The Accidental Admiral: A Sailor Takes Command at NATO is a memoir of Admiral James Stavridis’s experience as NATO’s supreme allied commander. The first half of the book is essentially a chronological account of his experiences as NATO’s military leader, from learning of his appointment from Secretary Robert Gates to navigating through the crises that faced Adm. Stavridis throughout his tenure—everything from managing NATO operations in Afghanistan, the intervention in Libya, the Syrian civil war, and more.
The book’s title, The Accidental Admiral, references the fact that Adm. Stavridis was the first Navy admiral to serve as supreme allied commander, and he uses the “accidental” nature (according to Adm. Stavridis) of the appointment to illustrate a broader point about how his career path had veered into unexpected areas but with positive results. In another example, he explains his intention early in his career to resign from the Navy and go to law school to practice corporate law following his five-year commitment to the Navy, but is stopped by Adm. Mike Mullen (later chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff but then a lieutenant commander in the Bureau of Navy Personnel). Adm. Mullen instead arranged for the Navy to send Adm. Stavridis to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy to study international relations, selling the idea with the fact that the School has “law” in its name—Adm. Stavridis was later appointed dean of the Fletcher School in 2013. His description of an “accidental” career in the preface seems implicitly intended to assuage young professionals and students anxious about charting their career path: “Our plans never quite survive contact with the real world,” applying Helmut von Moltke’s line about military planning to career planning.
The ways the above anecdotes are presented are the book’s biggest asset. It is highly accessible, the tone is easy, and it reads more like a conversation with a friendly and well-traveled professor than an admiral’s memoirs. This makes sense given his acumen with modern communication techniques (he announced the end of NATO operations in Libya over Twitter and devotes a chapter of the book to strategic communications) and displays his skill at explaining complex issues with clarity and in simple, understandable language. While much political and military communication seems intent on obfuscating, either deliberately or because the messengers do not know how to focus their message for a broad audience, Adm. Stavridis does the exact opposite and more than anything else seems focused on conveying meaning and ensuring the reader understands the issue.
The book’s biggest issue is that it spans an incredible range of regions, topics, and ideas, but never develops any of these as deeply as they could be. This is especially an issue in the second half of the book, which reads like a series of inchoate Foreign Affairs articles. This works for some chapters, especially his chapters on leadership or strategic communication whose brevity and sectioned structures make them useful backgrounders on complicated topics and highlight Adm. Stavridis’s ability to distill complicated topics into their most useful or applicable components. On the other hand, the chapters on subjects as complicated as innovation or strategic planning feel underdeveloped and could have been elaborated further.
For all of the anecdotes he shares about the people he’s worked with, the most surprising is the revelation of his friendship with Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to NATO and famous for his bombastic statements, such as calling Ukraine and Georgia “bankrupt scandalous regimes.” Adm. Stavridis notes that while he and Amb. Rogozin had considerable professional disagreements, notably over missile defense and U.S. operations in Libya, the two remained close friends who visited each other regularly, even as Adm. Stavridis became increasingly unsettled about the intentions of his counterpart’s government.
Amb. Rogozin was one of the first people to be placed under President Obama’s sanctions package in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine (Amb. Rogozin’s response to having his airspace restricted was to say that he would return in a bomber). There should be no argument that Russia and its leaders needed to face consequences for their covert invasion of Ukraine, not to mention their suppression of dissent in Russia, military actions in Georgia, and general bullying of neighbors who do not strictly follow Putin’s line. There can be an argument about the best ways to respond, but isolating states and discouraging engagement tends to harden conflicts rather than resolve them. Adm. Stavridis’s friendship with Amb. Rogozin would not, on its own, have resolved the crisis over Ukraine or thawed U.S.-Russian relations, but it represents the connections that are essential to successfully reestablishing engagement when the time is right.
Adm. Stavridis, through his recollection of his friendship with Amb. Rogozin and others, demonstrates that he understands well the importance of partnerships and friendships in navigating global crises as part of the “smart power” agenda that he personally promotes. U.S. foreign policy—toward Russia and in general—would benefit if it remembered that isolating adversaries may feel moral, but resolving crises requires a foundation of personal engagement. The White House could learn a lot from Adm. Stavridis.