(Bloomberg Opinion) — As I was preparing to assume duties as supreme allied commander at NATO a decade ago, the two people I sought out for counsel were both generals: Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft.
The advice from Powell, the former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was essentially personal, and it boiled down to: “Don’t start to think you are Charlemagne over there, Stavridis.” Meaning, don’t let your ego get out in front of you, and listen to your mentors and the chain of command.
Scowcroft, who had served as national security adviser for Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, spent a couple of hours with me and laid out a detailed geopolitical picture. Reflecting on his time served in half a dozen presidential administrations, the general provided a balanced, sensible and practical approach to take with both the Russian Federation and our European allies. As we concluded our lengthy talk, he patted me on the shoulder and said: “You’ll do well over there, Jim. Don’t let the Russians get under your skin.”
Scowcroft, who died on Thursday, was a slight, understated man — an outward appearance that belied his iron will and ability to stay calm in any situation. The book he and the first President Bush wrote about the end of the Cold War, “A World Transformed,” is the best volume about America’s role in the world in the 21st century. During my four years at NATO, and in the years afterward as dean at the Fletcher School at Tufts, I talked to him often. In thinking about his passing, it occurred to me that his life and career epitomized a certain kind of American public servant in three important ways — each with a lesson for U.S. foreign policy today.
First and most importantly, the general was humble, self-effacing and kind. He knew each member of his team wherever he was stationed, and took the time to make each of them feel important and valued. There was never a shred of arrogance in Brent Scowcroft, despite all the accolades, degrees, heady positions, medals, and eventually a presidential Medal of Freedom and an honorary British knighthood. He loved his country deeply, but saw America in its complexity and acknowledged its failed moments — including the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which he opposed.
A second quality was his unemotional, analytic approach to the world, sometimes called realpolitik. Scowcroft earned his spurs around former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and took Kissinger’s place the first time he became national security adviser. When he told me not to let the Russians get under my skin, he meant to stay calm and be the adult in the room. As Don Corleone puts it in Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather”: “Never hate your enemies — it affects your judgment.”
This lesson in realism remains a striking and necessary lesson for the U.S. today, from dealing with the dangerous adventurism of Vladimir Putin to the irascible behavior of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Finally, the general advocated an international outlook. He was a keen student of history, and in that 2009 talk he pointed out to me that a century earlier, the world was on the verge of two global conflicts in three decades. His prescription was simple: to best protect the nation and serve its interests, America had to remain engaged in the world — not as the world’s policeman, but as a source of leadership when it mattered.
The isolationism that arose after World War I, including the rejection of the League of Nations and the trade wars of the late 1920s and 1930s, enabled the rise of fascism. As messy and complex as today’s world is, Scowcroft would remind us, we cannot simply turn our backs and withdraw from it.
In the last few years, I saw the general from time to time — his office was near mine on Farragut Square in Washington. Although he was in his 90s, he took time to stop and chat about the world, and America’s place in it. I will miss him deeply, and I hope that the lessons of his extraordinary life will help America to stay calm, to re-engage with the world, and to shed the arrogance and bluster that is undermining its ability to lead in these challenging times.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates.
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