Admiral James Stavridis talks security during inaugural Robson Conference

The number of growing security threats around the world today may lead some Americans to advocate for isolationism and the building of walls to keep out those who intend to do harm. The United States should guard against this and instead look to build alliances and bridges to become more secure in the 21st century, according to retired U.S. Navy Admiral and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis.

A noted author and the current dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Stavridis spoke to a room of Emory alumni, students and guests at the Carter Center as part of the inaugural conference for the John E. Robson Program for Business, Public Policy, and Government. Established in 2017 and named for former Goizueta Dean John E. Robson, the program focuses on the growing complexities of business and civics.

History has proven that building walls doesn’t work, Stavridis said, citing the Berlin Wall, Iron Curtain and Bamboo Curtain. Stavridis noted from personal experience that not even the Pentagon, one of the safest buildings in the world, is truly safe, having witnessed the terrorist attack on the Pentagon up close and personal on 9/11.

“Walls will not create security,” he said. “In order to build security, we will need to build bridges, not walls.”

Today’s challenges are numerous and daunting. These include violent extremism, both abroad and at home, that can be religious, political and racially motivated, he said. In addition, several nations pose a threat to America’s overall security in some form, including Iran, North Korea, Syria and Russia. These range from state-sponsored terrorism to nuclear weapons to geopolitical posturing. 

Additional security threats include the pervasive drug trade that undermines fledgling democracies in the Americas, health pandemics and global warming, which may be the biggest long-term challenge. But the biggest security threat today is the rising number and sophistication of cyberattacks, which Stavridis described as the “ultimate challenge.” Recent political attacks that have been linked to Russia, as well as corporate attacks including Equifax, underscore how unprepared the U.S. is to deal with such looming threats, which can be politically and financially motivated.

Cybercriminal activities can range from stealing state secrets to stealing an individual’s most private and intimate details from the cloud.

Rather than building walls, Stavridis noted that the U.S. can build bridges to other cultures by becoming more actively engaged throughout the world to build intellectual capital. This starts by listening to allies, partners and with each other within the country to achieve greater understanding and different perspectives of complex topics, and by reading more about world affairs and studying foreign languages, which helps to remove barriers.

Americans also should hold fast to democratic values and freedoms in a world of uncertainty and chaos, he said. And they should continue to see the U.S. as a force for good, leveraging the country’s significant political, military and economic influence through a blend of both “hard” and “soft” power.

There will be times when the U.S. will need military or “hard” power as you cannot negotiate with extremists like those with the Islamic State, he noted. But Americans and our elected officials also need to be mindful of the impact of soft power through initiatives like literacy training for certain cultures and sharing our ideas throughout the world.

“We can launch missiles with great precision, but we need to get better at launching ideas.” Stavridis said. “We have to compete in the marketplace of ideas in today’s social network space.”

He stressed that U.S. officials also need to engage in personal diplomacy whenever possible, noting that “personal contact trumps everything.”

This balance of hard and soft power results in smart power, knowing when to strategically “dial it in” and lean on one or the other during an often complex and chaotic world. Stavridis said that the U.S. and the rest of the world can take a lesson on the power of engagement and intellectual capital from Wikipedia whose vision statement references that everyone is “given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.”

“By thinking and working together to create intellectual capital, we can create a sum of all security in the 21st century.”

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