Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans
By Adm. James Stavridis

A few months ago, I visited the German Naval Museum in Wilhelmshaven, a town on Germany’s North Sea coast. It was the first time I’ve had the chance go onboard naval vessels, including a Lutjens-class guided-missile destroyer and a U-10 submarine. I was impressed by the amount of equipment, technology and training needed to operate the vessels and keep them functional in the deep waters of the world’s oceans.

I was also surprised (though I probably shouldn’t have been) at how basic the accommodations were, considering that sailors can spend months at a time living on these ships. The hallways were tight and confined and the cafeterias cold and dark. The sleeping areas resembled a hostel dormitory, with a dozen or more bunk beds crammed into each room and countless wires and cables hanging above the top bunks. I remember thinking that I couldn’t imagine spending months living in such conditions. But without men and women who are willing to endure them, navies couldn’t function.

In “Sea Power,” Adm. James Stavridis writes about his own experience sailing the world’s oceans, first as a 17-year-old midshipman and then, toward the end of his naval career, as the NATO supreme allied commander. Stavridis, who retired from the Navy in 2013 after serving for 37 years, has many insights into the challenges and opportunities the oceans hold for maritime powers and the future direction of U.S. Naval strategy (the entire final chapter, in fact, is devoted to U.S. Naval strategy in the 21st century). He also examines why certain nations established strong navies and grew to dominate the most important seas. Why did Great Britain, for example, develop a powerful navy while Japan did not? Both countries are small island nations with skilled sailors and shipbuilders and relatively few natural resources at home, necessitating a dependence on the ocean’ trade routes for imported goods. According to Stavridis, it’s largely because of Japan’s location on the Pacific, the world’s largest ocean. The Pacific was a valuable buffer against invading forces, not to mention a larger distance to conquer than the Atlantic. Japan also had fewer powerful enemies to fend off and a greater distance between itself and its rivals.

Stavridis’ explanation of British and Japanese naval strategies is, of course, much more detailed than my rendition is here. In fact, he explains in depth the rise of naval powers throughout history as well as countless contemporary issues of sea power, including the arms race around the Pacific, the emerging threat from Libya in the Mediterranean, and the rise of India as this century’s “most important single geopolitical driver” and the Indian Ocean’s role in its ascent. This book is a valuable read for anyone interested in geopolitics and the significance of the seas in great power competition.

Valentina Jovanovski, editor

The China Mission: George Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947
By Daniel Kurtz-Phelan

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan’s The China Mission tells a story of just the right person for a mission at just the right time — and still being hopelessly overmatched against the tides of history. In December 1945, just hours after arriving to his country home in Virginia, ready to ease into a quiet and well-deserved retirement, Gen. George C. Marshall got a call from President Harry Truman asking him to take on one last assignment: head to China, bring an end to the civil war, and set the Middle Kingdom up to become a modern, democratic U.S. ally capable of joining with the other victors of World War II to manage a convalescing international system. He’d be home by spring, Truman said.

By all measures, Marshall was well-suited for the job. He had the standing and gravitas to bring Chiang Kai-shek and Zhou Enlai to the negotiating table – and to keep them there through exceedingly contentious talks. He had the wisdom, temperament and clarity of mind to identify a mutually acceptable, if treacherously narrow, path forward. And though the odds were always against success, conditions had opened a small window in which prospects were as good as they ever were going to be. Mao and the communists had superior political strength, but not the forces needed to defeat the nationalists — especially since the Soviets were not yet willing to give the backing the People’s Liberation Army needed to tilt the battlefield in their favor. Chiang’s nationalists had superior firepower and modest but critical outside support from the West. But that wasn’t enough to reclaim resource-rich Manchuria from the newly arrived Soviets — much less to win the loyalties of Mao’s base. Marshall seized the opportunity and brokered an agreement, creating a fragile coalition government. He then went home and tackled a second task, nearly as difficult as the first: persuading a war-weary Congress to agree to a massive aid package to give the new government in China staying power.

But implementing the peace agreement proved as difficult as one might expect, and by the time Marshall returned a few months later, the situation was deteriorating, and the window for success in China was closing nearly as quickly as it had opened. The biggest shift had little to do with China itself, but rather the geopolitical landscape. The course toward cold war between the U.S. and the Soviets was becoming clear, and Moscow was reconsidering its previous strategic ambivalence toward China. Whereas the Soviets had once withheld backing for the Communist Party of China and encouraged them to engage earnestly in Marshall’s peace process, they now did the opposite. And with the prospect of Soviet backing in hand, the strategic calculation for the CPC changed. The chance for peace was lost. Marshall left in 1947 and, famously, later found more success stabilizing Europe as secretary of state.

It’s a fascinating case study regarding the question of just how much a singularly talented individual can influence history. It’s possible that if certain missteps had been avoided, or that if the U.S. had helped Chiang press the military advantage against the communists while the Soviets were still on the sidelines, things would’ve turned out differently. The good faith diplomatic process pushed by Marshall and the U.S. may not have been what China really needed. Still, if Marshall couldn’t broker a peace in China, it’s reasonable to conclude that perhaps no one could.

Phillip Orchard, analyst