Full Speed Ahead

An Interview with Adm. James Stavridis

OR: You’ve cited cruise ships as a potential target for terrorists -- can you expand on your concerns there?

Stavridis: I think that terrorists would try one of two scenarios. One would be to use a barge while a cruise ship's in port: bring it alongside much as they drive a truck bomb into a busy marketplace in Beirut on a suicide mission. Such an attack could conceivably sink one of these enormous 5,000-person passenger cruise liners. That's one scenario. Somewhat like the USS Cole was attacked in Yemen some years ago.

A second, more complex scenario would be to take over a cruise liner and take hostages. Cruise liners have pretty minimal security on board. It's not non-existent, but they hardly have SEAL teams on board to protect them. I think it would be relatively easy to construct a way in which you get a terrorist team on board a ship. You could wreak absolute havoc, create a hostage situation and really play out a very horrific scenario that you could imagine the dark end of. So this is a terrorist threat at sea, not a state-on-state threat at sea. But I think it's a significant one that we haven't devoted enough time and energy to thinking about and how we would counter it.

OR: Do you see such an attack as a plausibility, a probability, or an inevitability?

Stavridis: I'd say at the moment it's a plausibility. It's often said that 9/11 was not a failure of intelligence, but a failure of imagination. I think that we are not sufficiently putting ourselves in the shoes of the terrorists and thinking about what they are thinking about. Right now, they are fixated on continuing to go after aviation. I'm not sure why they are. We've hardened those targets considerably. It's hard to get into an airport. It's hard to get on a plane with a weapon. Why they're not more interested in the maritime world, where it's relatively easier, I don't know. But I think that if I'm thinking about it, they will probably begin to think about it. So I'd say it's a plausibility verging toward a probability at this point.

OR: What is your take on the future of NATO after Trump?

Stavridis: Let me start with giving you several reasons why I think the NATO alliance is a good return on investment for America. We spend $600 billion a year on defense. The Europeans spend between $300 and $400 billion a year on defense. That's more than Russia and China combined. So they, collectively, have the second-largest defensive budget in the world. We want them on our side.

Secondly, their geographic position -- they are on the western edge of the Eurasian continent -- is highly, highly strategic. People used to say, "Oh, we don't need those Cold War bases in Europe any more." Wrong. Those are the forward operating stations of the 21st century, allowing the United States to project power into the Levant to defend Israel, into the near Middle East, into Afghanistan. Those bases are absolutely critical.

Then there's the economy. Europe, collectively -- I mean the non-U.S. NATO allies -- have a GDP of around $17 trillion, the same as the United States. Again, it's the largest collective economy in the world. We want them on our team.

They share our values. Where else on the planet are we going to find a pool of partners who believe as fervently in democracy, liberty, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression as we do? Who every day stand with us? The only time the NATO alliance has actually conducted an Article 5 operation -- that's the "an attack on one is an attack on all" clause -- was when the United States was attacked on 9/11. So I think there's a huge positive return on investment from the European partners.

They, however, have been spending somewhat less than the two percent of GDP goal. This is what President Trump, I think correctly, criticizes NATO for. So what would make this alliance perfect, instead of being very, very good, would be if the Europeans would up their defense spending from their current 1.6% or 1.7% to a full two percent of their GDP. They are trending toward more defense spending. I give President Trump credit for having energized that with his, shall we say, blunt talk. But the bottom line is that if this alliance didn't exist, we'd have to invent it. We'd desperately want it if it didn't already exist. We'd be very foolish to denigrate it or walk away from it.

OR: Do you think it was a mistake NATO expanded eastward to the extent that it did?

Stavridis: This is going to be a terrific geopolitical question to ponder. I think that the short answer is no. I don't think we made a mistake. Let's go down the path of if we had not done that. I think by now Russia would have created a very strong sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. They would have recreated a kind of Warsaw Pact-lite. And those nations currently inside the NATO umbrella would be inside a Russian umbrella. I don't think that's a better world.

Despite the fact that it's frustrating to Russia, I think that NATO does not threaten Russia. I've been the Supreme Allied Commander. I've read and literally written the war plans at NATO. I can tell you as a fact that we don't have a single offensive war plan directed against the Russian Federation, whatever they think. So I would say what we need to do is put ourselves in the shoes of the Russians and work very hard to convince Russia that we're not encircling them. It might feel that way. But let's work together, let's create zones of cooperation.