Adm. James Stavridis, who retired in July, ran both U.S. European Command and U.S. Southern Command — the first admiral in either post. He speaks four languages and says he's working on his fifth. (Thomas Kienzle / AP)
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Stavridis earned the nickname “Zorba” in his Naval Academy days — a reference to the outgoing and energetic character at the heart of the 1964 movie “Zorba the Greek.” “I think my classmates at the Naval Academy found that to be a pretty good portrait of me,” Stavridis said.
Over the past 41 years, Adm. James Stavridis has been there, done that — and written the book.
He ascended to the military’s heights — heading up U.S. Southern Command and then serving as Supreme Allied Commander Europe — before retiring in July.
He has written five books, including a revealing memoir of his days commanding a destroyer. Stavridis is now working on a memoir titled “The Accidental Admiral” — a reference to his being chosen to head commands typically led by generals.
At SACEUR, Stavridis was cited for misuse of military travel by the Pentagon’s inspector general. The Navy’s top civilian cleared him of personal misconduct, but those issues reportedly blocked him from consideration for the military’s top post as chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Stavridis is now concerned that America’s enemies will converge into vicious new threats: narco-subs that carry bombs and terror cells funded by human trafficking. He will continue to assess such threats in his new job as head of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Stavridis, 58, spoke to Military Times in July. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity.
Q. How will U.S. forces in Europe adapt as the nation’s focus shifts to the Pacific?
A. NATO and Europe continue to be critically important to the United States. We share our values of democracy and liberty and freedom of speech. We are each other’s largest trading partners. The geography of Europe continues to be critically important. Some people say, “Why do you still have all those Cold War bases in Europe?” My response is that those are not bastions of the Cold War. Those are the forward-operating stations of the 21st century. So that geography — which allows us to get to North Africa, get to the near Middle East — is crucial.
As our country grapples with debt issues, some believe it’s time to reduce the size of the military’s European garrisons. How do you respond to that?
A. Let’s keep the size of that European footprint in perspective. We’ve come down from almost 400,000 troops to 60,000 troops. So it’s come down about 75 percent. So it’s a relatively small footprint, and I think it’s still very much value in terms of security for the United States. There may be some further room for reductions, but I think at the moment what we have at the moment feels about right.
You’ve published articles at every rank in your career. Have you ever gotten blowback?
A. Yes, on several occasions I’ve been told I need to stay in my lane, that I was pushing the edge of the envelope. I wrote about what I called “Air-Sea Battle.” I originally wrote about that in 1992, when I was a student at the National War College, and got a lot of pushback on that. So you take chances. You write. But overall, I think that’s an obligation to share your ideas. It’s how we move forward with innovation.
Q. What opportunities does the thawing of the Arctic Ocean offer for the U.S.?
A. The Arctic is one of the great frontiers that remains and it’s crucial that we ensure that the Arctic becomes a zone of cooperation and does not become a zone of conflict or competition. The way to do that is to work within the Arctic Council, and it’s also crucial that we maintain a very open dialogue with other key Arctic nations, four of whom are in NATO and the other is Russia. And I would advocate that our Navy and Coast Guard continue to build capability to operate in the Arctic.
Q. As far as how to be a surface warfare officer, you’ve literally written the books. If you could change anything about the surface Navy, what would it be?
A. I think we should be more innovative. I think we have to be. Because we’re in an era of declining resources, and I think we need to be unafraid of and embrace change. That means listening to more junior people, who often have the best ideas, trying new things, building innovation cells on our ships, and trying to merge technology and tactics and procedures in new and innovative ways.