Interview: NATO Supreme Allied Commander on Syria and Soft Power

Admiral James Stavridis talks with us about this year's biggest military challenges.

Admiral James Stavridis pays his respects at the Monument of the Unknown Soldier during a welcoming ceremony in Sofia on April 27, 2010. (Oleg Popov/Reuters)

It's a big year for big, messy problems -- the Syrian crisis continues to confound the international community, the U.S. and coalition partners are gearing up to depart Afghanistan, and the so-called "Arab Spring" countries have faced major impediments in their attempts to transition to democracy.

I spoke with Admiral James Stavridis, who is wrapping up his stint as NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe to become the Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, this week about these and other challenges. Stavridis champions something he calls "open source" security, where soft and hard power and private and public sectors work together in conflict areas all over the world.

Given the scope of modern crises, "we will not deliver security solely through the barrel of a gun," he argued in a recent TED talk.

An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

What's going to happen in Afghanistan after the U.S. pulls out in 2014?

In Afghanistan, unlike Syria -- where I'm pessimistic about outcomes -- I'm cautiously optimistic about outcomes.

Some have called Afghanistan the graveyard of empires, and it probably is the graveyard of empires. The good news is, we aren't an empire. This isn't a single nation going into Afghanistan. We are a coalition of 50 nations. This is a real international effort. As a result of that support, we've created an Afghan security force of 350,000 people. We've trained them to read -- literacy training is a big part of it, as well as all the combat training. Today, the Afghans lead 80 percent of all missions -- this is moving quite successfully. It's married to progress in the civil sector -- 8 million children are in school, and more than 3 million are girls. Under the Taliban, there were less than one million, and no girls. Today there are more than 17 million people using cell phones, and 85 percent have access to health care. There is vibrant media, dozens of radio stations, and 20 television stations. It's a society that's becoming very comfortable with information. In the Asia Foundation's annual surveys, the Taliban usually poll in popularity at about 8 to 10 percent; the Afghan government polls at about 75 percent. The Taliban is unpopular; their narrative is broken -- they say they're fighting foreign invaders, but we're decreasing our presence there.

I don't think the Taliban are going to succeed in a military dimension. If I were the Taliban I would think about coming to the negotiating table, which is how insurgencies typically end. Look at the IRA, what's happening in Colombia. The FARC is at the bargaining table with the government. Sure, there are a lot of problems -- corruption, governance issues. Afghanistan is a mixed picture, but after four years of watching, I'm cautiously optimistic.

Do the recent Israeli air strikes to you show, as some have argued , that Syria's air defenses are weaker than we thought and we could indeed conduct air raids there if we wanted to?

I think Syria is a humanitarian disaster of increasingly enormous proportions -- there have been probably 100,000 killed or missing, 1.4 million pushed outside of Syria, notably in huge refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan, and we probably have one million internally displaced. From a NATO perspective, our first concern is protecting the border of the alliance -- the Turkish border along the north of Syria. We deployed Patriot missiles there, and they are currently protecting millions of Turkish citizens.

Let's go back to Libya and see what caused NATO to be involved there. It was a UN Security Council resolution. NATO's engagement in Syria is predicated on a UN Security Council resolution. It will also require the acquiescence of the region, and a pressing humanitarian rationale. Clearly the third exists, but unfortunately we are distant from the first [the UN resolution] -- partly because Russia, the U.S. and China have not been in agreement. I'm encouraged that Secretary Kerry landed in Moscow, and hopefully there can be discussions and as an international community we can come together to work this out. As far as arms embargos and no fly zones, we are doing prudent thinking and planning. There is nothing we can do until a political decision is made.

But one strike is a very different proposition than launching a big campaign. The benefit of surprise and stealth and a single-point strike may or may not tell us a good deal about Syrian air defense, broadly conceived. Syria has about 10 times the air defense capability that Libya had, and it's compressed into about one-fifth the space of Libya. It would be a challenging air defense environment.

What is our best option in Syria, then?

There are several things we should be doing -- NATO has to protect the NATO border. We have to ensure that Turkey is secure and that this doesn't spill into the Turkey border.

[Western powers] should be helping states that are dealing with massive refugee populations. We should be continuing to add significant diplomatic pressure -- and I think we're doing those things. You'll see press reports about arming the rebels -- I think those discussions are ongoing; different nations have different views on that. The downside is, who do you arm? And what happens to those weapons afterward?

What does a post-Assad Syria look like?

We do have a fairly recent situation that's somewhat similar to Syria, and that does not fill me with optimism: The Balkans in the 1990s. If you look at Yugoslavia -- a nation that was constructed of different ethnic and religious groups. Tito departs the scene, and the region goes through a 10-year process throughout the 1990s. Several million are pushed across borders, requiring the intervention of tens of thousands of Western and Russian troops to bring the situation under control. I think that might be where Syria is headed.

When people say, "what does Syria look like the day after Assad?" That's the wrong question. It's not what it will look like the day after; it's what will Syria look like a decade after. I would not be surprised to see Syria break apart entirely. I think that is a risk.

You had the ultimate hard-power job. How did you become such an advocate of soft power?

Two things happened to me in my career that crystallized this for me: I went to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy run by Tufts University for my PhD. I looked at diplomatic history, culture, international law, business and finance, as well as security studies. That was extremely influential for me in my early years. I wrote about the Law of the Sea treaty, which was the largest negotiating project in the history of the world and was a holistic approach to negotiating security.

The second thing was the job I had before this, which was the Commander of the U.S. Southern Command, based in Miami. My mission there was to have command of all U.S. forces south of the United States -- Central America, the Caribbean, and South America. It became clear that traditional military activity there had not been especially effective -- there was a great deal of condescension, military activity, and invasion. There are long memories in Latin America of that sort of approach. It became clear to me that a traditional, robust presence there would not be effective. So we did things like send hospital ships full of military doctors and volunteers. We would send baseball teams down there. We determined that in each of these countries, we would not be doing only traditional hard-power activities. Because of that job, that crystallized for me that interagency, international, private-public approach, and I think it's effective.

But it doesn't mean you can just give up hard power. Soft power by itself is no power at all.

Are we doing enough soft power right now? Has the sequester made a dent in our ability to do that?

We should provide more resources to the State Department and to USAID. They are very good investments. Small amounts of money can have a huge effects.

We're all under financial pressure right now, but I will certainly be a voice for adequately resourcing our interagency partners.

What's a good example of a good use of soft power by the U.S. in the past 10 years?

Colombia. Ten years ago, Colombia was a nation that looked somewhat like Syria today. It had a violent insurgency, the FARC, the economy was failing, there were instances of torture, kidnapping, and rape. The U.S. created something called " Plan Colombia"-- it included diplomatic support and development aid, and we limited ourselves to no more than 800 troops. We trained Colombians in counter-insurgency, and over the past 10 years, Colombia is now absolutely thriving. Medellin was recently named the most innovative city in the world. Cartagena was named in the New York Times as one of the top vacation destinations in the world.

Colombia is a good example of using those types of tools with a very real result. When I look at Afghanistan, we still have five years to go before we can really disengage. We're really good at launching tomahawk missiles. We need to get better at launching ideas. Our ideas are really good -- democracy, freedom of religion, freedom of the press.

Anything else you want to tell us?

I would encourage the NATO alliance to do two things: one is to focus more attention and resources on cyber[security] -- we have a high level of mismatch between the level of threat and our level of preparation. Our potential opponents are doing really well in that venue.

The second thing is that I would encourage our European allies to spend more on defense. They have a goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. The U.S. spends about 5 percent -- we're going down as a part of the sequester, but we're still going to be well above 3 percent. Europe has gone down to 1.6 percent. I don't think that's sufficient for Europe. I

think that might become a divisive factor in the alliance. I'm encouraging our European friends to up their game a bit.