War adapts itself and evolves. While some may take comfort in the fact that conventional battles are most likely a phenomenon of the past, the wisdom that guided those who won them is crucial to inform us about how to efficiently carry the fight from now on.
I recently reviewed the insightful novel 2034 by Admiral James Stavridis about a potential future war between China and the United States, during which China’s People’s Liberation Army takes advantage of technology to defeat the US Navy. Anyone watching the news can grasp that the rivalry between Beijing and Washington could lead to a hot war in the future, even if the author of the novel – a man who forgot more about polemology than any of us will ever learn – evaluates that the risks are feeble, the need to be prepared is nevertheless crucial.
Before the Holidays, Admiral James Stavridis USN (Ret.), one of my favorite authors, granted me an end of year interview about issues related to his amazing novel 2034 about a war between China and the United States. These geopolitical issues are unlikely to disappear from the radar in the coming months and years. The Admiral’s insights are therefore not only very informative, but also crucial to grasp the state of the world.
Admiral Stavridis, I’ve read and reviewed 2034: A Novel of the Next World War(Penguin Random House) with tremendous interest. Before we head into more serious stuff, a question burns my tongue. Since there are lots of mention of the delicious M&Ms throughout the novel, I was wondering if you are a fan of that candy yourself and if that’s the reason why it is mentioned in the book?
While I am not personally a fan of M&M candies, I have known many sea-going naval officers who are. I liked the idea of Lin Bao [one of the main characters of 2034] enjoying an American candy, essentially a nod to the duality of his upbringing.
I am not a person who enjoys novels. My youngest daughter was therefore astonished when she saw me reading 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. “Yes, but it’s about a potential war between the United States and China. Plus, it’s written by an author I really like and admire, Admiral Stavridis [and Elliot Ackerman]”, I said. I admit that this was an exceptional experience and not only because of the genre, but mainly because this is one of the most thoughtful books anyone interested in geopolitics and the fate of the world should read now.
2034. About 12 years from now. Might as well say tomorrow. Russian President Vladimir Putin still occupies the highest office in the Kremlin – a scenario that made me smile – and the Israelis have lost the Golan after a military confrontation with Syria – an outcome that makes me cringe, since I have seen with my own eyes how vital this territory is to Israel’s security. The Chinese are still vying for “[…] uncontested control of the South China Sea.” Equipped with superior cyber capabilities, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army neutralizes the weapons and communications system of a flotilla of three American warships. Only one of them will remain afloat at the end of the confrontation. A military operation that was supposed to serve as a message turned into a World War.
After German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed the articles of surrender on May 9th, 1945, “Soviet officers shook hands with their allies from the west.” World War II was officially over, and a festive spirit descended upon the victors. “Vodka and champagne flowed, freely, and buoyed by the joyous atmosphere, [Soviet Marshal] Zhukov even performed a Russian folk dance on the parquet floor of the officers’ mess.”
Passages like those abound in Volker Ullrich’s most recent book Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich (Liveright). Between the covers of this absorbing and sometimes revolting book, the reader is immersed in the tragic hours when the grandees of the Nazi horde maneuver to cling to power under the leadership of Admiral Karl Dönitz, while trying to save as many German soldiers as possible from the advancing Russian soldiers who are – legitimately, one could say – thirsty for “revenge and retribution”.
In his last speech as Prime Minister of Israel last Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu evoked his proximity with President Vladimir Putin the following way:
“We developed special relations with Russia, not just with Russia as a state, we also nurtured a direct close line with the president of Russia. And in so doing, we guaranteed the freedom of maneuver of the Israeli Air Force in the skies of Syria in order to prevent Iran entrenchment on our Northern border.”
I have always found the closeness between Putin and Netanyahu to be extremely interesting, not to say simply fascinating. Notably in the context of the increasing presence of Russia in the Middle East.
“Beneath its Prussian exterior of short haircuts, crisp uniforms, and exacting standards, the Corps nurtured some of the strangest mavericks and most original thinkers I would encounter in my journey through multiple commands, dozens of countries, and many college campuses”, writes former SecDef Jim Mattis in the prologue of his gripping book Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead (Random House).
In itself, this quote encapsulates the content of the book. Anyone interested in military affairs knows that the US Marines are the shock troops of Uncle Sam. But beneath the pugilistic façade and Spartan aptitudes, these warriors are also tireless thinkers. “You must think until your head hurts », says the author whose intellect is notably evident in the fact that I counted no less that 132 references to books or historical references in the space of just 249 pages of text. You can easily imagine the former Marines General carrying tomes in his backpack during exercises and military operations.
But what’s more impressive in Mattis’ account is the trouble he always took thinking outside the box and broadening the reach of his antennas. “Using a technique I had found in my reading, I intended to gather information that bypassed normal reporting channels by means of “focused telescopes.” I copied this technique from Frederick the Great, Wellington, and Rommel, among others.” Mattis wanted to make sure he stayed grounded on those who shoulder any effort on the battlefield, the foot soldiers.
History remembers October 21st 1805 not only as Admiral Horatio Nelson’s last day on Earth, but also as the day he won the naval battle off Gibraltar (Cape Trafalgar), ensuring his name would forever live in posterity, history books and in our collective memory. A simple stroll on Trafalgar Square in London or a quick visit in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral where he lies for eternity highlight how much this victory and the man who made it possible mean to British consciousness.
Standing at most five and a half feet and afflicted with seasickness and other illnesses, Horatio Nelson was hardly a giant among men […].
“Born weak and sickly, Horatio Nelson was hardly a giant among men […] he stood at most five and a half feet in his stockings. Slight of built, and eventually missing both an arm and an eye lost in combat, he was also afflicted with seasickness and other illnesses on and off throughout his life.” He furthermore suffered from a boyhood insecurity complex that made him seek and revel in public recognition. Traits that would certainly be mocked by the likes of Donald Trump where he be alive today.
Whatever physical impediment he suffered from was vastly compensated by his character. To that effect, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO reminds us that the famous sea warlord was an adept team-builder who also knew how to take care of his men, “[…] ensuring that his sailors received the best possible treatment.”
How can this role model of the past inspire us today?
Seasonal depression is upon us as the days grow shorter, influenza is about to rear its ugly head and we are in the midst of a worldwide and deadly pandemic. Much to be depressed about and wither in self-pity. But we must not. Despite his condition and preconditions, Horatio Nelson was never one to cower or shy away from his duties. Were he alive today, he would certainly be one of the staunchest fighters against the current somber context, displaying his values of determination, discipline and goodwill unto others. We can do the same today by wearing a mask, keeping our distances, helping local foodbanks, getting in touch with the elderly just to name a few examples.
It is not at all difficult to imagine Admiral Nelson wearing a mask himself and caring for people around him, as any true leader should, because he did in his times. “He worked hard to make to make sure that food was fresh [for his sailors], water plentiful and unpolluted, and each ship had a competent surgeon.”
Despite his handicaps, Nelson trusted his judgment to achieve his goal. At the battle of Copenhagen, in 1801, “[…] he famously deliberately pressed a telescope to the eye that had been blinded earlier in his career, thereby ignoring the signals of his superior, and ended up winning an important victory over the Danes. The phrase “turning a blind eye” was reportedly inspired by the incident.”
A powerful testimony that our liabilities can be pivoted to become our greatest assets.
Today, more than ever, the victor of Cape Trafalgar – who clipped Napoleon’s sails and guaranteed Britain’s safety – has a lot to teach us. And we would all be well advised to learn from his school of character.
Want to read more about inspiring figures like Horatio Nelson who rode the waves of adversity and led the ships home safely? I strongly suggest you grab a copy of Admiral Stavridis’ excellent book.
Trust me, you won’t regret it.
Admiral James Stavridis, Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character, New York, The Penguin Press, 2019,336 pages.
Retired Four-Star Admiral James Stavridis served as the 16th NATO Supreme Allied Commander – a function once occupied by the legendary General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 2016, it was reported that he was vetted as a potential running mate for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. He recently published an excellent book Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Characterwhich I recently had the privilege – and tremendous pleasure – to review here on this blog.
Having always been attached to the Fourth of July celebrations because of my deep admiration for the United States, it was my intention of publishing a special interview for the occasion. Admiral Stavridis generously accepted to answer my questions and I’m profoundly grateful.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this book would be an excellent holiday read. Happy Fourth of July to all my American friends!
Here is the content of this insightful interview.
We are headed into a new Cold War with China. That seems inevitable now, but we need a strategy to avoid it turning into a shooting war.
In Sailing True North, one of my favorite chapter (with the one devoted to Nelson) is the one about Zheng He. What do you think of the current tense situation with China and how do you think we should deal with that?
We are headed into a new Cold War with China. That seems inevitable now, but we need a strategy to avoid it turning into a shooting war. That will require a mix of diplomacy, military deterrence, tech savvy, economic tools (both in competition with China and in encouraging other nations to avoid Chinese “debt traps”). In essence, we should confront China where we must (cyber, trade, tariffs, their claims of “owning” the South China Sea) but cooperate where we can (environment, pandemics, arctic trade routes). It will be a difficult and at times a dangerous passage. My next book, In Face, out in March 2021, is a novel about … a war with China! It is a cautionary tale, and let’s hope we don’t find it turning from fiction to fact before our eyes. Here’s a link to the Amazon page.
In the book, there are several references to religion, one to the Conclave, the other to John XXIII and Thomas Aquinas. I might be wrong, but I assume you are a Catholic and that faith seems to have had a significant impact on your journey. Am I wrong? Would you say that faith might also be an important buoy on the voyage of character?
Sea Power has always fascinated me. I will forever cherish the memories of walking in the footsteps of Admiral Chester Nimitz in Pearl Harbor and Admiral Horatio Nelson at Gibraltar. Back in 2011, I spent a night on the Rock and had trouble sleeping. Heat certainly had something to do with it, but I was also pondering how the British legend spent his days here, defending the interests of King and Country at the entrance of the Mediterranean Sea. I like to think that I might have crossed his spirit while walking in the beautiful streets of this British Overseas Territory.
These men and women who ruled the waves were gifted with exceptional and inspirational values. And I’m very grateful to retired Admiral James Stavridis for writing Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character, where he details how these larger than life figures not only mastered what are certainly some of the most demanding jobs in the world, but also their character in front of adversity, whether it is the threat of invasion, war, bureaucracy, sexism or racism just to quote these examples. The best lessons are seldom learnt in easy circumstances.
Naturally, I will not talk about each of the fascinating personas that are presented between the covers, but I will write a few words about my Top 3.
After reading his insightful, well-written and gripping book about President Vladimir Putin, I asked Professor Mark Galeotti if he would accept to answer a few questions for this blog. He swiftly agreed and I’m very grateful for the generosity of his time. Here is the content of our exchange.
Many sincere thanks Pr. Galeotti for accepting to respond to a few questions for my blog.
His very privacy means we all get to imagine our own personal Putin…
On page 22 of your excellent book about President Putin, you write “If people think you are powerful, you are powerful.” On page 53, you refer to “purposeful theatricality”. In your book, Putin doesn’t come across as a bad person. Is there an important difference between the public and private persona of the Russian President? How is Mr. Putin different in private than what he shows in public?
The thing is that we really have very little sense of the true private self of Vladimir Putin: he absolutely protects that side of his life, and instead what we see is a guarded and carefully managed public persona. I think that for all the opulence of his lifestyle – the palaces, the personal staff, the thousand-dollar tracksuits – he is actually something of a lonely and distant figure, now almost trapped within the public persona, but this is very much my own imagining. In a way, that’s the point: his very privacy means we all get to imagine our own personal Putin…
On page 75, you debunk the notion that Vladimir Putin is some kind of social conservative (he notably upholds abortion rights), arguing that he is a pragmatist first. This notion is unfortunately not widely known in the West. Why do you think observers and commentators still hold to the notion that he is some kind of conservative ideologue?