Open-source security: James Stavridis at TEDGlobal 2012

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James Stavridis

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Admiral James Stavridis is the Supreme Commander of NATO. He is a proponent of what he calls open-source security. He is looking at 21st century security in a very different way than we’ve looked at security before.

From walls to bridges

Looking back to the security paradigm of the recent past, he shows an image of Verdun, a battlefield in France in World War I, where over 300 days, 700,000 people were killed — about 2,000 per day. Later, in World War II, at the battle of Stalingrad, 2 million were killed over 300 days. We keep building walls: The Maginot Line, The Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain. But “Walls don’t work.”

Stavridis thinks we need a different model: “Instead of building walls to create security, we need to build bridges.” He shows the Drina River, which forms the border between Bosnia, Herzegovina and Serbia. It’s a symbol of how we must move forward to create connections and a strong image of his sweeping model. “Open-source security is about connecting the international, the interagency, the private and public — and lashing it together with strategic communication largely in social networks.”

Threats to the global commons

What are the threats that we will face in the 21st century? He shows a slide of ship draped in barbed wire. As a Navy man himself, he knows, “This is not what a ship should look like.” The concertina wire is there because shipping is under attack from pirates, in the Strait of Malacca, the Gulf of Guinea, and all across the world. Last year 20 ships and 500 people were held hostage.

There are, of course, also threats from the cyber-sea. Stavridis shows two men who committed credit-card fraud worth $10 billion. There is a giant industry in fraud, with over $2 trillion in profit. Just about the GDP of the United Kingdom.

Another threat he worries about is illegal trafficking: the movement of narcotics, the movement of weapons — potentially weapons of mass destruction — and, above all, human trafficking. All this is occuring in the global commons. “Trafficking moves largely at sea, but also in all other parts of the global economies.”

He shows a photo of a submarine under way and says: “I wish I could tell you this is a very high-tech piece of US Navy gear we’re using to stop drug trafficking.” It’s not. In fact, it’s a drug-running submarine built in the jungle of Columbia carrying six tons of cocaine, sophisticated equipment and a crew of four.

Finally, pulling it all together, he shows a photo of poppy fields in Afghanistan, the nexus of opium and heroin. He points out that Al Qaeda is a global network, and terrorism is a part of the global commons.

What are the solutions?

“We will not deliver security solely from the barrel of a gun,” says the Supreme Commander of NATO. He does believe we will need military force, and that when it’s needed, force must be applied well and competently. But security in the 21st century is a far more complex idea.

A few examples: He shows a photo of Afghan soldiers holding books. It’s a population that is largely illiterate — 85%. NATO, as part of their military training, is teaching them to read and write — so far they’ve taught over 200,000. When you become a literate person in Afghanistan, you carry a pen in your pocket. He’s been at those ceremonies and seen the recruits put the pen in their pocket with great pride: “This is 21st-century security.” They are also teaching to fight, but more is required. “Open-source security is about connecting in ways that create longer lasting effect.”

A different example is a hospital ship, the Comfort. It is a military ship, but it has a crew of 500, from the military, civilians from government, physicians and volunteers from many organizations. This multi-connected crew goes to sea for 4-5 months doing 400,000 treatments on a voyage. On that ship, “You begin to see the power of creating security in a very different way.”

There are also contributions in wide-ranging areas, from promoting physical fitness to disaster relief.


Stavridis puts up a picture of the world, covered with lines connecting different points of the map. These are not sea lanes or any other map one might expect a military officer to be thinking about, but the world according to Twitter. That map, he says, shows how connected we are. There are growing connections between the largest nations in the world, in order: “China, India, the United States, Twitter, Facebook and Indonesia.”

Recently, after giving a talk he asked people to friend him on Facebook. A story ran on the wires with the headline, “NATO Admiral Needs Friends.” And from the countries where it was printed, he got a multitude of friend requests, saying hello, and asking, “What is NATO?” It’s an interconnected world, and even the Commander of NATO is a part of it.

Stavridis believes, “Life is not an on-and-off switch; you don’t have to have a military that’s in hard combat or in the barracks.” Though it needs to be ready for combat when necessary, there are also many ways that it can contribute. It should, he says, be thought of not as a switch, but as a rheostat that one can dial in.

He concludes with a comment about Wikipedia — he’s always looking up facts. And it’s important to remember that Wikipedia is not created by 12 geniuses in a room. It is, every day, tens of thousands of people inputting information and tens of thousands of others taking information from it. It is a perfect example of the axiom: “No one of us is as smart as all of us thinking together.” Sharing and connecting is what makes 21st-century security possible.

His final thesis is that by by combining everyone together, “We can create the sum of all security.”