Walker Webcast: From the battlefield to the boardroom! Leadership lessons from Admiral James Stavridis


If there’s one thing this Walker Webcast guest knows, it’s that just one instant can change your life forever. James Stavridis, a retired US Navy Admiral and former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, joined Willy for a wide-ranging conversation. They talk about how James survived the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, Putin’s “unsustainable burn rate,” the possibility of China becoming a global superpower, the critical ability to make tough choices under pressure, and much more. 

Willy starts by asking James what he believes made him who he is today. The answer includes playing squash at the United States Naval Academy and his family. James had been set on following the career path of his father, “a very proud career infantry officer” in the United States Marine Corps who had fought in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. But one moment between his freshman and sophomore year set him on a different trajectory. 

James talks about how the first 20 years of his career as a sailor took place during the Cold War, studying the Russian Navy and confronting them at sea. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians were a formidable force, James says, not the “mere shadow of the Soviet Navy” they are today. But Russia never made the necessary investments in aircraft carriers, James says, and this gave the United States an advantage.

James reveals to Willy that he had a shot at Osama bin Laden in the mid-1990s. He and his crew were on a mission to “launch a large bag of tomahawks” at a terrorist training camp in South Asia. But the Pakistanis warned bin Laden just a few moments before the strike. 

Fast forward to September 11, 2001 and bin Laden’s attack on the Pentagon. James’ near-death experience that day drew home two important realizations. First, your life can change forever in an instant—a topic James explores in his most recent book, To Risk It All. The second lesson: Be ready to respond in a crisis.

James says the aftermath of 9/11 challenged him to rethink his entire operations in the Navy. “Everyone was deeply angry, which fueled the ability for making dramatic changes,” he says. But “parochialism” ultimately held them back. 

Then the conversation turns to the current geopolitical landscape, starting with the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. is “deeply underweight” in South America, according to James, even though the region boasts “tons of natural resources” and has “made the jump to true democracy, with a few exceptions.” South America offers enormous potential: economically, culturally, and geographically, he says. 

America’s focus on Columbia was necessary for the global war on terror, he declares, even though the United States never more than 1,000 troops in the country at a time. As for the United States, the U.S. is well on its way to becoming a bilingual, Spanish-speaking country, he says, something that “will be beneficial over time.” 

James then offers his perspectives on NATO. Finland and Sweden joining would be monumental, he says, since both nations have remained neutral for so long. Such a development also offers “huge opportunities,” since both nations have “turnkey militaries” and “joining forces would mean another 800 miles of border for Putin to protect.”

Putin’s current operations and the Russian military are unsustainable, James declares. As for the threat of China invading Taiwan, he sees this as “not currently probable.” 

At the end of the conversation, James shares his two yearly reads, To Kill a Mockingbird and Old Man and the Sea, and the most meaningful engagement of his 50-medal career. He closes the webcast by reminding the audience of America’s critical place in the world. 

Key Ideas:

01:10 Willy welcomes James Stavridis 
06:40 A career change, disappointing his dad 
09:38 The Russian Navy then and now 
14:33 An exchange with Osama Bin Laden 
17:54 Firefighting at the Pentagon 
22:09 Lessons on crisis management and life  
31:38 Innovation in the military  
38:47 Sweden and Finland in NATO  
47:12 The likelihood of China invading Taiwan 
54:07 What means the most 

Webcast Transcript 

Willy Walker: Good afternoon and welcome to another Walker Webcast. I must say that today's guest it is a true, true honor to have Admiral James Stavridis join me for the Walker Webcast. Let me do a quick bio on the admiral, and then we will dive into our conversation. 

Admiral James Stavridis attended the U.S. Naval Academy and spent 37 years in the United States Navy rising to the rank of 4-Star Admiral. Among his many commands were Supreme Allied Commander at NATO and U.S. Southern Command, charged with military operations throughout Latin America. In the course of his career, he served as senior military assistant to the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of Defense. He led the Navy's premier operational think tank for Innovation Deep Blue, immediately after the 9/11 attacks. In 2016, he was vetted for Vice President by Secretary Hillary Clinton and subsequently invited to Trump Tower to discuss a Cabinet position with President Donald Trump. 

He earned a PhD from The Fletcher School at Tufts University, winning the Gullion Prize as outstanding student and went on to be dean of The Fletcher School from 2013 to 2018. Jim has published eight books on leadership, the Oceans, maritime affairs, and Latin America, as well as hundreds of articles in leading journals. 

He is chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as chair of the board of the U.S. Naval Institute. He is a monthly columnist for TIME Magazine and Chief International Security and Diplomacy Analyst for NBC News. Finally, Admiral Stavridis is Vice-Chair Global Affairs and Managing Director at the Carlyle Group

So, Jim, first, thank you so much for joining me on the Walker Webcast. It truly is an honor to have you join me. I'm a huge fan of you, your career, your service to our country and your intellect. I know it will become apparent throughout our discussion today how well read you are, how thoughtful you are on all matters, and what an incredible leader you are during your active military service as well as a civilian. Our discussion today is going to cover a lot. I want to start with what makes you the man and leader you are. Then I want to move to some insights from your active military service, then to a number of your books. And finally, your insights on the world we live in today. 

So, let's start with this. How about you retell the story about playing the number one squash player in the world when you were a student at the Naval Academy? 

James Stavridis: Well, first of all, thanks for having me on, Willy. And we had a great conversation in Sun Valley last summer. And I know we'll pick up some of those stories and push them along a little further. I want to begin actually by saying congratulations to you on what you've done with your firm and its meteoric rise, everything you've done globally to be helpful and to sit on charitable boards and your own athletic career, which is pretty significant in the worlds of skiing, marathon running and a lot of other things. But you're nice to ask about my squash career. I played varsity tennis and varsity squash at the Naval Academy in the late 1970s, and so I was at the time number one on the squash team, and we were a nationally ranked team. We were in the top five in the country, and I kind of floated between one, two and three, depending on how things were going between my competitors. So, our coach brought in for us to play a former world champion. He was a Pakistani guy, and he was probably at that point in his early 40s. So, to us as midshipmen, he was at least 20 years older than we were, he looked kind of ancient. He had potbelly and kind of skinny legs and was a former world number one. And so, the coach said to him, “Well, Mr. Khan, (He was one of the famous Khans of squash. K-H-A-N) What would you like to do?” And he said, “Well, I'm happy to play everybody on the ladder.” Okay, fine. So, there are nine people on a varsity squash ladder. So, he started by playing the number nine player, beat him 3-0, number 8: 3-0, number 7: 3-0 etc.. You get the idea. So, I was the last guy, number one, who was going to play with this legendary player. Now, remember, he's now played eight hard squash matches. He's won them all 3-0. And I thought, "Gosh darn it, I'm probably not going to win a match with this guy, but I'm going to win a game." I was pretty set. I was a second team All-American. I thought, "Okay, I can do this. This guy's got to be exhausted." We got into the court, and he turned to me, and he said, "Would you mind if I smoked a cigarette while we played?" He lit up a cigarette and beat me. Not only 3-0, but he also beat me pointless. I didn't win a single point. Now, that's a lesson that I received. And here's what I took away from it, Willy, and it's a good lesson for all of us, which is no matter how well you're doing, there's somebody better than you. It's a lesson about humility, and it was a pretty good one. 

Willy Walker: I would only say, given your career, there aren't many better than you in lots and lots of things. Let me jump to the summer of ‘73. It's between your freshman and sophomore year at the Naval Academy. You've been assigned to a Navy destroyer for the summer, and you're leaving the Port of San Diego. Why’d you know, at that moment, you were going to disappoint your dad?

James Stavridis: Yeah, because my father was a career officer in the US Marine Corps, a very proud infantry officer who had fought in World War II, Korea, Vietnam. And when I went off to the Naval Academy and for my entire first year known as your plebe year, I was pretty dedicated to the idea of following my father into becoming an infantry officer in the US Marine Corps. On that summer cruise, the summer after my freshman year, I walked up onto the bridge of that destroyer, USS Jouett (DLG-29) and as I walked on to the bridge, Willy, I looked out at a setting sun. We were getting underway late in the day and the sun was just going down. I looked at that horizon and I saw all that light and all that water, and I was like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. You know, the scales dropped from before my eyes. And I realized I wanted to be a sailor. I wanted to be at sea, I wanted to be a sea captain. I went home later that summer for my one month off that they give you. And I broke the news to my dad, who at that point was a retired colonel in the Marine Corps. And he was not happy. And I would say he wasn't happy with that career choice until about 25 years later when I pinned on my first star as a Rear Admiral. And he finally said, ``You know, Jim, I guess that's turned out pretty well for you.” Thanks, Dad. 

Willy Walker: On that. That relationship with your dad. It sounds from having heard you tell that story that there were some pretty hefty expectations placed on you and a desire not to disappoint your father. Was that kind of to some degree, the first time you disappointed your dad? 

James Stavridis: I probably had disappointed him in some small things along the road of life. I remember once being on the tennis court and losing a match, and taking my tennis racket and breaking it, putting it at an angle and stomping on it and breaking it in half. In the days of wooden tennis rackets. He was quite disappointed that day, and I learned a hard lesson about that. But in terms of something that I think he really had a deep and prideful expectation that I would follow his footsteps entirely into the Marine Corps. Yeah, I think it did hurt him. And again, he was one to always be supportive. And ultimately it turned out pretty well for me. And I'm glad he was around to see that as well. 

Willy Walker: You became a Russia expert and clearly there are many people today who forget about a) the Cold War, but b) the strength of the Russian Navy and how formidable a force they were during the early part of your career when you first became an admiral. Talk for a moment about, if you will, the Russian navy back then and how important the Russian navy is to Russia today. 

James Stavridis: I'll be glad to. The first part of my career was the Cold War. The last 10 to 15 years, I should say, was the global war on terror after 9/11. But the first part, the first 20 years, was the Cold War. I studied the Russian Navy, we all did. We could sit down with a piece of paper and sketch the profile of any Russian warship, of the 50 different kinds they had, and describe the missile systems, the propulsion capability, the navigational capability, the crew size. We could tell you everything about that Cold War fleet, and they could do the same about us. And we conducted many, many tabletop exercises, many war games, simulating Russian behaviors. And then finally, Willy, we spent a lot of time confronting them at sea, our ships, tracking their submarines, their long-range bombers. I'll always remember, as we would approach the Western Pacific, we'd see Russian long range naval bombers come out and target us. It was a very confrontational relationship. We came to know them well in those days. And now we're talking 1980s, 1990s, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were a very formidable force, both in terms of numbers, in terms of capabilities. We saw them exercise. They were dangerous. And the big advantage we had was our aircraft carriers. The Russians never made the deep investment necessary to build those magnificent machines of war. They're hard to build. You've got to train in a very different way. So, we always had that hold card, if you will, to put it in poker analogy. We knew that our carriers could maneuver, could surge forward, could attack their ships, whereas they had long range land bombers and they had missiles. But nothing can substitute for the maneuverability, the size, the striking power of our carriers. So, we worried a lot about them. But I think if we had, God forbid, ended up in a hot war instead of a Cold War, I think we would have more than held our own. I’ll close on the Soviet Navy with a final observation, which is that they were always deeply capable in undersea warfare. Their nuclear submarines, think Hunt for Red October. That's pretty real in terms of their technological capabilities. They weren't quite at our level, but they were pretty damn close as opposed to aircraft carriers where they had none, and we had many. Their nuclear submarine force was very capable and would have given our submarines as good as they are a run for their money in the deep waters of the North Atlantic, for example. So that's a snapshot of the Soviet Navy. Flash forward from the end of the Soviet era, roughly 1990, call it to today, 30 years on. Today, the Russian Navy is a shadow of the Soviet Navy. It's maybe a third as good as that Soviet Navy. It still has no aircraft carriers. It still has reasonably good nuclear submarines. But they have fallen a generation behind ours in terms of submarine capability. And I'll close with this, Willy, a pretty good example, the Black Sea Fleet. Operating in and around, of course, the coastline of Ukraine. About four months ago, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, a slava class cruiser, a ship that I studied and knew everything about. But think about it – a Cold War cruiser is the flagship of their fleet, and it was ignominiously sunk by a combination of drones and missiles very capably employed by the Ukrainians. You know, the first thing they teach you at Annapolis, is don't get your flagship sunk. I think the Russians are not what they used to be when they were the Soviet Navy. 

Willy Walker: In the mid to late 1990s, you had a shot at Osama bin Laden. Talk about the day that you launched Tomahawk missiles to try and get Osama bin Laden.

James Stavridis: Yeah, this was, as you say, late 90s. You may sort of vaguely recall there were some bombings of our embassies in East Africa, killed several hundred people, mostly locals from those two countries. The President tasked the US Navy to launch Tomahawk missiles against the terrorists who had perpetrated those attacks. Of course, it was Osama bin Laden, although none of us had really heard of him. He was kind of a boutique intelligence problem who suddenly jumped onto the radar of the United States of America. So, we got the mission to launch a big bag of Tomahawks, you know, kind of 80 to 120 in that range at a terrorist training camp where Osama bin Laden, according to our intelligence, had taken up residence in South Asia. And so, we put the strike together, and those Tomahawk missiles Willy had to fly over Pakistan. So, because they would appear on the Pakistani radars, we went to the Pakistanis. This was all done by the State Department, high level military, U.S. and informed the Pakistanis about the strike. Literally a few moments before those missiles broke the Pakistani radar horizon. By all accounts, the Pakistanis warned bin Laden. From all that I have seen, we missed him by a few moments. So, think how different history might have been if those Tomahawks, which were dead on their target, had caught bin Laden. And as you and I talked about once before, the irony for me personally is that it was 1998, and I was the leader in this Tomahawk strike, which almost killed bin Laden with long range missiles. In 2001, several years later, I was in the Pentagon as a newly selected 1-Star Rear Admiral and Osama bin Laden returned fire. I glimpsed the aircraft as it hit the Pentagon. I was maybe 150 feet off the impact point. And I'm only here talking to you because I was up on the fourth deck of the Pentagon. The aircraft struck the second deck going down, obviously. So, I was spared that day. So, he got his shot in against me. Ultimately, as we all know he was sent to his greater rewards, so to speak, by Navy SEALs a few years later. So, the Navy got that one in the end, I would say. 

Willy Walker: So, when you and I have discussed 9/11 before, you've said to me it sounded like a typical explosion. There are few of us who know what a typical explosion sounds like. The other thing you said was that when the plane crashed into the Pentagon because all Navy men are trained firefighters. I think that's such an interesting concept for those of us who haven't been on a ship, in the sense that, of course, fire on a ship is very, I mean, fire anywhere is imminent danger. But on a ship, it's really important that you put it out very quickly. And so, the concept that all the naval trained officers and enlisted men and women who were in the Pentagon that day or immediately going to the scene and trying to help put out the fire, because that's what you're trained to do. Not that anyone who was trained who was in the Army didn't want to help. But the point is, I just think that the thought of all of you being trained fire men and women was an interesting one. But what fascinated me the most, Jim, about that, is that here you are in arguably the most secure building on the face of the planet. And yet, from your telling, that's as close as you ever came to getting killed during your military service.

James Stavridis: Indeed. Absolutely. Here I was in the Pentagon. As you say correctly, it is the safest place in the world. Full stop. I mean, you're guarded by the strongest military on Earth. You're in a massive concrete building with huge, huge walls here in the capital of the richest country on the planet. And the irony of the moment is, no, I was not safe. That was in a career with my fair share of combat, where I came the closest to being eliminated and back to the firefighting point. If you think about it, on a ship at sea, you've got to put out the fire. It's not like you can just walk across the street and declare the building a loss and put a perimeter around it. You're at sea. So, yeah, we're all trained. We do initial very significant training and then we all do a refresher course annually. Every sailor. So, yeah, we're pretty good at fighting fires. But that day, we didn't have any tools. We didn't have the big hoses; we didn't have the big pumps. We didn't have all the access equipment. We didn't have, above all the masks, the oxygen breathing apparatus that allows you to go into a fire. We didn't have all that. What we had was a few bulkheads mounted cylinder fire extinguishers, no good at all against that inferno. So, we all stumbled out onto that grassy area outside the Pentagon. And up, up came the first responders, big heroes, true heroes. And they fought that fire like hell and yeah, I lost a lot of shipmates in there. Unfortunately, the plane killed a bunch of army folks because it hit the personnel section of the army, but it hit the Navy Intelligence Center in the Pentagon. So, I lost a number of great shipmates, colleagues, friends who died in that. One in particular, I always remember Captain Bob Dolan. Pretty senior officer was down there and was killed and he was a surface line officer, a destroyer officer. Knew him. Knew his family. They lived in our neighborhood in northern Virginia. And you think about that random walk. You know, I could easily have been in Bob's villa. He could easily have been up in mine. He was a remarkable guy, quoted Shakespeare constantly. 

Willy Walker: Given how much you read and how much you quote both literature and novels and things of that nature, I'm sure that endeared him to you immediately. 

James Stavridis: Yeah. And last, last thought on that for listeners, if when you take that trip to Washington that everybody does and you see the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Monument, the 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon, go and see that. It's got a bench there for everybody who died, both on the plane and in the Pentagon. It's a beautiful, serene place. You don't need a particular clearance to go. You can just go. And there's parking right there, right by the Pentagon. Go see that. It's very moving. 

Willy Walker: How much Jim did that, if you will, the paradox of being in the world's most secure building and yet coming as close to death as you ever have. Having been in a position of danger so many times throughout your career. How did that influence you going forward from that moment? In other words, I mean, I would think that we all think, okay, this is going to be a tough time in the business world. For instance, batten down the hatches, focus on the problem, and we're all kind of focused on it. But typically, in life, the things that really impact us are the things that surprise us, not the things that we can see coming. And if you think about it in your career, that was a really big surprise that the closest you came was being in such a safe environment. Has that impacted the way you've thought about management leading your life subsequently?

James Stavridis: It has, and it drove home two enormously important things. One is that your life can change forever in an instant. Think of me and Captain Bob Dolan and the knowledge that it's very real, it can completely change, is very profoundly important. And my most recent book is called To Risk It All. And it's about those moments when we are challenged, and we have to make very hard choices under immense pressure. So that was one big lesson for me. And the second one was, you've got to be ready to respond in a crisis. In other words, the first point is it can really happen. 

And the second point, be ready to fundamentally change how you're doing business. And I'll give you a practical example. The U.S. Navy pre-9/11 was still out there kind of acting like the Cold War was still going on. We were deploying these big carrier battle groups. We were talking about the Russian Navy, even though they had a little capability, talking about the Chinese Navy. You know, we were kind of trying to just keep doing the same thing. You know, never underestimate the ability of a human being to think that tomorrow is going to be a lot like today, except maybe just a little bit different. But when things really changed, like 9/11, you got to change what you're doing. For us in the Navy, we realized we were going to be part of this global war on terror. That meant a very different basket of capabilities from being more mindful of being on land, sending sailors ashore, getting the Seals in there, getting our explosive ordnance detachments in there, getting our carriers pushed up to the edges of these nations – Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa launching precision strikes in very undeveloped areas. It was a huge new raft of things we had to do. And I'll close with this, Willy, right after the explosion, right after 9/11, the chief of naval operations asked me to create, if you will, a tactical warfighting think tank called Deep Blue. He said, pick 15 people. Anybody you want in the Navy King's Cross, go get anybody. And I gathered who I thought were maybe the smartest dozen people in the Navy from all ranks, from lieutenant to senior captain. 

Willy Walker: Including Bill McRaven?

James Stavridis: Including Bill McRaven. Very good. Including Kurt Ted, who went on to a four-star admiral ship. And two of those lieutenants are about to become rear admiral. They'll be the trailing edge of that group. Pretty remarkable group of folks. And believe me, we were focused on what are the new things we have to do. And I did that for a year and a half and then the chief and naval operations released me to be a carrier strike commander which was my heart's desire at that moment. 

Willy Walker: Talk about that for a moment, though, Jim, because I find that task, if you will, of saying we've been fighting exactly as you just outlined it. We've been fighting this war. We've been putting our resources towards this enemy. All of a sudden you're given basically a blank sheet of paper to say, rethink the way we're doing everything. Given the size and scale of the Navy, I get it that you had 15 super, super smart people helping you think about this, but it's almost like being on a McKinsey team that sits there and says, okay, we've got to rethink everything. And in the United States Navy, that's not I mean, you might come up with some great idea, but let's use the analogy. It's an aircraft carrier. You can't just kind of turn it on a dime. So, as you sat there for a year and a half and rethought the challenges that presented you, you were also faced with the reality of how we can actually mobilize or make real change in the U.S. Navy? As you think back on that process, what was the biggest inhibitor, if you will, as it relates to what we thought we needed to do, but we knew we could only do this because of just kind of history and momentum and kind of the way that things were established?

James Stavridis: I think we all need to put ourselves back in the mindset of the days and months right after 9/11. First and foremost, we were angry. We were deeply angry. I remember being in the Pentagon just after 9/11, President Bush came over, and I mean, the building smelled of smoke and jet fuel. It smelled like fire, and it just hung in the air for days. He came over and gathered up everybody, very senior people. He said, "Remember this. Remember this moment. Remember what's been done to you, and to the Pentagon. They came into our house." We were angry, and that fueled an ability to make pretty dramatic changes. Number two, we had a visionary chief of naval operations, 4-Star Admiral named Vern Clark. He really gave the whole Navy the chance to build in these ideas and try new things. Three times a week, he would gather his most senior admirals and Deep Blue would come in and brief and say, okay, here's an idea. Here's another idea. And the admirals would kind of tear it apart. And just like all innovation and you know this from running your firm, everybody's well aware in the business world, innovation is important. But it's like baseball in terms of batting average. If you're hitting one in four, that's a pretty solid season. And one in three, you're headed to the All-Star League. You don't expect anybody to take on all these ideas, but we had a lot of top cover from the chief of naval operations. So that was number two. And I think number three and to your point, what held us back and where could we not really close the switch? Frankly, it was parochialism on the part of individual communities within the Navy. What I mean by that is that aircraft carrier folks wanted all the resources to go to carriers so that the carriers could come in close littoral warfare and launch the strikes. The surface warfare folks like me, the destroyers, the cruisers, they wanted the money for long range strikes, Tomahawk missiles, all the things that their community could do. The submariners were kind of in shock because really they had the hardest task as a community. How are they going to impact Afghanistan? How are they going to impact Iraq? There's no submarine force for them to fight. So, they're thinking about the SEALs and putting them in submarines and moving them ashore. You mentioned Bill McRaven. Of course, he was the queen of the ball. The SEALs were suddenly had the ultimate cachet of anybody. And so, they had ideas. 

So, in terms of distributing those resources, each of these communities were competing in our job of Deep Blue was to kind of suggest ways to go and where to distribute those resources. And I'll close with this. You know, it kind of became, “Hey, Stavridis, you better be careful. You know, your career could be at risk here.” And in fact, I had one very senior aircraft admiral say to me, “Stavridis, your career is over after this.” Because I was advocating shifting those resources toward the SEALs, toward EOD, toward a long-range strike by surface. And the carrier guys were not happy with me. Again, top cover. Admiral Clarke made sure I got out of there and got to my strike group. But like any bureaucracy, the Navy will dig in, have pockets of resistance, and parochialism. You have to break through those. A crisis is a pretty good time to do that.

Willy Walker: There was an interesting article this weekend in The Wall Street Journal about the head of U.S. Central Command, Michael Kurilla, doing what I guess in the out to the outside world recently analogous to Shark Tank, where he created something called Innovation Oasis to sort of look from the bottom up and get really great ideas. And the article highlighted this young 24-year-old sergeant who had created this drone tracking technology on his laptop and that he was brought in in kind of one in the Shark Tank competition. And I thought it was so fascinating to think about just the structure of the U.S. military and how it is so established and the ability to change things. Just back to what you were just talking about and just kind of fun that the General Kurilla is actually thinking about, sort of, if you will, flipping that on its head.  

James Stavridis: Yeah. And it's something I have done. I didn't have the benefit of watching the show Shark Tank. But for example, when I was captain in command of eight destroyers, I would challenge each of the ships. Hey, come up with one big idea and bring it forward and we'll see which ones we can find resources to support. So, it's kind of the same concept. I'll give you two other ideas on innovation, by the way, that obviously have applicability to any business at almost any scale, challenge the workforce and then incentivize and reward those who come forward. Number two, just like the idea of putting Deep Blue reporting directly to the top of the Navy, a pretty good idea, I think, in any business, is to have a small, if you will, think tank, and we call it an innovation cell. It's a small number of people, smart, switched-on people, who can kind of energize different parts of the bureaucracy. That's another pretty good idea. And everywhere I went at every level, I had an innovation cell with three to five people who are dedicated to finding the new. And then third and finally, it's when you find those people like that 24-year-old sergeant or that 29-year-old lieutenant who comes up with a new way to use radar, reward them and put it in their fitness reports and groom their next billet. Using mentorship to elevate those can help you change the culture to one that really focuses on innovation. Those are three important things. 

Willy Walker: Jim, as you think about transitioning to the Southern Command and as I look back, having lived in Latin America for almost a decade, when I lived there in the 1990s, the U.S. influence in countries like Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, where I lived for a period of time, seemed unlimited. We had a huge influence on the region. All eyes were focused on the United States of America and the U.S. ambassador, and U.S. military operations in those countries were very clearly leading the world. 9/11 happens, and we make a shift in the war on terror to, from my read of it, essentially not forgetting about all of Latin America, but really moving our shift because of terrorism and because of the war on not only terrorism, but then the connection into the world, the war on drugs. All of our focus went on Colombia, and over the last two decades, Colombia has been really our beachhead, if you will, in Latin America. And to some degree, we've opened up for countries like China to come in and replace the United States as it relates to our influence in the region. As you think back on that and having run Southern Command, should we have kept more of a broad influence in Latin America? Or was the shift to Colombia and the war on terror necessary? And actually, from an insider's perspective on an outsider's perspective might be the right thing to have done. 

James Stavridis: Let's begin with the proposition. In my view, we, the United States of America, are deeply underweight in paying attention to what's happening in the world to the South, in the Americas. Enormous potential. And by the way, they haven't had a significant war there for decades. They are a big population, huge natural resources. Today, they're almost all democracies. We don't love every single government that gets elected. But they have made that jump shift to real democracy essentially throughout the region, the exceptions being Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua. Those would be the three that are outliers at the moment. Here's the point. Generally speaking, we ought to be paying a lot more attention because the potential there is enormous economically, culturally, demographically, natural resources, all the above. In terms of the focus we put on Colombia, I think it was a necessary element of the larger global war on terror. But remember this about Colombia. There were never more than a thousand U.S. troops there ever. And partly that's because there was a congressional cap on it. Number two, we engaged Colombia using something called Plan Colombia, which was generated bipartisan by both sides of the political divide. And it really was a classic example of a little bit of hard power, you know, CIA, some precision guided weapons, thousand troops. But really, the big thrust of it was economic. I would argue it's been fairly successful. We finally got rid of the FA. There was a negotiation that concluded it. Overall, it was a major effort. But our failing, you're exactly right, Willy, was just taking our eyes off the rest of the region. China has stolen a step on a stair with their Belt and Road initiative. We ought to pay a lot more attention. And I'll close with this because you and I are both Spanish speakers. Today, in America, 15% of us speak Spanish as a first or a very strong second language, 15%. We're actually the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, after only Mexico. By mid-century, 30% of Americans will speak Spanish as a first or a strong second language. We're well on our way to being a bilingual, bicultural country, and that will help us over time with this world to the south, where we ought to be paying more attention.

Willy Walker: So, you went on to be Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. First of all, I don't think there's a better job title in the world. Maybe King, maybe. But the Supreme Allied Commander is pretty, pretty great. For a moment, Jim, when you ran NATO, there were 28 members that were expanded to 30. And we're now on the precipice of having two more members to make it 32. Talk about the importance of Finland and Sweden potentially joining NATO.

James Stavridis: It's huge and I'll give you a basket of reasons. First of all, these are turnkey militaries. They are ready to snap in. They've already been operating with us for several decades. I commanded Finns and Swedes, not only in Afghanistan, but in the Balkans on counter-piracy missions. The Swedes were part of the war over Libya. These are again ready turnkey militaries. The Swedes make an extraordinary combat air fighter, the Gripen which is certainly the equal of the Hornet. The Finns, on the other hand, have a highly capable land army. I mean, they only have a population of 5 million. But I guarantee you, in three weeks, they could put 500,000 well-trained, well-equipped, highly motivated soldiers in the field. They have more artillery pieces than any other country in Western Europe. And the reason is they sit right on that border with Russia. They were invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939. They fought them to a standstill in the winter war, which looks a fair amount like what we're seeing in Ukraine, by the way. So, first point two turnkey militaries. Second point, geography. This complicates Vladimir Putin's life enormously. That distant boom you hear is his head exploding when he hears that Finland and Sweden are part of NATO because it means that's another 800 miles of border up on his upper left hand flank that he's got to protect in some way, except his army is getting broken on the wheel of Ukraine, thousand miles to the south. So huge geographic complication. Third point, the Arctic. Both Finland and Sweden are significant Arctic nations. They have territory up there. They will be a formidable part of the additional five NATO nations that are part of that Arctic suite up there. Again, that gives us leverage and engagement. And then fourth and maybe most importantly – them joining is psychologically so significant. These are two nations that historically have been neutrals and have been very carefully guarded. Their neutrality is kind of like the Swiss have. And by the way, even the Swiss and this staggers me, but even the Swiss are starting to have a conversation about potentially joining NATO, so psychologically for Europe as a whole, to see these two very important high tech capable militaries, geographically prime position, say, yeah, I want that NATO's membership card that's a powerful moment for the alliance, they are most welcome. 

Willy Walker: Talk for a moment about I've heard you say that you think that Putin's burn rate right now in both the cost as well as troop losses is unsustainable, and that you think he might be coming to the table potentially as early as by the end of the year. That obviously, when I heard you say that, I said that has massive implications, not only from a geopolitical standpoint, that has massive implications from the economy as we sit here today and watch the stock market bounce all over the place and we look at interest rates going and what the Fed's trying to do to tame inflation, the one sort of silver bullet that I can see out there is if Vladimir Putin was no longer either running Russia or this conflict ceased. So, give a little bit of insight about your conviction that his burn rate is unsustainable, and when that sort of forces his hand. 

James Stavridis: I think there are two burn rates, you know, private equity. I learned as a vice chairman at the Carlyle Group. We talk about burn rates a lot in our portfolio companies. A burn rate is just the resources that you're kind of clipping through. But it exists on both sides of that firing line. So, Putin's burn rate is troops. He's probably lost north of 30,000, killed in action, maybe 60,000 grievously wounded. He's trying to backfill by a shambolic recruiting process, but he's burning through troops and he's burning through equipment. Think about this. Putin is now on bended knee, going to Tehran and asking for Iranian drones, Iranian long-range missiles. That's pretty extraordinary that a military that's supposedly one of the best in the world is running out of its own resources in that regard. And by the way, he's lost 2000 tanks and armored personnel carriers as a percentage of his force by 40% in those categories, dozens and dozens of combat aircraft, high burn rate, men and material. Over here, there's a subtle difference. The Ukrainians have high motivation. They're getting backfilled with all the equipment they need. Their problem, their burn rate is the patience and the checkbook of the West. Even in the last few days, we've heard from Speaker Potential McCarthy saying, you know, those blank checks we've been writing, maybe that's not going to keep going at that level. You know, he didn't say we're going to walk away from Ukraine. And I can't imagine him conceptualizing as doing so. But I think he is channeling what a lot of people are thinking that we're spending tens of billions of dollars over here and it's going to have long term costs. So that burn rate of patience and resources is acting on Zelenskyy. So, what the question is, when do both those burn rates kind of cross like in Ghostbusters? Except here you want those streams to cross. And I'd say, it keeps getting pushed out by the success of the Ukrainians and by Putin's intransigence. But I think the reality is that by the end of Q1, beginning Q2, which not coincidentally is after the winter, you're going to see both those burn rates kind of start to cross. That's the moment when we could think about a negotiation. What would that look like? You know, it could be President Erdoğan of Turkey who did a pretty good job when you and I were talking in the summer. Great concerns about grain getting out of Ukraine. Erdoğan stepped in and negotiated the agreement, which is working reasonably well, moving grain out of Odessa. Could Erdoğan who is known and trusted I think in both capitals be a force? Maybe. How about President Xi? If there's anybody who would want the economy of the world to get back on a solid footing, it's President Xi. You know, he just had his coronation as the supreme leader, maybe he'll become the supreme leader of China. Who knows? But I think more importantly, he had some small, good news. His growth looks closer to 4% than 3%. But hey, that's a recession in China. If you're not making it 6 to 8%, that's terrible. And I don't need to tell a real estate czar like you about the real estate overbuild problem China has. So, he's got a lot of motivation to try and solve this problem. He might step in, could be the United Nations, the secretary general. In any event, to answer the question, I think those burn rates Willy, will kind of come together, hopefully right after the winter. That's my best bet right now. 

Willy Walker: So, talking about XI is a good segue to your book, 2034, which many have called speculative fiction. I would call it prescient fiction, given what we're seeing right now going on in both Europe as well as in Asia. But one of the reasons I've heard you title it 2034, Jim, is that by 2030, it's your estimation that China will become the global superpower. And so given that you put it four years after China sort of takes that role and given exactly what you just pointed to, China's growth being at 3 to 4% right now, their economic capability and the strength of China seems to be one of the preconditions to them going after Taiwan. And in your book, it's basically a conflict between the United States and China that is tipped off by a cyber-attack, which happens around Taiwan. And as a result of that, then Russia goes and invades Poland, which is all very interesting, given that in reality now we have Russia invading Ukraine. So that's the reason I call it prescient fiction. But talk for a moment about the real threat of China invading Taiwan or doing a blockade around Taiwan, and whether you think right now we are closer to that reality or further away than what you portray in your book? 

James Stavridis: Yeah, I think here's some good news. I think we're actually further away. And the reason for that is quite clear. If you put yourself in the shoes of President Xi, watching what's happening in Ukraine, you're asking yourself three questions: Number one, I wonder if my generals are as bad as those Russian generals appear to be. I wonder if my equipment is as crummy as the Russian equipment. And frankly, a lot of the model of the Chinese military is based on the old Soviet system. And don't forget, if you're President Xi, your army hasn't been in a war since 1950, since the Korean War. The United States, on the other hand, has been in the Vietnam War. Persian Gulf one. Persian Gulf two. Iraq. Afghanistan. The West has highly blooded armies. You do not. So, you don't know. You just don't know how it will turn out, if you go to the big dance with the United States. 

Question two you're asking yourself is, I wonder if those Taiwanese will fight like hell the way the Ukrainians are? Answer: You don't know. I don't know. But I've been there, I've met with the Taiwanese, I've met Madam Sy, the President. I think the Taiwanese will fight and fight hard. I don't think they'll go gently into that good night. So that's uncertainty if you're Xi. 

And number three, you're asking yourself to our conversation a moment ago, you know, the most important thing for me is my economy and my economy's too big to sanction. Right. Well, who knows? 

Maybe we can't carpet bomb the Chinese economy with sanctions. We can certainly launch some very precision guided strikes. The recent chip concerns, I think, are an example of what could really hamstring the Chinese economy. 

So bottom line, if you're Xi, you're feeling pretty good, you've been anointed as the leader of China for a third, five-year term – but you're watching this debacle in Ukraine fomented by your strongest ally, by definition, I suppose. They're not, by the way, formal allies, but they have a partnership without limits, was how the two of them categorized it in January before the invasion. I think there are some limits now. So, when I look at all of that, Willy, I think if you're Xi, you're kind of pumping the brakes here. You're not looking for a massive war with the United States. I think that gives Taiwan some breathing space. They can then purchase the weapons systems they need to defend themselves. Hopefully, that'll create deterrence. And 2034 will turn out not to be predictive fiction, but cautionary fiction that led to some of the changes that help us avoid such a war.

Willy Walker: So, I've heard you mention the book Strategy of Denial by Elbridge Colby as a good read on Taiwan and Taiwan defending itself. I've got to before you and I finish, I've got to go to you are an incredibly well-read man. And I'm always fascinated whenever I listen to you talk about just the breadth of what you've read. And obviously, you're also a prolific writer. You're two sort of, if you will, favorite books that you read almost annually are The Old Man and the Sea and To Kill a Mockingbird. Talk for a moment, Jim, about why those two books are so important to you. 

James Stavridis: Yeah, I love those books, and everyone has read them. That's one thing I like about it. I feel like I'm part of a larger community in the world. I mean, it's a book that most people read when they're 13, 14, maybe 15 years old. Number two, the themes are so powerful. The story of Santiago, the fisherman, is one of resilience, of overcoming, of knowing that you can be destroyed but not defeated as long as you continue to believe in yourself and believe in your craft. It's a book about mentorship that goes both ways from Santiago to a very young fisherman and ultimately back from that young fisherman to Santiago, it's a beautifully realized book. You can read it in a couple of hours. I pick it up at about once every year or so, mostly for that inspiration of leadership. To Kill a Mockingbird – a completely different book set in the 1930s in the Deep South, a story of racial injustice of a black man falsely accused of a rape, of a courageous lawyer, Atticus Finch, who believes in the case and takes it knowing it will cost him enormously his position in society and that it'll bring real risk to his children, his daughter, Scout. And finally, it's a book about a young woman's coming of age. So those are pretty powerful themes that we see rattling around in the United States in this moment. So, yeah, those are a couple of books I often pick up and go back and read. 

Can I give you a book I just read that's quite good about a lot of what we're talking about. It's called Chip War, like microchips by Dr. Chris Miller. He was on my faculty when I was dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Deep Russian expert. Deep technology expert. He's like 32 years old. Brilliant. And the book is really quite good about how microchips are going to be a big part of this back and forth among the great powers. 

Willy Walker: So, two final things. The first is that if anybody listening to this webcast sees you wearing your letter jacket from Annapolis, it has special meaning beyond just the fact that you were a tennis and squash star at the Naval Academy, but it was the only thing that survived 9/11 in your office, which I thought was super interesting hearing that. And then also the incredible significance that that must have to you not only harboring back to your days at Annapolis and how much fun you had playing intercollegiate sports but that it's the one thing that survived that terrible day. The other is that you've won 50 medals in your active military career, which is the most meaningful, Jim? 

James Stavridis: I think in the long throw of my life, the thing that's most meaningful has to do with those medals, but it might surprise you as follows. I have been awarded 50 military decorations. 28 of them, more than half, are from foreign nations. And I think that as I look at my life, the fact that I've been able to engage in the international world to such a degree has been central to who I am. A long career in the military, Commander of NATO, but then five years as dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, it’s a School of International Relations. And now, my role is Vice Chairman of Global Affairs at the Carlyle Group. I'm a believer in America's place in the world, I think that's critical in every way. Professionally, that's what means the most to me, the engagement in the international world. Personally, and I say this to you as a triathlete and a star on the ski slopes and in many other sports. Personally, I'm very proud of sports and fitness and having a racquet in my hand a couple of times a week, even at my advanced age, is a big part of me. So, they're both important, one professionally and one personally, I suppose. 

Willy Walker: And of course, having your two wonderful daughters and their spouses and seeing them in their careers. 

Admiral, it's just every time I'm with you, every time I read and listen to you, it's just a real honor. You are a true, not only an asset, but you're just a blessing to our nation. And your career is something that many, many of us are exceedingly thankful for. I'm thankful for the friendship and extremely thankful that you took the time to share your thoughts with me this morning. 

James Stavridis: My total pleasure. And I'll simply return the compliment and say what you have accomplished in building up this firm from a small family office to a global powerhouse and think of all the jobs you've created, the lives you've touched, everything you've done with your children, with your family, and I had a chance to meet your parents. It's equally inspirational. So, thanks for a wonderful conversation today, Willy. I'll see you in Sun Valley this summer, if not before. 

Willy Walker: I look forward to it. Thanks, everyone, for joining us today. Have a great day. And thanks again, Admiral. It was a real pleasure. 

James Stavridis: My honor. 

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