Australian Naval Institute Review of The Accidental Admiral

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The Accidental Admiral: a sailor takes command at NATO. By Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret). Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2014. pp 246; $32.95. ISBN 978-1-61251-704-9
 

Reviewed by Professor Geoffrey Till

ADMIRAL Stavridis was the first naval Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) in NATO from 2009-2013, a big enough task in its own right, but was also at the same time Commander-in-Chief of US forces in Europe (EUCOM). His book is interesting from two different angles.

The first is a set of observations about his new NATO command at a time when the Alliance was facing a whole set of demanding and competing issues that also illustrated the very basic question of what alliance was actually for, now that the Cold War at least seemed to be over. The second angle, and in some ways the most original, is the Admiral’s view of the nature of effective strategic leadership in this new, bewildering world.

His was a period of major troubles. It was a time of global recession, budgetary constraint and cut-backs in defence spending on both sides of the Atlantic. Alongside this, Russian truculence was beginning seriously to disrupt the unity of the Alliance by opening up the differences in strategic priority between the Atlanticists who looked well beyond NATO territory at the global problems that threatened alliance interests and many of Russia’s neighbours who were not at all sure the Cold War really was over and wanted reassurance of continuing support from the US.

Kosovo and Afghanistan were winding down as major commitments, leaving many of the participants with uneasy doubts about whether the latter in particular had all been worthwhile, and a strong desire never to have to do anything like that again.

The Arab Spring, first naively welcomed as an outbreak of democratic liberalism, was beginning to turn sour. The 2011 Libyan operation initially thought of an inspiring example of a successful limited military intervention was starting to seem more like an exercise in opening Pandora’s box. And then there was worrying challenge for the Europeans of an America increasingly fixated on China and the Asia-Pacific at their expense, a shift in US strategic priority partly reinforced in Republican circles by the view that too many Europeans were focussed on their domestic trials and tribulations and were no more than defence free-loaders.

The Admiral’s insider observations on all this are as interesting as one would expect. Afghanistan looked grim when Stavridis arrived but ended up after ‘the surge’ by at least seeming better. The charming President Karzai was always going to be a problem – so praise in public, criticise in private. Stavridis’s aims were clear: rally the Alliance to maintain its commitments there (a full time job in its own right), train the Afghans properly to be good fighters, go with the flow of Afghan politics and hope for the best – since if it works, it will have been ‘a near-run thing indeed.’

On Libya, the Admiral’s conciliatory approach is illustrated by the absence of criticism of Germany for obstructing the allied effort although ‘for political reasons that were never clear to me,’ and ten very sensible lessons he draws from the experience ending with ‘Probably most important, good luck. You’ll need it. In Libya, we had more than our normal share. It won’t always be so.’

Developing alliance consensus over Syria proved impossible, maintaining it in the Balkans a major challenge. More as Commander of EUCOM than of NATO, Stavridis was also preoccupied with Israel to a surprising extent and his sympathy with their viewpoint is very clear. ‘There is no braver nation, nor a better ally to the United States.’ How many of his European colleagues would have agreed with that, one wonders.

Another of the issues that confronted Stavridis of course, and a more familiar one for him, was piracy off Somalia, but even here the problems were immense: getting NATO and the EU to coordinate their activities, with each other and with the independent players like China, India and Russia; matching naval resources to the sheer scale of the commitment, coping with the innumerable legal hurdles in the way of successful prosecution of the perpetrators, and then addressing the real causes of the problem ashore, all showed just how different this situation was from the old days when one simply staked out captured pirates on the beach between the high and low tide-lines.

So, how on earth does a leader like SACEUR cope with the depressing complexity and extent of modern challenges to contemporary peace and security? Here, the second part of The Accidental Admiral comes into play – where Stavridis both discusses the nature of strategic leadership and illustrates it by being the sort of person he is. The author of six well-regarded books, holding a PhD in international relations, speaking a handful of different languages and with considerable command experience, Stavridis is clearly no intellectual slouch. His appointment in fact appears more inevitable than ‘accidental’.

So, lesson one in strategic leadership: Be very clever and work at studying the context, dive deep and realise that the complexities mean there are no simple answers. It was ‘…at the Fletcher School’ the Admiral says ‘that I first learned to appreciate the key interplay of politics, economics, finance, business, culture, language and security.’ The necessary flexibility of mind and appreciation of what smart power really is will follow naturally.

If this lesson is mainly implicit (in that Stavridis doesn’t actually say it in so many words) it strongly emerges from his account of his time in command. This is backed up though by a whole series of explicit observations about how strategic leaders should behave. Many of them would seem at first sight to look like blinding glimpses of the obvious were it not for the fact that so many leaders, both bright and dim, seem to get it so wrong.

Making big organisations like NATO work, the Admiral shows, is all about teamwork and partnership, and this has to be the principal focus of the leader, mastering the flow of ideas, concepts and, particularly now, the flow of information – and of course, dealing with a corrosive news media.

As an intimate ‘now it can be told’ insider story of the controversies normally hidden from the public gaze this book is perhaps a little disappointing. The Admiral is far too diplomatic for that. But as a ‘haul-down report’ from someone just leaving a crucial and demanding job, The Accidental Admiral is hard to beat.

Those who want to understand NATO, especially if they have an important job to do within it should read the book both for what it says about the issues confronting the alliance and for guidance on how commanders should try to manage the task of reacting to them. Not everyone will agree with everything the Admiral says, but at the very least it’s all worth very seriously thinking about.