Transcript: James Stavridis on “Intelligence Matters”

In this episode of the “Intelligence Matters” podcast, host Michael Morell speaks with retired four-star U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, who also served as the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and was dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Morell and Stavridis discuss the value of alliances and the strategic foreign policy challenges facing the United States. They also discuss the importance of character and excerpts of Adm. Stavridis’ new book, “Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character.”

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Highlights

  • On case of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher: “That these particular cases and other cases dealing with war crimes are best adjudicated by the military, because they occur in the crucible of combat. For a president or any other very senior official to reach into that mix I think is a mistake. Most recently, in the case of Chief Gallagher, we saw the president reach in and say, “No, you can keep that Trident pin, you get to stay a member of the community,” it would have been far better for him to let a panel of SEALs make that judgment. I think that was a mistake.”
  • On value of alliances: “I do not want to see ‘America First’ turn into ‘America Alone.’ It has not yet, and America First is okay as an idea. Certainly, we want to put our country first, but not at the expense of these alliances…By using alliances, by recognizing that no one of us, no one nation, no one person, no one leader, no one of us is as smart as all of us thinking together, using that approach, we can create the sum of all security in the 21st century.”
  • On cohesive interagency process: “We are so much stronger as a nation when the CIA, the FBI, the DOJ, the DEA, the Department of Defense, Department of State, when we are working and pulling together as an interagency. Again, that’s how you create the sum of all security, not allowing little stovepipes to stand.”

INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – ADMIRAL JAMES STAVRIDIS

HOST: MICHAEL MORELL

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS, JAMIE BENSON

MICHAEL MORELL:

Jim, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It is great to see you, and it is great to have you on the show.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Michael, it’s great to be with you, as always.

MICHAEL MORELL:

You’ve recently written a book. It’s called Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character. What’s the book about? And why did you write it?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Let me start with what it’s not about. It’s not a book of leadership. You know, leadership, Michael, as you know quite well from having led the CIA, leadership is this

kind of big door that swings. It influences others. But that huge door swings on this little hinge called the human heart. That’s where your character resides.

So the book is not about the big door of leadership. It’s about the small hinge of character. I wanted to write it, because I think we are awash in books of leadership. There are far too many, in my view. But we are underweight in books that examine character. Lastly, here’s a novel concept, write what you know about. I know about the ocean, I know about admirals, and so I chose to take ten admirals, look at their challenges, their character, their success and their failure, and frame this discussion of character through these ten admirals. Hence, the subtitle, Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character.

MICHAEL MORELL:

What’s your favorite story?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

My favorite story in the entire book is the story of Chester Nimitz, when he takes command of the vaunted Pacific Fleet days after Pearl Harbor. His command is literally smoking in the water in front of him. Bodies are being pulled out of U.S.S. Arizona. The carriers are out at sea dodging the Japanese.

He squares his shoulders, takes command not in a beautiful set of service dress whites on the deck of a battleship, because they’re all sunk. He takes command standing on the deck of a diesel submarine. He’s wearing a set of khakis. And he builds a team, he resolutely faces these challenges. He subsumes the enormous egos of people like Douglas MacArthur and Bull Halsey. It’s a story of resilience.

By the end of the war, he sees the beautiful battleship Missouri where the surrender of the Japanese empire is sunk. In a certain sense, for the Navy in the Pacific, it’s a

tale of two battleships, Arizona sunk at the beginning, Missouri at the end.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And his character that you examined was resilience?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

It is. He is the epitome of resilience. And he’s a funny story in and of himself. Here’s this German American from inland Texas, place called Fredericksburg, Texas, who wants to go to West Point, and ends up through a circuitous path at the Naval Academy and becomes the greatest admiral in American history, who leads us through this epoch, Second World War. He’s the brilliant mind behind the Battle of Midway. Really an extraordinary story of resilience in the face of what ought to feel like defeat.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Where does character come from?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

I’d say it comes from three things. One is,

if you’re lucky enough to be born into a family where your parents early on begin to instill in you the ideas that there are things that are bigger than just yourself. I think secondly, it comes from our education and the choices we make as we go along in our youth.

The education and especially the reading that we do. I think in the end, we are the sum of the books we read in so many ways. Then thirdly, most obviously, character comes from collision with real life. You saw that yourself at the Agency again and again and again. I saw it in the military, but it’s true in every walk of life. There’ll be defeats. There’ll be moments of exhalation and extraordinary victory. There’ll be deep, deep troughs of despair. Character is what gets you through them all.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Jim, you talk about many admirable qualities of admirals.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Indeed.

MICHAEL MORELL:

But you also talk about some negative qualities. In particular, you talk about the anger, temper of Hyman Rickover. Why did you choose to do that?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

In the broader sense, I think any discussion of character is incomplete without registering failures of character. Rickover’s anger, the ruthlessness of Sir Francis Drake, the occasional bursts of egocentricity from Sir Jackie Fisher. But Admiral Hyman Rickover I think is in many ways the most interesting case study of what today we would call a toxic leader.

He was angry constantly. He was demeaning of his subordinates. He was constantly prodding them, but in very difficult, unpleasant ways. I met him when I was a young midshipman, and frankly, I just tried to

stay out of his line of sight. Yet, he was decisive. He pursued a goal, bringing the Navy into the nuclear age. Without those qualities of anger, could he have achieved as much? It’s an interesting discussion.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah, I was going to ask you that. Did he succeed in creating the nuclear Navy because of that character or in spite of it?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

I think, in his case, because of it. But I want to make a point here. Nine times out of ten, if a leader chooses that angry, lose your temper, toxic kind of approach, nine times out of ten, you will fail. Because your subordinates in the end will not support you and carry you over the line.

Rickover was that 10%, maybe it’s even 1%, who can use that spur of anger to create a decisive outcome. I think what differentiated him were two things. One is, the vastness of his goal. He did inspire

people with this crazy idea. Think about it.

To put a nuclear reactor on a submarine, send it to the bottom of the sea. How do you make it fit, just at the very prosaic level. Then secondly, in addition to the vastness of his vision, it was his own willingness to drive himself perhaps harder than he drove his subordinates. And people see that.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And he was as hard on himself as he was on them.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Exactly. I think if you have those two things, you can perhaps use that anger. I wouldn’t recommend it. My belief here, switching to leadership away from character for a moment is that, in the workplace, and I know this is how you ran the Agency, it is not a place for anger. Because anger injects confusion. And the job in the end of a leader is to create order out of chaos, not the other way around.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Jim, I want to get to some questions about current events, but let me ask a couple questions about your career. Thirty-seven years in the Navy. Congratulations on that. That’s remarkable, and thank you for your service.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Well, let me reply, thank you for your service and 33 years with the Central Intelligence Agency.

MICHAEL MORELL:

What got you interested in serving your country? And what got you interested in the Navy?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Both questions, the answer is my father. It was sort of the family business. I grew up in the U.S. Marine Corps. My father was a career officer. From my earliest age, I remember my father putting on his uniform, going off to work. He deployed to Korea

before I was born, and then to Vietnam after I was born.

I gained from him a desire to serve the country, and I actually, Michael, went off to Annapolis thinking I wanted to be just like my dad and be a U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer. Because as you know, the Naval Academy produces both Marines and Navy officers.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And you make a choice, right, at some point?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

You do. Later on. You typically don’t decide until your third year at Annapolis. My whole first year, I remained very committed and convinced to this idea of becoming a Marine infantry officer. And then in the summers, and the summer after your freshman year, your plebe year at Annapolis, they send everybody out to see on a ship.

They sent me to San Diego, California, and I’d never been on a ship. I’d never gone

underway. I’d never been out of sight of land. They put me on this beautiful cruiser, and we were headed West at sunset, coming out of San Diego. I walked up on the bridge, and I was like St. Paul on the road to Damascus. I mean, everything changed for me, and I knew I wanted to be a sailor. I went back and explained that to my infantry officer dad. He got over it. He got over it about 25 years later, when I pinned on my first star. That’s when he finally got over it.

MICHAEL MORELL:

What do you think it says about kids who want to follow their parents in their career?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

It says that that’s a pretty good job of parenting, and invariably I find in strong families where the parents are themselves admirable and are part of this voyage of character for their children, in many, many

cases, the children choose to follow. I’m very proud to say, my daughter Julia is a proud Navy nurse, lieutenant in the Navy, had a wonderful run. She’s the fourth generation in our family to serve in the U.S. military.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Wow, that’s terrific. Jim, what are the key lessons that you learned about U.S. foreign policy and national security from 37 years in the Navy?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Number one, the value of alliances for the United States throughout the world. And I think we are unfortunately in an era where there’s skepticism, particularly coming out of the White House and specifically, let’s be honest, from President Trump, who tends to see things as very transactional.

I think the NATO alliance is a pretty good example of good value for money. Our alliances in the Pacific with Japan, South

Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand. As is the case in life, so often we are greater than the sum of the parts when we stand together. Top of my list in this post World War II era in which we still exist are our alliance systems.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And you led the military component of the most important.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Thank you. I did and loved every minute of it. And as we’re doing this podcast, we’re running up to a NATO summit. And I think that we must cherish that NATO alliance. And it has fresh challenges ahead of it. It has enormous resources behind it, and it is good value for money.

Alliances, and then secondly, as a nation, I believe we stand for something. You know, there’s always this dichotomy, this tension, if you will, in American foreign policy between idealism and realism. Neither pole

is entirely where you want to park the country.

But when we find our way more on the side of idealism, and we are a beacon of hope, that I think is a powerful force in international relations. And third, and finally, we are a nation of immigrants. And my own family came from Greece in the earlier part of the 20th century. And I always say, as I look at these immigrant populations that are thinking about trying to come to the United States. And unfortunately, there’s sometimes a tendency to say, well, we’re too crowded, the inn is full. I don’t think so.

I’ll put it this way, Michael. Think about a Syrian refugee family. How much courage and true grit and ingenuity and energy does it take to put your two-year-old daughter on your back, grab your four-year-old son’s hand, and walk across Turkey and walk across the Balkans, and somehow make it to Germany? It’s like the Hunger Games. I want those

people on my team. And so often that immigrant journey for the country is I think a powerful force for the United States in international relations. There’s three things that I think matter.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Alliances, standing for something bigger than ourselves, and immigration, all three being challenged today.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

They are, and I think it’s important to note that, in the long throw of what we’re trying to do as a nation, we sail against those three elements at our peril. I do not want to see America First turn into America Alone. It has not yet, and America First is okay as an idea. Certainly, we want to put our country first, but not at the expense of these alliances.

MICHAEL MORELL:

The reason we have these alliances is because they benefit us.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Exactly right. And people would often say to me about NATO, for example, “Where’s the value in NATO? You know, those freeloading Europeans.” Hey, let’s do the numbers. The U.S. defense budget is $600 billion. As you well know, the Russian defense budget is about $80 billion, and the Chinese is probably $200– $220 billion. How much do those, quote, “freeloading Europeans,” unquote, spend on defense? They spend $310 billion, more than Russia and China combined.

Should they spend 2% of GDP as the president pushes them? Absolutely. But they are collectively the second-largest defense budget in the world. That’s a huge plus for us. And by the way, when you add our other allies, like Japan, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and their defense budgets–

MICHAEL MORELL:

South Korea.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Exactly. We outpace Russia and China pretty close to five to one in defense spending. That’s a good place to be, and we wouldn’t be there without our allies, for example.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Jim, you were, as far as I know, the only person who was vetted as a possible VP candidate for Secretary Clinton in 2016, and then considered for a cabinet position in the Trump administration.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

I was.

MICHAEL MORELL:

How does that happen?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

I was invited to Trump Tower. First of all, I kind of think of that as two bullets whizzing by my head. But I think it happens because of something very important about our military and our intelligence services and our foreign service, which is that, we

are all resolutely apolitical.

I’m a registered independent. I have advised and served four presidents on both sides of the aisle, as have you, and I think that is a recognized quality. That’s why President Trump, at least initially, reached out to many former senior military and intelligence professionals. He’s sort of moved away from that at this point, but I think that it happened in my case because of, I’ll use a funny, made-up word here, my centricity.

I park myself politically in the center. I am perfectly capable of supporting things President Trump is doing if I think they’re smart policy, and deeply criticizing them if I think they are wrong-headed, which they often are. Equally, when President Obama was in office, I had the same style. I think that’s how we need more people to be is willing to have conversations, willing to focus on policy, and try to get ourselves to a political center.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Do you think former military officers and intelligence officers should be partisan in any way?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

I think it is a deeply personal choice. When you are retired, you are retired. I do not hold with the argument that somehow because you were senior military, or because you led the Central Intelligence Agency, that you are somehow proscribed from engaging in the political debate of the nation.

The degree to which you want to do it is up to you. Some officers choose to be extremely partisan and political, and appear in political conventions. That makes other uniformed, former uniformed officers sometimes uncomfortable. Not to me. To me, that’s a choice they’ve made to affiliate that’s really not particularly different than the choice Dwight Eisenhower made to run for president, or the choice Colin

Powell made to step up and be, I thought, a terrific Secretary of State.

I would not want to see the nation deprived of those who have that kind of experience that you and I are lucky enough to share. On the other hand, I think that it’s perfectly okay if you decide, no, I have served the country, and I don’t want to do anything that would imply that the military is politicized.

MICHAEL MORELL:

The current military?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Correct. I understand the argument, but I just don’t agree with it, because I think the public is way smart enough to know the difference between retired and active duty. I reject that argument, and I look for voices to step in and debate, particularly as we just spoke about the policy issues in front of us.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Okay Jim, let me ask you about some current issues, and maybe some broad questions first. You’ve touched on this already, but how would you grade this administration’s foreign policy? What have they got right? What have they gotten wrong?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Couple things they have gotten right. There’s been a little back and forth on this, but I think as a general proposition, they have aggressively pursued the Islamic State. They have deployed troops. They’ve worked with a coalition of 77 nations, and they have taken territory away from the Islamic State. This is a process, of course, that began–

MICHAEL MORELL:

I think they did that more aggressively than the Obama administration.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

I do too. Absolutely. I therefore put this in the plus category. Of late, we’ve seen th

e president say we’re going to withdraw, and now we’re back into Syria. I think that’s the right move, but generally I think that’s right. I think it is generally correct to negotiate with Kim Jong-un.

I think the idea of fire and fury, which is where this administration kind of started in North Korea is a loser, because it would lead to 3 million deaths on the Korean Peninsula. Yes, negotiate, patience, it’s going to take a long time, be creative in your negotiation.

Two things I think huge mistakes. One is, pulling out of the climate accord. Currently, COP25 is unfolding in Madrid, the big gathering. It’s a walk away of epically foolish proportion, not only in a climatological way and environmental way, but in a leadership way.

Another I think miss is pulling back from the Transpacific Partnership, which would

have created an enormous free trade zone in the Pacific. China was not going to be included in it. It would have been real leverage for us as we move forward in a complicated relationship with China. I think it’s a mixed picture for the administration. I think that were I advising the president, I would try and push him more towards valuing these alliances and drawing value out of them.

MICHAEL MORELL:

It’s interesting, when you look at all of the challenges we face around the world, there’s really not a single one we can manage on our own, right? They all require us working with other nations to really emphasize that point about alliances.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Yeah sure. I’ll give you a very practical example of this from day-to-day life, which is Wikipedia. Everybody uses Wikipedia constantly. I used it six times today. And

Wikipedia is not generated by 12 really smart, retired CIA analysts locked in a closet. Wikipedia is generated by all of us thinking and working together.

It’s a wiki. Every day, millions of people input to it. Every month, billions of people draw that knowledge. And the vision statement of Wikipedia is very powerful and goes to this point about alliances. The vision statement is, “a world in which every human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.”

By using alliances, by recognizing that no one of us, no one nation, no one person, no one leader, no one of us is as smart as all of us thinking together, using that approach, we can create the sum of all security in the 21st century. That Wikipedia approach I think is critical. Can I make one more point about it?

MICHAEL MORELL:

Sure.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Which is, let’s take it from the international zone to some place you and I know deeply, and that’s the interagency. We are so much stronger as a nation when the CIA, the FBI, the DOJ, the DEA, the Department of Defense, Department of State, when we are working and pulling together as an interagency. Again, that’s how you create the sum of all security, not allowing little stovepipes to stand.

MICHAEL MORELL:

It strikes me, given what you just said, that when we made mistakes at the Agency, or when I saw mistakes made by an administration, it was almost always because we didn’t have everybody at the table, and so you didn’t hear everybody’s view.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Totally agree, and I’ll give you a very practical example. From the time I think you were still at the Agency, and I was cert

ainly at NATO. It was the early days of Syria, and a lot of our military intelligence and reporting was suggesting that Assad was going to lose.

I remember going over to Langley and having a conversation over there, and discovering that the Agency had a 180° different view of this. That Assad was actually winning. I remember thinking, how can we be so far apart? Of course, as it turns out, the Agency was absolutely correct, and our military intelligence and sourcing was absolutely wrong. Think about how much better we would have been if we were more cohesively integrated in our thinking and view of all that.

MICHAEL MORELL:

It’s also a statement about the importance of the president hearing different views.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Absolutely.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Some questions about specific issues, Jim. First is President Trump’s intervention in the case of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, subsequent pushback by the Navy Secretary and the Commander of the SEALS, and then the Sec Def’s firing of the Navy Secretary. Your take on that whole thing?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Let me start by saying, they’re really two separate stories here. Let’s pull them apart. One story is the Secretary of the Navy defending what he thought was the integrity of the process. I think he was correct to do so. Evidently, he may have gone a little around channels in communicating with the White House. He was subsequently fired as a result of that. That’s one story.

It’s a story about the confusion and the lack of integration in the interagency in the Trump administration. The story I would focus on is, is it appropriate for a

commander in chief to reach into the military justice system and the military administrative systems, and correct what he sees as an injustice, in the case of accused or convicted war crimes?

I would argue it is not. That these particular cases and other cases dealing with war crimes are best adjudicated by the military, because they occur in the crucible of combat. For a president or any other very senior official to reach into that mix I think is a mistake. Most recently, in the case of Chief Gallagher, we saw the president reach in and say, “No, you can keep that Trident pin, you get to stay a member of the community,” it would have been far better for him to let a panel of SEALs make that judgment. I think that was a mistake.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Afghanistan. Really two questions for you. What do you think our objective there should  

be today? And how would you advise a president to best achieve that objective?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

As you know, I commanded that mission as the NATO commander. It’s a NATO mission. At peak, I had 150,000 troops there, about 100,000 U.S., 50,000 from the other 50 nations who were there. I’ve spent an enormous amount of time in Afghanistan and studied all of this very carefully.

Here’s where I think we want to end up in Afghanistan. We want a roughly democratic kind of system that affords a minimal level of human rights, particularly to women. We want a nation that has a reasonable level of control over its borders. We want a security force that is capable of handling what will be I hope a sputtering insurgency over time, and above all, we want to find a path to draw the Taliban, the elements of the Taliban who are willing to be drawn in, into the political process. Because as you know,

that’s how insurgencies tend to end.

Negotiation, good example would be Colombia. We want this thing to end up the way Colombia ended up with the FARC coming into the government, not the way Vietnam ended up, with the insurgents taking over and helicopters lifting up off rooftops. I think we can find the path, and to answer the question how to get there, we’re lucky.

We have this Ambassador Zal Khalilzad. You and I both know him well. If he didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him. Here’s this Afghan American fluent in Dari and Pashto, former Ambassador to the United Nations, Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ambassador to Iraq.

MICHAEL MORELL:

A lot of charisma.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

It’s unbelievable. He’s one of the most likeable people ever, who could charm the scales off a snake. Put him in charge of it,  

and let him make a deal. I think we’re kind of stumbling toward Bethlehem here, so to speak. I think just recently we’ve seen the president make a surprise visit. I commend him doing that, over Thanksgiving. While there, he said, we’re going to restart the negotiations. I think that is correct also.

However, we have to make sure that we don’t completely give away the farm and undercut our allies who are there, including in my view, the very admirable president of Afghanistan, who is Ashraf Ghani. You and I both know him, a man of enormous principle and integrity. We need to support him, but bring whatever portion of the Taliban we can into the negotiations. I think we can square that circle. I’d say, I’ll conclude, I think there’s a two in three chance we can successfully negotiate an end to this. I think there’s a one in three chance the wheels come off, and it turns out very badly.

MICHAEL MORELL:

What do you think that turns on, at the end of the day?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

I think it turns on our creativity in putting a package together for the Taliban, A), and, B) our willingness to remain there at some level, particularly with financial support. You recall this very well. When the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan, did the Taliban just drive into Kabul? No.

For the next two years, the Russians supported with financing and trainers and advisors. They only rolled into Kabul when the Russians pulled the plug on the money. Same thing in Vietnam. We pulled most of our troops out in ’73. The ARVN fought bravely and well until ’75 when the Congress pulled the plug. I think it’s resources, and it’s creativity and negotiation.

MICHAEL MORELL:

People talk about the U.S. troop presence as  

really the only thing that we’re doing, but there’s a lot of money that flows in there, about $5 billion a year?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

It is. We ought to remember, that’s small change in the context of when I commanded that mission, the budget was somewhere around $120 billion a year, and we had 100,000 troops in the country. I could see a world with 3,000 troops in the country, mostly special forces, $4 to $5 billion in support to the Afghan Security Forces. I think that’s a winnable proposition and gets us to a place where we end up looking again, more like Colombia, less like Vietnam.

MICHAEL MORELL:

As Southcom Commander, you were responsible for Latin America, so I want to ask you about Venezuela.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Sure.

MICHAEL MORELL:

That’s a terrible story about what’s happened there over the last 20 years. By the way, I think it’s a reflection of what 20 years of populism gets you. But in your view, is there anything that the United States can do here that it’s not doing in order to break the logjam?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

No. Here I would say the Trump administration had pursued roughly the right approach, which is to avoid the impulse to send the 82nd Airborne down there. There were a couple moments where that must have been very tempting, because you could see a world in which a sudden imposition of U.S. force, much like we did, for example, in Panama could have turned the scales.

On the other hand, it could have gone terribly wrong. I would not have advised it, and I think that the right course of action is, put sanctions on the key actors. Pursue engagement by the Organization of American

States, see paragraph one about working with allies, partners and friends in the region. Put pressure on Cuba, which is a great source of Maduro’s support. Signal to the Russians, there are limits to what we are going to permit you to do here.

I think a package like that over time, Maduro will fall. Having said all that, as a general proposition on this region, and I love this part of the world. I’m from Miami. I speak Spanish. It is a region of enormous importance to the United States, which we do not pay enough attention to. I think as a general rule, we ought to be spending a lot more time understanding what’s going on and working with partners there.

I’ll close with a very good success story, which I’ve mentioned once already, and that’s Colombia. Interesting to point out that Colombia and Venezuela are right next to each other, roughly same level of resources, kind of different levels of oil

and minerals and access, but very similar in many ways. Colombia’s turning out to be quite a success story after sensible, modest, U.S. engagement and play in Colombia. Venezuela has gone down in the worst possible way because of Hugo Chavez, because of high oil prices, which allowed him to effectively defenestrate the entire economy. It’s going to be a long-term project to bring Venezuela back, but it’s worth doing.

MICHAEL MORELL:

It’s going to take a Plan Colombia on steroids.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

It will, and that’s okay, if we are doing it with other partners and friends in the region, starting with Colombia right next door.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right. Jim, let me ask you one more question. There seem to be protests breaking  

out all over the place.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Globally, absolutely.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah, globally. Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, Chile, Hong Kong, Bolivia, you can go on and on. Is there a common thread here? Is this just coincidence? How do you think about this?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

I think there are two common threads here. One is the increasing impact of transparency. As more and more large populations come online, pick up those super computers called iPhones and see the world and see what the world could be like for them, there is a growing manifest sense of discontent and inequality.

I think the transparency is driving the realization of inequality. I think that’s the fundamental piece of this. Then secondly, it’s acceleration. It’s the speed

with which events move. It allows protest movements to coalesce suddenly. These are global flash mobs, and they are driven by the acceleration of events and that transparency. The fundamental grievance tends to be inequality with a subset of lack of voice. And it is, in my view, no coincidence that it is spreading globally. The answers to it are more international cooperation, more economic advantage in addressing these kinds of inequalities.

Thirdly, on the side of the angels, we need to get in the conversation. We have ceded too much of this global town square to bad actors on both sides of the political spectrum. We need sensible voices in that space, and that I think would be part of the solution, along with the practical things I just mentioned–

MICHAEL MORELL:

Do you think the common threads ultimately catch up with China and Russia as well?

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Eventually, they’ll be the last two, truly totalitarian countries in human history. The last Marxist will die in a university in Beijing. But eventually, it will catch up with them. Couple of summers ago, I wrote a piece, cover story in Time magazine called, Democracy: It Will Prevail.

The original working title was The Revenge of Democracy. And we often wring our hands at, oh, the authoritarian governments are taking over. Wait a minute. Russia and China have been authoritarian for millennia. Nothing new there. Kind of park them off to the side.

Other than that, I would say, democracy isn’t doing bad. And this latest round of protests is a pretty good example of that. Eventually, back to where we started the conversation, big doors swinging on small hinges. It is not inconceivable to me that the big door of change in China could

eventually swing on a small hinge called Hong Kong or Taiwan. Stay tuned.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Human freedom has always prevailed.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

It always has, and it is an increasing force. It’s because it syncs up with human nature.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Jim, thank you so much for joining us. The author is Jim Stavridis. The book is Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character.

ADM JAMES STAVRIDIS:

Michael, thank you so much. What a pleasure.

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