, it’s a team.
Stavridis: Exactly. And again, if there is a theme to this podcast, The Oath, it is the story of people who want to be part of something larger than they are. And that’s been fundamental for me, it’s fundamental for the very best officers, some of whom retire as lieutenant commanders and majors, due to luck and timing, some of whom become one stars, and some, perhaps in probably my case, going to be four stars. The other point I’ll make about all this, is sometimes, people say: “what was it like being away from your family so much?” Because I pulled out my logbooks the other day and totaled up—
Rosenberg: I know you did a calculation, which is remarkable.
Stavridis: I did, of all the days I spent on the deep ocean, out of sight of land. You know, most people go on a couple of cruises in their life and they’re out of sight of land on the ocean, you know, maybe a week or two weeks. I did nine and a half years when you add it all up. And that’s not an extraordinary number for a surface warfare officer, Cold War, War on Terror. It’s probably on the high end, but not remarkably so. So, nine and a half years, and people would say, you know, “you were away, you missed so many Christmases and so many birthdays and so many come with your daughter to school days.” And I would always say: “that’s the price you pay for the right to serve.” And I think that’s what the people who take the oath are all about in the end.
Rosenberg: So how about the beginning of that nine and a half years when you’re a brand-new second lieutenant fresh out of the Naval Academy. Where did you first serve? What ship?
Stavridis: My very first ship was a brand-new Spruance-class destroyer, called the USS Hewitt. I was the anti-submarine warfare officer, which is a very, kind of, cool, glamorous job, especially during the Cold War. This was in 1976, when I graduated from Annapolis, and I just loved it. It was fabulous, it was all the new technology, it had gas turbines and missiles and torpedoes. I had a highly trained crew working for me, did three years there, Chuck, and loved every minute of it. And then, I thought, okay, now the Navy will send me to graduate school because that’s sort of the normal career path. I got a call from my human resources professional, we call them a detailer in the Navy. And he said: “Stavridis, you’ve got a really good record coming off this destroyer. I’ve got a great deal for you. We’re going to send you to the oldest aircraft carrier in the fleet. You are going to be the boilers officer on USS Forrestal, and you’ll have about 150 people working for you. They’ve got a lot of drug problems, there’s some discipline issues. It’s going to be really challenging, but you know, we think you’re the right guy for that,” and my head exploded. I didn’t want to do that job so much, and I thought, how can I possibly go from this beautiful brand new front-line gas turbine destroyer, to being buried in the engineering department on this cranky old aircraft carrier. And after a lot of kicking and fighting and talking to mentors, I realized that there’s a reason they call them “orders.” You know, it’s an order. So, off I went, and I spent two years on that ship, and two important things happened. One is: I became quite close with another Marine officer, Marine Corps captain, and I was a Navy lieutenant, and we became kind of, we would say, liberty buddies. We would go off together whenever the ship would pull into port. I always felt safe with him because he was a big 6’3 Marine about the size of my good friend: John Allen. And that Marine Captain’s name was John Kelly. John Kelly and I became very, very close friends as a result of that. And now, that was an important aspect. And then, later in my career, when John’s son, Robbie died in combat, it just crystallized for me–all of our losses. I could never approach what John and his family went through, of course, but it crystallized for me the sacrifice of those young men and women who are buried in Arlington.
Rosenberg: I wanted to say two things about John Kelly since he brought him up. What a privilege it was for me to meet him and to get to know him a little bit. I first met him when I was at the FBI. I got to know me a little bit better when I was running the DEA, but also how I was struck by the fact that you included in your book the e-mail that General John Kelly sent when he learned about the death of his son Robbie. It’s extremely moving.
Stavridis: It is, indeed and it speaks volumes about John and his character. The other thing that happened, which was a very good thing as well, was at the end of those two years, the Navy said: “okay Stavridis, you’ve done a pretty good job here, you can pick where you want to go next. We call that a silver bullet and that means you can literally reach out and pick an assignment. So, I thought about that, and this may or may not surprise you, Chuck, but after five years at sea three on that destroyer and two on that aircraft carrier, I was pretty tired. And I decided that, you know, the Navy’s been great but I’m gonna get out. And so, I wrote a letter of resignation and sent it to the Navy and I applied to law school and I was accepted at Yale Law School among others. So, I was busily trying to figure out how to pay for that and my resignation date was coming up, and I got another call from my human resources professional and he said: “you know, Stavridis, you’ve got a pretty good record here. What would it take to keep you in the Navy?” And I said: “well, you know, I’ve been accepted at Yale Law School. You know, if the Navy were to pay for that I’d be willing to stay in and become like a Jag, a Navy judge advocate General kind of lawyer.
Rosenberg: A lawyer for the Navy.
Stavridis: Exactly. He didn’t sound enthusiastic, but he said: “well, let me check on that.” So, he called me back two days later and he said: “hey Stavridis, I got good news. I got money for you to go to law school.” And I said: “fabulous. How is this going to work? Are you going to pay me and I pay Yale, or you guys just can’t pay Yale directly, or what are the mechanics of this?” And I hear paper shuffling around in his desk and he says: “no, no, no, we don’t have any money for you to go to Yale. We got money for you to go to something called…” and he’s literally reading it off the paper, “The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.”
Rosenberg: My alma mater.
Stavridis: I know. And I said, because I knew what it was, I said: “that’s not a law school. It’s a Graduate School of International Relations.” And long pause, and my detailer said: “look, it’s got law in the title. I’ve got money. Do you want to go, or not? And that’s just one of those little hinge moments where you sort of make a decision that casts the course of the rest of your life. And so, I did it, principally because I didn’t have any money. The Navy was going to pay for it, and I’d just gotten married to my beautiful wife Laura. And this was going to be a much easier path. And lastly, because I did love the Navy and I was looking for a way to kind of square that circle. By the way, that human resources professional, that detailer, was named Lieutenant Commander, Mike Mullen. As we all know, Admiral Mike Mullen became the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Stavridis: And as a mentor again and again and again, he was always there. And I’ll tell you what I learned from Admiral Mike Mullen, was the art of mentorship, which we tend to take for granted. We want to say we’re all good mentors. Most people want to say they’re a good mentor. But they don’t want to do the hard work that goes into mentoring. They don’t want to keep track of people, they don’t want to really stay in touch, they feel slightly annoyed when someone checks back with them every six months about something. You got to make hard choices in mentoring, you got to pick the people you really want to invest in, but then you have to invest in them. And that’s what Admiral Mullen did for me.
Rosenberg: We are just a few minutes into our interview, and you’ve already mentioned Mike Mullen, John Kelly, and John Allen. I’m sure they talk about you in the same way, but these are iconic Patriots.
Stavridis: Indeed, all three. One of the things you find about the military profession, and I suspect it’s the same in law enforcement, the FBI, any profession, over time, you’ll get to know peers and near peers who will make or break you. And I’m a big believer in peer feedback and engaging with peers. I think all of us always want to, sort of, show the boss how terrific we’re doing. That’s human nature. I think most people get it on taking care of the people who work for them. That’s extremely important in any profession. I think too few people spend time with their peers in their peer group, understanding what you can learn from your peers about yourself. And I’ve always tried to do that, particularly John Kelly and John Allen were very good at that for me.
Rosenberg: You become the captain of the USS Barry and Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. And there are at least two or three stories, I’m sure there are many more, but there are at least two or three stories of your service on the Barry that I wanted to talk with you about. Some have to do with decisiveness, some have to do with humility, but it seems like there are lots of lessons from that point in your life. One of them that you describe, was a significant engineering failure with a locked propeller shaft, and it’s not so much the fact that your propeller shaft locked, what happened, and what did you learn?
Stavridis: We were in the midst of a big engineering inspection, and what the Navy does to make sure that its ships are ready to go to sea, is it sends independent inspectors down, like an inspector general and they send a team down to the ship and they will spend a great deal of time working with your crew. So, we had this engineering team coming aboard, and we started the inspection feeling pretty good about things, and then we got underway, Chuck, and went out to sea, and immediately we had a massive failure in our lubricating oil system, like the–like the oil in your car, and it was contaminated. And so, the procedure is: you stop and lock that shaft because if you keep running the shaft, you’ll destroy the engine, just like if you run the engine in your car without oil in it, it’ll be destroyed. And so, we got underway, we had the casualty, we locked the shaft, and here’s the point: we were then towed back into port. It’s an unbelievable humiliation.
Rosenberg: Everybody’s watching.
Stavridis: Everybody’s watching, the whole waterfront is watching, and I literally went home to my beautiful wife Laura, and said: “sweetie, I’ve just failed the most important inspection of the ship. And tomorrow, I’ll get fired. The commodore will come down and fire me and then—
Rosenberg: –did you actually believe you would be fired?
Stavridis: I absolutely did. And there was plenty of precedent for firing captains who could not deliver the appropriate level of competence. And it was really quite shocking to me. Three things happened. One is: my commodore obviously didn’t fire me. He came down and said: “you know, Stavridis, this is a bad day, but you’ve done really well with the ship over the last year and a half. We’re gonna give you a second chance to take the inspection.” So, I learned the value of second chances.
Rosenberg: And I’m sure gave it to others.
Stavridis: Absolutely. And then, secondly, every day as we rebuilt the engineering plant, the crew would come up to me. You know, I’d be walk around the ship trying to pump them up, but in the end, it was the crew coming up to me, and saying: “captain. We got this.” You don’t get that kind of reaction out of your people unless you’ve invested in them to begin with. And then thirdly, back to this theme of working with your peers, all the captains on the waterfront, over the next couple days, called me up and said: “hey, Jim, bad day. You looked, you know, you looked really bad getting towed back into port.” But very quickly it was a conversation about what can we do to help. Do you need more people? Do you need parts? Whatever we can do to make you successful, this waterfront wants that to happen. So, that’s a result of that peer network that I think again we tend to undervalue in a lot of ways.
Rosenberg: Not just your crew, but the entire Navy.
Stavridis: Exactly. And you know, there is something to that ethos, and it certainly exists in all the services, but in the Navy, we say somebody is a good shipmate, meaning that she’s someone you can count on. And that is what I discovered on that otherwise kind of career-damaging day.
Rosenberg: Well, you almost had another really bad day on the USS Barry again, as captain. There’s a story that you write about in which you are navigating the Suez Canal.
Stavridis: We are on a dead sprint coming out of the Eastern Med to get to the Northern Arabian Gulf as a deterrent against Saddam Hussein, who is moving troops as though he might re-invade Kuwait. We’re with the aircraft carrier George Washington, we’re the escort. We go into the Suez Canal and I’m exhausted. I’ve been up for 36 hours straight. I’ve had 900 cups of coffee. I’m totally dehydrated. And I’m in my chair on the bridge and the Egyptian Navy sends a pilot, which is a retired naval officer who is a local expert to help you get through the canal. Well, this guy got extremely annoyed because we wouldn’t give him “baksheesh,” which is bribes in the Arab world, and we wouldn’t give him cigarettes and money and pay his quote, fee, unquote.
Rosenberg: You tell a funny story in which you offered him a ball cap.
Stavridis: We did.
Rosenberg: Which didn’t impress him.
Stavridis: He refused to touch it. He took his chair out to the bridge wing and sat there and ignored us. So, we were kind of on our own. And so, we got into what’s called the Great Bitter Lake, which is a body of water in the center of the Suez Canal. And you’ve got to pull over into the Great Bitter Lake when you’re coming down from the north to let the southbound traffic come up from the south, and you have a designated Anchorage. So, we pulled over, we’re trying to find our anchorage, and all of a sudden, the pilot wakes up comes in and begins screaming directions at us to go in a certain direction, and head over here, and your assigned Anchorage is at this corner of the Great Bitter Lake. So, I’m thinking: well, maybe he’s come to his senses, and we started moving over there. I was not alert enough because I was so exhausted to really focus on the depth of water there. Fortunately, my navigator, who was a young, 26,27-year old lieutenant, named Rob Chadwick immediately began to say: “Captain, the ship is standing into danger. There’s not enough water there.” And the pilot was screaming: “yes there is I know what I’m doing. This is my body of water. Keep going.” Perhaps because my judgment wasn’t what it should have been, or my acuity, I said: “it’s OK, Rob. We’ll just we’ll go with the pilot. Pilot knows what he’s doing.” And Rob said: “Sir the ship is standing in danger.” Not many junior officers have the backbone to really stand up when the captain’s made a decision like that.
Rosenberg: And by the way, if a locked propeller shaft is a bad day, running aground is much, much worse.
Stavridis: Much worse. In that case, that Commodore would have flown over on a helicopter and fired me on the spot if we’d run aground. So, as we’re headed into this water the pilot wants us to go to, I said: “Rob,” to my navigator, “it’s ok we’ll just go with the pilot.” We went about another 500 yards and the Navigator Lieutenant, Rob Chadwick, said: “this is the navigator. I have the con. All engines back full.”
Rosenberg: He took over the ship.
Stavridis: He took the ship away from me.
Rosenberg: Had that ever happened to you?
Stavridis: Never. It’s pretty much unheard of, but he was so convinced that the ship was going to go aground, that he did what he thought he had to do. And so, I spun around and I kind of said: “Rob, what are you doing?” And at this point, the pilot was furious and stomped back off to the bridge wing, so at that point, I said: OK let’s just drop the anchor, and see exactly where we are. And so, we back down the ship as Rob chose. I ordered releasing the anchor, and then we put our boat in the water and sent it to where the pilot wanted us to go. And it was eight feet too shallow for the USS Barry. So, Lieutenant Rob Chadwick, I’m really proud of this, today, he’s Rear Admiral Rob Chadwick, one star, and he’s been part of my voyage the whole way, but I always say to Rob, “you know, Rob you saved my career that day.”
Stavridis: Quite literally. However, on 9/11, I saved his life as follows: he was down assigned, at the time, in the Navy intelligence center in the Pentagon.
Rosenberg: You were stationed at the Pentagon.
Stavridis: I was, I was a one star at this point, Rob was probably a lieutenant commander. On that morning, I called down and I said: “Rob…” as you remember, 9/11 beautiful morning, everyone’s happy. This is before the first strikes in New York.
Rosenberg: It was a gorgeous day in the Northeast.
Stavridis: It was a gorgeous day. And I called Lieutenant Commander Chadwick and I said: “Rob, come on up and have a cup of coffee with me.” You know, just back to mentoring, staying in touch, finding out what’s going on. He said: “sure, Admiral.” At that point, I was a one-star admiral. So, he came up and was there with me when the airplane hit the Pentagon. And had he stayed in his spaces in the Navy Intelligence Center, he would have been killed. And it’s just one of these twists-of-fate that Rob and I always exchange e-mails on 9/11 as a result of that. And I sort of thank him for saving my career and he thanks me for saving his life.
Rosenberg: You had a sign on your desk on the USS Barry that read: “nothing important ever happens here.” Now, that wasn’t quite true, but you speak about that because it offers an important perspective.
Stavridis: It’s easy to inflate in your own mind, the importance of the individual job you’re doing, whether you are a petty officer working on a missile system, you’re the captain of a destroyer, or you’re the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff–all those are important jobs. But, you have to keep a sense of perspective that allows you to have empathy, to listen to others, to try and operate without ego, and to keep a sense of humor. So, yeah, I know important things happen on an 8,000 ton Arleigh Burke destroyer armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles and standard anti air warfare missiles and a crew of 350. Yeah, a lot of important stuff happens there. But, I kept the sign there to remind me not to let my ego go into overdrive. And I think that’s a pretty good lesson for anybody who’s in command of anything.
Rosenberg: You were gracious to give me a tour of your beautiful home and your library, which is magnificent. But I was struck by one of the paintings in your library of the USS Maine, which was blown up in the Havana harbor on February 15th, 1898, your birthday, not the 1898 part.
Stavridis: Well, I hope not. Sometimes, I feel like it, but yeah…
Rosenberg: But the February 15th part. Well, what’s the lesson of the Maine. It’s a beautiful picture. But why do you have it there?
Stavridis: It is a beautiful picture and yet, anybody in the Navy would look at it and say: “wow, that ship ignominiously blew up and sank at anchor in Havana Harbor. You know, Admiral, why do you have a picture of a ship that blew up in your library?” And in fact, that painting has been with me for almost two decades. And the answer is twofold. I keep the painting there to remind me that your ship can blow up under your feet at any moment, and all of us that is true for. And so, you’ve got to have a plan B. You’ve got to recognize that no matter how well you think things are going all of a sudden, your life can change forever in an instant. You can run aground in the Great Bitter Lake, you can get towed back into port and get fired, your oldest child can have cancer, and it fundamentally changes your life. You got to know that that ship, whatever it is, metaphorically can blow up at any minute. Have a Plan B. And secondly, on the geopolitical side as many of your listeners will know, but I’ll reinforce it, when that ship blew up on February 15th, 1898, the United States media tagged it as a terrorist act, and with complicity from the government and from the Navy, and the story that was brewed about the incident, was that Spanish terrorists–because Spain was the colonial power in Cuba at the time–Spanish terrorists had blown up the Maine. You’ll remember the slogan that got us into the Spanish American War: “remember the Maine.”
Stavridis: We lost several hundred sailors. A number survived, but we went into that war because we knew that Spanish terrorists had blown up that ship.
Rosenberg: We presume to know.
Stavridis: Correct, 1898. In 1948, we, the Navy, went back to salvage the ship, finally got around to it. What we discovered, was that the Maine blew up, not because of an external mine on the side, it blew up internally. There was no sabotage, there was no terrorism–this was some level of incompetence by the ship’s crew. Could have been the powder magazine. There are different theories of what blew up, but clearly, we launched into that war, The Spanish American War, on false information, false intelligence, and the lesson of the Maine, for me, is, not only can your ship blow up at any time, but secondly, stop whenever you see a crisis and gather the facts and take your time before you launch into a metaphorical response in anger and ignorance. And nations have done that over the years again and again and again, and in both my personal life, and in my professional life, I am one to always counsel. Do we really know what we’re doing here before we start that metaphorical war?
Rosenberg: Ironically, remember the Maine has a secondary meaning: it wasn’t just what drove us into the Spanish American War, but it’s a lesson for all policymakers and for all leaders.
Stavridis: Exactly, in today’s world where news moves at the speed of light, it’s even more important that we don’t react to every tweet, we don’t react to every post on Facebook, or Instagram. It’s vital that we slow down, and bring rationality, understanding, a kind of thoughtfulness to what is unfolding before our eyes at speed.
Rosenberg: Lincoln, and I’m paraphrasing him, said: “that to test a person’s character, give that person power.”
Stavridis: If I can give the exact quote because it’s on my desk upstairs in Bakelite with a Lincoln penny attached to it. And this was something else that was always on my desk from the time I was a lieutenant commander, Lincoln said: “all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test demands character, give him power.” I think that’s such a profound comment and it gets back to this idea of leadership versus character.
Rosenberg: Two very different things.
Stavridis: Entirely. Leadership is what we exert over others. I want to lead U.S. Southern Command into better operations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean as a four-star admiral. It’s that external function. And leadership is ethically neutral. Leadership, by Pol Pot, in creating the Cambodian massacres, he was a great leader. In other words, he created the conditions that caused people to follow his insane actions.
Rosenberg: But an awful human being.
Stavridis: And an awful human being, and that’s the character point. Leadership is a tool that you can apply. Character is what’s inside you. It’s how you lead yourself. I often say, not original to me, I think Coach John Wooden said it first.
Rosenberg: The legendary UCLA basketball coach.
Stavridis: Indeed, said: “character is what you do when you think no one is looking. And in today’s world someone is always looking.” I would say if there was one new set of challenges for leaders today, it is, that we’ve talked about one, the acceleration of events, and the other one is transparency. You’re not going to get away with it. Those two things require a higher level of character than leaders have had two events before this.
Rosenberg: In the preface to Sailing True North, your wonderful new book, you write about the slow death of character, is that what you’re referring to?
Stavridis: It is, and I’ll give you a couple of manifestations of that. For me, part of character, as we’ve been talking about, is reading, contemplating, thinking, the importance of building real intellectual capital. People today seem less and less interested to do that. This, of course, is the rise of the Twitter universe. And recently, people in the Twitter-sphere were quite outraged when the maximum tweet went from 140 characters to 280 characters because people said: “I don’t have time to read all those long tweets,” yet 20 years ago, people would read a biography you and I were discussing a moment ago: Robert Caro’s magisterial, multi volume, biography on Lyndon Johnson–
Rosenberg: –stunningly good.
Stavridis: Stunning story of someone who had enormous gifts, enormous character flaws, and how that all played out. But today, are people reading multi volume biographies? When was the last time someone picked up Winston Churchill’s The Second World War, which is a six-volume set, admittedly, but is full of lessons on every page that you would hope leaders would inculcate today.
Rosenberg: I should add: I’ve read all six volumes.
Stavridis: Indeed. Upstairs in my library I have the first edition both British and American first edition and they’re touchstones for me. And when I’m writing something and I get stuck, like we all do, in my, my prose, I’ll pull down at random, Winston Churchill, and just read a couple of pages of Churchill and you hear those, those rhythms. We forget this about Churchill, we think that he was, and he was a marvelous war leader. He also won the Nobel Prize in Literature–pretty remarkable, gifted writer. So, the point is, in today’s world, people are into tweets and skinny little magazine articles and no one’s reading journals anymore. You know, my faculty would be very thrilled when they publish an article in The Journal of nobody actually reads it and I would try and tell them: “no, it’s great. It’s good research. People will read it.” But increasingly, the level of people finding the time to stop, read, think, then to write, then to make decisions, is dwindling in front of us. And thus, I worry.
Rosenberg: It is dwindling, but there is still an appetite for it. I knew it from the feedback. For instance, we get from our listeners, that they spend an hour with incredibly thoughtful people like you, and we don’t scream and we don’t shout and it’s not political it’s just a discussion. And there is still an appetite for that.
Stavridis: No, I think you’re spot on. And new methods of conveying information–and I would put podcasts at the very top because podcasts are something you can do while you’re doing something else–and that’s incredibly necessary in a world in which the flow of information is so overwhelming. So, I think a podcast like this is a gift. And I’m so thrilled to see the number of people who tune in and, and hopefully use it to find ideas about reading, to think about what they should support in the coming election in the United States from a geopolitical perspective. I think all that is important.
Rosenberg: Speaking of leaders, you told me that it was a great privilege in your life to have worked for the Secretary of Defense: Donald Rumsfeld. What kind of leader was he?
Stavridis: So, I was lucky enough to work directly as a combatant commander for four secretaries of defense. I worked for Secretary Rumsfeld, I worked for Secretary Gates, I worked for Secretary Panetta, I worked for Secretary Hagel. I want to stipulate up front: all of them are fine leaders and deep, deep patriots. I want to focus on two of them because I think they’re sort of a contrast in style, so I’m gonna say a word about Secretary Rumsfeld in a word about Secretary Gates.
Stavridis: Secretary Rumsfeld will never see his like again. Here’s a Princeton grad, two sport all American, becomes a congressman, a White House chief of staff, and ambassador to NATO, builds three Fortune 500 companies, is an ambassador again, and then comes back and is a secretary of defense for a second time. To put time into perspective, Don Rumsfeld commissioned me as an ensign along with my 900 classmates in 1976 and he pinned on my fourth star in 2006. So, talk about longevity, experience, hard to top, Secretary Rumsfeld. I’ll tell you three things about working for him: one, it was exhausting. He is the hardest working person I’ve ever seen. He would be in at the crack of dawn. He would stay until late at night. He would take home those big box briefcases you see in the Pentagon and the government, power through paperwork, he never took time off.
Rosenberg: I hope you know you’re also describing Bob Mueller for whom I have the privilege of work.
Stavridis: So, I’ve heard. And you know, there’s something fundamentally attractive about working for a boss who is willing to outwork anybody in the office. And from what I know of Mr. Mueller, and what I certainly know of Secretary Rumsfeld, both of them fit that. The second thing about Rumsfeld, is that he cared so deeply about the country. And part of it was his 1950’s style, and his longevity, and he’d seen the country go through so many wrenching challenges and crises. But, he got up every morning thinking: how can I make the United States of America stronger and more secure? And then number three: Secretary Rumsfeld was incredibly entertaining to be around. He’s just–he’s very funny, he’s very quick witted, he’s got a little bit of a sarcastic edge to him at times. You just kind of liked being around him. Again, having said all that, he could scrape the bark off your tree if you weren’t performing, but I came away with the deepest of respect for, for Secretary Rumsfeld, for whom I worked for over two years.
Rosenberg: You said one of the things you learned from him was to speak and write with simplicity and precision.
Stavridis: Absolutely, and I commend to anybody the book: Rumsfeld’s Rules, which is a very short book which has a whole series of aphorisms in it. Some, attributed to Secretary Rumsfeld, others that he picked up from other people, but he is a very precise speaker and writer. And I’ll give you an example: we all say, “oh yeah Chuck Rosenberg wow what a career he is. He has a really unique career,” except Rumsfeld would say: “well there’s no such thing as really unique. Something is either unique, or it’s not unique. There’s not there’s no radiation in unique.” That would be a Don Rumsfeld thing and he would go through a paper that you wrote and find little words that didn’t make sense. He is a very precise speaker. Another way to put it is, you never got a free one around Secretary Rumsfeld. He was always perfectly happy if you said: “I don’t know. Let me find out.” He really didn’t like it when you just took a guess.
Rosenberg: That was a lesson I learned as a federal prosecutor: that it was always okay to tell a federal judge in response to her question: “I don’t know I will find out.” It was never OK to guess.
Stavridis: Totally agree with that. And in fact, I should’ve learned that, not from Don Rumsfeld as a 40-year old, I should learn that more completely at the Naval Academy where you’re told your plebe year that there are only five responses to any question you’re asked by the upper class: yes sir, no sir, I’ll find out sir, and a couple of others, but it’s basically you can’t guess. Do not guess because guessing in combat can lead to very bad outcomes. And then, the other secretary that I work with the most closely, and for whom I have boundless admiration is Secretary Gates, who famously was came from being at the very bottom of the CIA to eventually become the director of the CIA, and then also, famously, was secretary of defense for both the Democratic and Republican administration. He’s a radical centrist, he believes in working together, he believes in finding pragmatic solutions, he’s so honest, so incisive, he has a peace PHD in Russian studies, he’s brilliant, personally. And the thing I also like about him–back to mentoring–is that he is always willing to stop and help those that he’s mentoring. I’ll give you a very practical example: when I finished up as the supreme allied commander of NATO after four years, my career was completed. There was really no further job to do, and so I said to Secretary Gates: “well, what do you think I ought to do next Mr. Secretary?” And I’d been going around and asking all my members you know, “what do you think I ought to do?” And everybody else immediately had a plan for Stavridis. Everyone else said: “oh, you got to go run General Dynamics or Lockheed Martin and go work in the defense industry, you could run one of the Primes.” Others would say: “you want to get into private equity like General Petraeus, you ought to go to Wall Street. Man, you can make a lot of money doing stuff like that.” Everyone had a theory of the case. Only Gates said: “well, Stavridis, what kept you in the Navy for 35 years? Why just stay in? Maybe that’ll help you think about what you want to do next.” What a great question. You know, I realize there are a lot of things I liked about the Navy. I liked, you know, wearing snappy uniforms, I like travelling the world, I liked serving my nation in combat, I liked taking the oath, I liked all those things. I liked the sea, I like being a sailor on the ocean. But the thing I loved, was mentoring young people, was helping them in the trajectory of their lives. So, I said all that to Secretary Gates and he snapped his fingers literally, and he said: “education, you should become an educator.” And we forget this about Secretary Gates, you know, famously, he ran the CIA, famously. He was secretary of defense. What did he do in the middle for 10 years? He was the president of Texas A&M, one of the largest universities in the country as part of that tour. He was also the dean of the Bush School at Texas A&M. So, he knew higher education, and he then helped me find the position of dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, which we’ve discussed. And that’s the kind of mentorship in care. I then did five years there. Even today, when I need help or advice or a recommendation, Secretary Gates: top of my list. And he will answer within two hours on email. He really cares about people deeply.
Rosenberg: But isn’t it interesting, he didn’t tell you what to do, he asked you some questions that led you to the answer.
Stavridis: Exactly. All very Yoda-like. But it certainly worked, and I had a wonderful, wonderful, five-year experience in higher-ed. And then, you know, the logical question would be: well, okay, Admiral, so maybe why did you leave.” And the answer is, you know, we only get so many acts in our lives. I think of my life as kind of like a shelf of books and you know, the first book is about growing up in Greece, and a second book is Annapolis, and the third really thick book, is this time in the Navy with a lot of chapters, and I finished that book in higher education. I loved it, it was five years of working with young people, but I was ready to work on a new book. And so, that led me to complete my time there, and move on to my new work.
Rosenberg: I have a sense there a lot of books left there, Jim.
Stavridis: The one that just came out: Sailing True North, is my ninth book. What I’m working on now, I’m glad everybody is sitting down, I’m working on a novel about a war in the South China Sea, or more accurately, a war that starts in the South China Sea. And unfortunately, I started conceptualizing and working on this novel a year and a half, almost two years ago, and sadly, it’s looking less like a novel and more like a non-fiction book every single day. Now, let’s hope, the big, strategic muscle movements, ultimately and I think they will, will drive the United States and China into a modus vivendi in this 21st century, but it would be dangerously easy to stumble into a new cold war with China, or god forbid, a hot war. So, this novel is a cautionary tale. It’s not long, it’s not Tom Clancy, it’s not high-tech, whiz bang, what the war would be like. It’s how we could stumble into it and what the consequences would be.
Rosenberg: When might we expect that?
Stavridis: The book will be completed–I have a contract for it with Penguin Press, Random House, my publisher–and it will be completed this fall, and thus, will come out about a year from now.
Rosenberg: You alluded to NATO, and I can’t let this conversation go without speaking a little bit more about NATO. For one, you are the only admiral in American history to serve as the supreme allied commander of NATO. Historically, a job that went to four-star Army generals. How did this happen?
Stavridis: This is why the title of my memoir of NATO days, and those four years, is called: The Accidental Admiral, because I was originally slated, if you will, to go to the Pacific Command.
Rosenberg: A traditional naval command.
Stavridis: Exactly, has always been a Navy admiral throughout its history. Honolulu, I know the Pacific extremely well over half my career spent in the Pacific, so I was quite happy with all of that. That job, Pacific Command, would have been like getting in the Jacuzzi. It just would have been so comfortable and everything that I had learned would have been terrific.
Rosenberg: Tell us the story of how you ended up going to NATO.
Stavridis: Secretary Gates came up with this idea, and his view was, although I was an admiral, and although I had never served in NATO, and although I had never actually had a tour–a military tour in Europe, I did have things going for me. I spoke French and Spanish, French is the other official language of the alliance. I knew the maritime world associated with NATO operations extremely well. I had been with Secretary Rumsfeld at every NATO meeting, high level meeting, for two and a half years, and Secretary Gates felt as though it was time to shake things up at NATO. So, he wanted, if you will, a really fresh set of eyes, and so he picked me. So, that was the initial aspect to it and he told me: “okay, Stavridis: you’re gonna go to Europe and go to NATO,” and I said–I was like a little kid, eight years old–I said: “but I don’t want to go to NATO. I want to go to Pacific Command. That’s where admirals go, I really don’t want to go there, Mr. Secretary.” And so, we went back and forth on that, and he said: “look, we really want you to go to NATO.” And I said: “I just don’t think it’s the right job for me, I don’t think I’d do a particularly good job there because I don’t know enough about NATO.” And he said: “OK fine. Why don’t we go to the White House and you can tell the president you don’t want to be the supreme allied commander of NATO.” And I think he thought that would probably sort of rock me back as it probably should have, and that I would say: “Oh OK.” But I said: “no, that’s fine, I’ll tell the president. I’d rather go to the Pacific.” So, we, you know, dutifully went over there, and I saw President Obama and we walked into the Oval Office, and President Obama got up from behind the desk, there, and he walked over to me, and he stuck out his hand and he said: “Jim, I just want to thank you for accepting that position of supreme allied commander of NATO.” And so, Gates had totally hoodooed me. At that point, my resolve broke, and I said: “thank you Mr. President, I’m honored to serve.”
Rosenberg: As you must.
Stavridis: As you must. You know, what are you gonna do with the president standing there? You know, it’s one thing that kind of push back a little bit anyway on the secretary defense, but when the president tells you this is where you’re going, OK fine, that’s where you’re going.
Rosenberg: Well, you spoke earlier in our conversation about orders, an order from the president.
Stavridis: You have to always balance the question of whether you can do the right job for the president. And I think what you owe a president is your honest opinion, and I gave it, I suppose, through Secretary Gates, that you know, I I’m flattered to be considered for NATO, but I’m you know there are officers who’ve served multiple tours in Europe and have two or three assignments in NATO. I think you owe that, but then you know if you’re absolutely ordered to go somewhere, I think it becomes incumbent upon you to do so.
Rosenberg: What is NATO?
Stavridis: NATO is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It was founded right after the Second World War
Stavridis: Correct, and thus, just celebrated a big anniversary. If I could boil it all down, NATO was founded to keep the Russians out, to keep the Americans in, and to keep the Germans down. The idea of it was by creating this collective security arrangement, you have a bulwark against Russia dominating Western Europe. You avoid a resurgence of German nationalism, which has plunged Europe into massive wars for almost 100 years leading up to the Second World War going back to 1870 in the Franco-Prussian War, and it would bind America to Europe, and I would argue it has succeeded magnificently in those three things. When the Cold War ended, a lot of people said: “well, that’s the end of NATO, we don’t need anybody to keep the Russians out.” And for a while, we kind of thought that. And then, what we discovered–the collective “we,” all of us in the international security world–is that, you know, Russia still kind of dangerous. And also, we discover, terrorism and 9/11, and that’s what led us to Afghanistan. And by the way, the essence of NATO is Article 5, which says: “an attack on one nation will be regarded as an attack on all the nations.”
Rosenberg: And by the way, today, it has twenty-nine member nations. At its founding, it was only a dozen
Stavridis: Correct. And only once in the entire history of NATO has that Article 5 been evoked and it was during 9/11 by the United States, and our European allies not only stood and delivered, they sent ships across the Atlantic, they sent aircraft across the Atlantic. They did everything they could to deal tactically with the fallout of 9/11 in the United States, but vastly more importantly, they came with us to Afghanistan. By the time I was Supreme Allied commander in NATO, as I mentioned, I had 150,000 NATO troops under my command there, via General John Allen, and about 100,000 U.S. and 50,000 European, and sometimes people say to me: “oh you know those Europeans they don’t really carry their load. It’s all about the U.S.” That’s not my experience. In Afghanistan, in Libya, in the Balkans, in counter piracy, in cyber, in Syria, in Iraq, above all, in Afghanistan, I saw the Europeans again and again step up and deliver. In nations like Denmark, for example, on a per capita basis, have higher killed-in-action ratios than the United States does percentage of population. Denmark only has 5 million people. We, of course, have 340,000,000. If you look at the number of Danes killed as a percentage, way up there. Estonia, same thing. Canada, same thing. They stood and delivered with us after an attack on us. We need to recognize that this is still an amazing deal for us. It is an asset for us to be in that alliance.
Rosenberg: So, even if the mission of NATO has changed, in your view, Jim, its value endures.
Stavridis: Absolutely. And I’ll give you–I use the points of the compass to kind of describe this: to the north the Arctic. Here we have Russia on one side of the Arctic Ocean, on the other side five NATO nations: United States, Canada, Denmark, by virtue of Greenland, Iceland, and Norway. We need allies in the Arctic where the ice is melting, newsflash, and we are going to have to operate up there, surveil up there, and balance Russia to the south the ongoing chaos in Iraq, Syria, Libya, are going to demand collective responses. To the east, we see Russia continue to press on the borders of the alliance, and to the west, I’ll figuratively say that that trans-Atlantic zone where our trade occurs, not only is Russia physically moving, there but in cyber. We are going to need allies in the cyber world. So, it is not a one-way street. Could the Europeans spend more on defense? Yes, but had they stood and delivered in blood and treasure? Boy they sure have.
Rosenberg: We alluded to our mutual fondness for Churchill earlier. He once wrote that there is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and this is to fight without them.
Stavridis: Incredibly true. And I think we are focusing on NATO at the moment, but we ought to also point out that we have marvelous allies in the Pacific. We have a network of allies: Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Singapore, increasingly close with the Philippines, we have a little bit of a controversial figure leading it, but Vietnam is coming closer to us. This network of allies, partners, and friends–it’s not a Pacific NATO, exactly, but increasingly as China seeks to spread its wings, control the narrative, build this one belt one road, and above all, simply, take the South China Sea, as Chinese territorial waters, we’re going to need those allies in the Pacific just as surely as we need them in NATO in the Atlantic.
Rosenberg: Where does NATO go from here?
Stavridis: I’ll give you a three big things NATO Ought to be focusing on in terms of its future. Number one, is cyber and cyber operations. Increasingly, not only Russia traditional NATO opponent, but China are engaging with the European community and the United States in cyber. So, we need collective defense in that world, particularly as offensive cyber tools begin to rise to the level of nuclear capabilities. Cyber is becoming increasingly strategic level concern. So, no one is cyber. Number two, is building more partnerships outside of the North Atlantic. So, I would say, while we’re not going to change the treaty, we ought to be thinking about how can we build a deep partnership with Australia, with Japan, with some of the Gulf states, with Columbia. There are some really attractive international partners who can be, kind of, woven into the fabric of NATO because I think the construct of it is so powerful. And then thirdly, I think the Arctic–I think that it’s important that we recognize there is going to be, let’s hope, a minimum of competition in the Arctic, but let us hope it does not become a conflict in the Arctic. But, we’ve got to be ready to operate in that very unforgiving environment. So, those are three, if you will, growth, areas for NATO. I think the mission in Afghanistan is going to continue, although at a diminished level. Recently, we saw the president announce he intends to keep almost 9,000 American troops there. If he does that, the Europeans will keep probably 4000 troops there, and there’ll be a special operations force, there’ll be counterterrorism–that NATO mission I think will continue for the foreseeable future. And then lastly, the deterrence mission against Russia. So, counterterrorism, deterrence against Russia, kind of traditional—cyber, the Arctic, new partners internationally–those are the growth areas for NATO.
Rosenberg: You write in your new book, Sailing True North, NATO is a proving ground for empathy.
Stavridis: When you go into NATO, particularly as the American supreme allied commander, and you look at your illustrious predecessors, starting with, then, General, later President Eisenhower, you can quickly begin to feel as though you’ve got all the answers. You know, you are representing the most powerful nation in the alliance, and you are going to swing that bat pretty hard to make sure the alliance does what you want.
Rosenberg: You will work your will on the alliance.
Stavridis: You will work your will on the alliance. Boy, it doesn’t work that way, as Admiral Stavridis discovered. NATO operates by consensus, which means the smallest nation can effectively say: “you know what? We’re not going to continue that mission in Afghanistan.” You’ve got to get, in today’s world all 29 nations to agree. Some of them as small as Montenegro, Iceland, medium sized ones, even like, Bulgaria, Romania, you know, they don’t come to the table of the alliance bringing massive military capability, but they have that power of consensus, and can therefore, put a real spoke in the bicycle wheel. So, as a leader of the alliance, as Supreme Allied Commander, you had to slow down, and go see the Bulgarians, and understand what their concerns were. And you had to spend time going to Iceland, and going out on little Icelandic patrol boats, you had to go to Croatia and see why they’re so concerned about incursion from Serbia on the edges of the alliance. You needed empathy, and to create empathy, you have to learn about them, you have to read novels, you have to read biography, history, geography. Two examples of that would be reading Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, about the history of the wars in the Balkans. We still have 5-6,000 NATO troops in the Balkans. When I was Supreme Allied Commander I had 5-6,000 NATO troops in the Balkans because of the ongoing conflict between Kosovo and Serbia. You have to read history like Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan, you should read a few novels, read TheBridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić,
which is a novel set in Bosnia, Herzegovina, about the collision of Muslim Croat Serbs. You’ve got to build intellectual capital. Every time I flew somewhere, I would go with books that my team pulled for me and read, read, read that helps you build empathy when you arrive on the ground. And you can say: Iceland world’s oldest democracy. Did you know that?
Rosenberg: I did not.
Stavridis: Not many people do. People tend to think it’s the United States of America. No–they’ve got us by about a thousand years. You know, and there are arguments about what exactly a democracy is, but empathy, when you go to these countries, and that empathy stems from knowledge and building, understanding, and listening
Rosenberg: And I imagine for any good leader, it’s not just empathy, but also, it’s: ability, humility, and a willingness to listen.
Stavridis: It’s absolutely right. When I talk about in various speeches about what is the number one attribute that could create global security–and I use images when I speak–and I’ll challenge the audience: “what do you think the next image is going to be?” You know, to create global security, and most of them will say: “well, it’ll be an aircraft carrier coming right at you.” The next picture is a picture of a Belgian air defense system from the 1930s, where the man is listening with two enormous cones for incoming aircraft. It’s there as a metaphor for the fact that the number one job of any leader, my view, is listening, which is empathy, which creates civility and good humor along the way.
Rosenberg: The ability to listen is also an admission that other people may have information necessary to you that you don’t have all the answers.
Stavridis: Correct. If you look at the United States today, the number one national security threat is the inability of our branches of government in our parties to listen to each other, and you know, we’ve got to listen better to our partners inside the United States. We’ve got to listen better to our allies and partners outside the United States. The South Koreans have forgotten more than we will ever know about Kim Jong-un, yet we don’t spend enough time listening to their assessments of what’s going on in the north, for example. So, we got to listen to allies, partners, and friends. And here’s the hard one, Chuck, we’ve got to listen to our opponents. We’ve got to understand why China honestly truly thinks that, without question, they ought to own the South China Sea as a territorial sea. They have a coherent, in their view, narrative, historically grounded in the voyages of Admiral Jin, who we ought to understand that, it doesn’t mean we’re going to agree with it. But we all understand it. We have to understand why Vladimir Putin brazenly invades Ukraine and annexes Crimea, and he has a, in his view, a very coherent historical narrative that goes back a thousand years through the Russian Empire. Again, doesn’t mean we have to agree, but we can make better decisions if we understand the intensity with which others believe in what underpins their beliefs.
Rosenberg: The last chapter in your book: The Accidental Admiral is entitled “Going Ashore,” and it’s your shortest chapter. And in it, you write about leaving, of course, leaving the Navy, leaving the service that you loved, but you do it metaphorically. And you talk about the three different uniforms that you wore and how each of the three played a role in going ashore. Can you talk about that?
Stavridis: So, in the Navy, there are three principal uniforms you wear. You wear a Service Dress Blue. I think most Americans would kind of identify that as a Navy officer. You wear khakis, which are short-sleeved working uniform on ships, and you wore whites, choker whites, like An Officer and A Gentleman. Richard Gear ends up wearing the choker whites as he carries his beloved off into the sunset. All three of those uniforms have distinct meaning and place for any naval officer. So, what I talk about in that final chapter is, I put on my Service Dress Blue to pay a farewell call on the president of the United States, who is gracious enough to receive me.
Rosenberg: President Obama.
Stavridis: President Obama, and I went and we had a very warm conversation about NATO and the future of NATO and he said many kind things about my service, and I was in the right uniform–I was in the most formal uniform we have with the president that I had served.
Secondly, I was lucky enough that my daughter Julia, a proud Georgetown graduate, was graduating in the NROTC unit and was about to be commissioned as a young officer in the Navy. So, I put on my choker whites, it was a very hot summer’s day, and I went and administered the oath of office subject a part of this wonderful Podcast the oath of office–
Rosenberg: –to her class.
Stavridis: To her entire class a midshipman at Georgetown, George Washington, all of the universities in Washington.
Rosenberg: You led that Naval ROTC corps on the oath just as you had taken it yourself so many years ago.
Stavridis: Exactly. Exactly. I state your name, do solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. You know this well. So, in my choker whites, I was proud to hand that legacy off to my daughter and I gave her my sword, my naval officer sword on that field, and we did it in front of the Iwo Jima Memorial and I had only one uniform left to wear and it was the uniform I’d worn the most, which is khakis. That’s what you wear day to day when you’re on a warship. Every time you’re out at sea, you put on a pair of khakis.
Rosenberg: Nine and a half years.
Stavridis: Nine and a half years at sea, and you wear it every day in Port, too. So, every day, I was assigned to a ship. When you add all of that up, would have been 12-15 years, I put on a pair of khakis. So, I came here to Mayport, Florida, which is my hometown. I went down and asked just take a tour on an early bird destroyer, the precise class of ship that I commanded and I put my khakis on it and went walking through that ship
Rosenberg: The USS Carney.
Stavridis: USS Carney, named for a former chief of naval operations someone I admire. I had a wonderful tour around the ship and then I had lunch in the boardroom with all those junior officers wearing their khakis and I realized: it was OK for me to go ashore. Because the nation was strong, commander in chief, my family was strong, and still serving, and our Navy was strong. And so, as that visit ended, I stood on the quarter deck of the ship and they did, Chuck, what they called “render honors.” They ring the appropriate number of bells for your rank. Obviously, a four-star admiral is the highest rank. They ring eight bells, so they rang eight bells and he said: “Admiral the United States Navy departing.” And that was my last day on active duty in the U.S. Navy. So, after wearing that set of khakis and going ashore for the final time, I wrote a sentence to summarize how I felt: “I will miss being a member of the U.S. military, and especially I will miss the Navy, the ships, the sailors, and the boundless sea. I will miss putting on those uniforms: whites, blues, and khakis: the cloth of my nation. I shall miss it terribly.”
Rosenberg: Jim Stavridis: retired Navy four-star admiral. It is an honor and a privilege to spend some time with you. Thank you.
Stavridis: It is my honor to spend time with a friend, a colleague, and a fellow taker of the oath. Thank you, Chuck.
Rosenberg: Thank you, Jim.
Thanks to Jim Stavridis for joining us today on The Oath and for having us to his beautiful home outside of Jacksonville, Florida. Jim is the author of four books, his most recent book: Sailing True North, has just been published, and is a wonderful read. You can also see Jim on MSNBC where he works as a national security and military analyst. If you like this episode, please let us know by leaving us a five-star rating on whatever app you use to listen. And if you have any thoughtful criticism, feedback, or questions about this episode, or others, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s all one word: email@example.com. Though I cannot personally respond to every email, please know that I read each one of them, and I definitely appreciate it.
The Oath is a production of NBC News and of MSNBC. This podcast was produced by FannieCo, with Fannie Cohen, Nic Bannon and Rob Hebert. They’re a wonderful team. Lauren Chadwick and Laurel Hyneman provided production support. Our senior producer is Barbara Raab and Steve Lickteig is our Executive Producer.
This is The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg, thank you so very much for listening.