• Certain Complexities of the Moment: Talking to Daniel Kurtz-Phelan

    When might foreign-policy “failures” best prepare a country for ambitious global undertakings? When might lessons learned from George Marshall’s China Mission and Marshall Plan best inform present-day US international engagements? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Daniel Kurtz-Phelan. This present conversation focuses on Kurtz-Phelan’s book The China Mission: George Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947. Kurtz-Phelan is the executive editor of Foreign Affairs. He previously served as a member of Hillary Clinton’s Secretary of State Policy Planning Staff. His writing has appeared in publications including The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and The New Yorker.


    ANDY FITCH: In terms of historical method, this book might seem to foreground how individual character shapes international politics. The China Mission takes time to detail a surprisingly fluid social dynamic: with Zhou Enlai getting tipsy at Chongqing cocktail parties, and even Mao Zedong foxtrotting and playing basketball at more remote locales. At the same time, in terms of historical argument, this book makes the persuasive case that George Marshall’s China Mission ultimately gets constrained by broader and more unrelenting forces: including the fraught legacies of 19th-century colonial interventions in China, the almost unfathomable human losses experienced by Chinese and Soviet societies during World War Two, the Soviets’ on-the-ground dominance in Manchuria when Marshall begins his mission, and the emergent Cold War antagonisms crystallized in Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech. So here could you start to describe the importance of depicting and assessing complex interpersonal engagements — even as you traced this globe-spanning geopolitical pivot from wary wartime cooperation to entrenched postwar hostility?

    DANIEL KURTZ-PHELAN: Absolutely. This dynamic is one of the starting points for the whole book. We Americans tend to like our history as told through “great men” (and some great women, of course, but mostly through a mythology of these towering male figures on the global stage, shaping world-historical events). That seems especially true for this period I write about, immediately following World War Two, leading into the Cold War. In the history of American foreign policy, this era is the most encrusted by myth. We hear of figures like George Marshall taking world events in hand. But the story I tell, of Marshall China’s Mission, is ultimately the story of Marshall learning to recognize historical forces, and to acknowledge the limits both of his own individual power and of American power to shape them.

    A second animating ambition for the book was to show how American policy gets made, and carried out — from the perspective of someone at the center of the process. Here the personal does become relevant. Even if his diplomatic efforts never could have overcome these historical forces of decolonization and nationalism and emerging Cold War tensions in China, Marshall still could have made different decisions that truly would have changed the course of American foreign policy.

    When we look back and retrospectively assess American foreign policy, we tend to miss certain complexities of the moment. So in The China Mission, I wanted to follow this one central policymaker — to show his real-time struggles as he, with limited knowledge, tried to balance all of these competing constraints and tradeoffs. The Cold War soon enough will become absolutely central. But to get there, the book starts from this unsettled post-World War Two moment, with the United States, the Soviet Union, China, and Europe all struggling to figure out what that new era will look like. You see all of these profound geopolitical changes happening incredibly fast. You see Marshall straining to recognize and to understand these shifting tensions and emerging Cold War dynamics that ultimately will become much bigger and more overpowering than anything he can address on the ground in China.

    Of course equivalent questions arise today about the extent to which tense conversations between the US and China get shaped by the distinctive personalities of a boorish Donald Trump and an ambitious Xi Jinping, and the extent to which such frictions stem from irreconcilable differences (or even just circumstantial rivalries of the moment) between our respective political and economic systems — regardless of who runs them. So how might writing this book precisely when you did, and reflecting on General Marshall’s composed, deliberative, well-informed approach to China, have further refined your assessments of, say, President Obama’s and President Trump’s individual bearing, diplomatic tactics, and conceptions of successful engagement with perhaps our most important negotiating partner? In what ways, in our own present, do such character differences most matter, or not matter?

    On the surface, General Marshall could not differ more from President Trump. But of course the kind of diplomatic mission America could carry out in 1946 also differs radically. So we do sense these sharp characterological distinctions between a chaotic Donald Trump speaking before he seems to have a plan, and a George Marshall carefully calibrating his language to fit each particular situation. Marshall himself made plenty of mistakes. But he nevertheless figured out how to maintain this deliberate, disciplined approach on a very challenging set of negotiations. And here I’d also note that, compared to how diplomats work in our age of smartphones and constant communication, Marshall could act with incredible autonomy. He kept the secretary of state and President Truman apprised of the latest developments every few days. But he had space to carry out this mission how he saw best, with astonishingly little oversight or direction from Washington.

    And yet other parts of Marshall’s lived experience on this China Mission do feel familiar and even quite contemporary. I definitely see strong parallels today, for example, in how both US domestic politics and foreign policy express such dismay about the more recent “failure” to push China to develop according to our own expectations and desires. Right now you hear criticisms about our failures to apply American power or American capitalism or American diplomatic engagement in such a way that China would move in our preferred direction over the past few decades. Partly this comes out of the Trump administration’s abrasive rhetoric and its own diplomatic stumbles, but it goes much deeper. For the first time since Marshall’s China Mission, we’ve really had to step back and accept a much more limited sense of our own capacities to shift the course of geopolitics (or certainly of regional politics) as these relate to China.

    So here again, watching General Marshall start his mission with the hope of bringing a Chinese regime backed by American power (and leadership) into existence, and then seeing even the serious and clear-eyed Marshall kind of insistently clinging to these hopes, even as on-the-ground events show those hopes to be illusory, and as the whole situation falls apart…all of that leads to the charges of betrayal and the bitter recriminations that will come out of the poisonous “Who lost China?” debates of the 1950s, which in turn shape both American politics and American foreign policy going forward.

    To keep parsing then where historical analogies can prove especially useful (and / or problematic) for framing current foreign policy, I’d first bring in this book’s basic assertion that, though today we primarily identify General Marshall with the (post-China Mission) Marshall Plan for Western Europe, and though we tend to characterize the China Mission as a confused / conflicted postwar stalemate and the Marshall Plan as a heroic Cold War triumph, both initiatives offer crucial lessons worth emulating. Studying Marshall’s China Mission can provide, for instance, invaluable insights about how, even at the apex of America’s global power, we couldn’t solve every international problem (and didn’t always need to do so in order to demonstrate strength). Studying the China Mission can help clarify how to properly coordinate our engagements so that no localized overreach drains us emotionally and materially and diplomatically — pushing us towards a cumulative state of exhaustion, defeatism, isolationism, passivity. So here could you describe how absorbing such lessons might help us to rethink General Marshall’s China Mission not as some clumsy misstep before the US found its proper Cold War footing, but as, in fact, a crucial strategic precursor to a bold undertaking like the Marshall Plan?

    Yeah, you raise a really rich parallel. Tracing this broader historical moment through Marshall’s own initiatives, we can see how he shapes our model of American leadership and global engagement maybe more than anyone else in this early-Cold War period. And within that context, I do think we should see the China Mission and the Marshall Plan less as separate events, and more as parts of a cumulative process of Marshall coming to understand this new world, and coming to decide on which kinds of American policy and strategy will work best in it.

    Marshall spends 13 months in China, then immediately becomes secretary of state at a moment of escalating tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. New security challenges and threats keep emerging one after the other all over the world. Demands for US troops and support and military power start coming in from everywhere. Marshall applies two powerful lessons from his on-the-ground experience in China that really shape a new American strategy.

    First in terms of a massive aid effort to help rebuild Western Europe in the face of starvation and chaos (and also to fend off a threat from Soviet communism), Marshall starts to talk about the need for American foreign policy to project not just military power, but also moral and economic and diplomatic power. In his speech announcing the Marshall Plan, he puts fighting poverty, hunger, desperation, and chaos at its center. He learned the importance of these priorities from his time in China. You see it his conversations with Chinese officials, where he really recognizes this necessity, before securing longer-term military goals, of first addressing a population’s basic economic and political needs. That broader insight crucial to the Marshall Plan’s success grows quite directly out of on-the-ground setbacks Marshall encountered in his China Mission.

    But your question also points to Marshall’s equally important recognition that the United States will have to be extremely strategic about where it invests power and resources. Even at a moment when the United States represents nearly half the world economy, and just has contributed significantly to World War Two’s winning side, and has this commanding global presence, Marshall can see that US policymakers must carefully determine how to distribute finite resources, and where such investments will do the most good. And even as Marshall, more than anyone else, makes the case to the American people that we need to invest generously in the rest of the world, and help to promote international recovery and prosperity, he also stresses that we have to be selective for where those efforts can make the biggest difference.

    Today, the typical George Marshall mythology might prioritize always projecting strength and ambition and leadership as we step up to meet the world’s toughest challenges. But I believe Marshall would add that, in order to accomplish ambitious things, you need to remain prudent and restrained and smart about where you focus effort. Here we should also keep in mind that Marshall’s entire career up to this point, especially his central work in planning and logistics for the US Army (a key to the allies’ World War Two victory), demanded that you think through, in minute detail, where precisely you’ll do the most good. Marshall had learned to ask himself: Okay, how many trucks and tanks, using how many gallons of gas, will we need to get these troops to the front and to secure the best position? He insisted on that type of thinking, and on directly facing the toughest tradeoffs about where to focus resources. In fact, you could say that Marshall’s model of American leadership starts from this principle that deciding to do something ambitious one place means accepting our limited capacities elsewhere.

    So here in terms of basic tensions between promoting a broader geopolitical strategic vision and making practical tradeoffs from one localized conflict to the next, let’s say we take as the China Mission’s most concrete lesson the near impossibility of resolving somebody else’s civil war — particularly when historical ties and assumed obligations prompt us to back some corroded, corrupt regime. Obvious parallel situations arise throughout the 20th century’s second half. But let’s say that, for the 21st century, we identify the Middle East and Central Asia as the regions where such societal tensions have so far most compelled us to intervene and often to take sides. Where should 21st-century US leaders addressing domestic strife in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen (the list could go on) have applied (or apply today) which lessons learned from General Marshall’s China Mission?

    Well as you point out, the China Mission gives US foreign policy perhaps its first experience with what will become the biggest problem to bedevil American power in subsequent decades: getting involved in somebody else’s civil war, and getting attached to a partner who we might support, but who we also hope to persuade to change in some fundamental ways — in terms of how they wield power or rule or negotiate with the other side. Of course we’ll face this quandary in Vietnam, and then later in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Marshall himself comes away from the China Mission with a pretty restrained sense of exactly what we can accomplish in somebody else’s civil conflict. He also remains, I should note, pretty wary of directly applying historical parallels and devising one grand theory to apply to all times and places. He always stresses that you need to start by understanding each particular case, and build up from there. But personally I do think that we can see certain parallels or patterns from Marshall’s time playing out in East Asia in later decades, and in the Middle East today. In both of those arenas, the US ends up taking on what it sees as these great-power challenges, and then gets caught in these messy societal conflicts. We end up losing invaluable human lives, and consuming vast quantities of resources, but we don’t end up with a great record of making a huge difference.

    Again, those various historical experiences all around the world don’t lead up to any one comprehensive strategy today. But this history does suggest that if people want to present China’s rise (along with the spread of Chinese power across East Asia) as our biggest contemporary challenge, and if that means committing significant resources within this part of the world, and committing to addressing internal conditions within countries neighboring China, and trying to affect the regional balance of power (particularly in countries with a growing fear of Chinese influence), then that also means not getting involved in, say, a bunch of messy Middle East conflicts.

    Most policymakers don’t have Marshall’s discipline when weighing one set of pressing concerns against all of the others. But we really do need to make those calculations when deciding where US power can contribute to an important outcome, and where we might end up spending a lot of time and treasure on some irresolvable or less consequential localized dispute.

    And then, one other point: Marshall’s China Mission shows us the difficulties or the danger of trying to assume the role of unbiased mediator at the same time that you very clearly have aligned yourself to one particular side. We certainly have seen this at different stages of the Middle East peace process. We’ve seen it in negotiations between the Taliban and Afghanistan’s government. This US posture of sitting back and taking on a fair / impartial mediator role sometimes just doesn’t ring true. We’ll kind of fool ourselves into thinking we can play this impartial role, and we’ll fail to recognize that nobody really buys it.

    Yeah that’s interesting. I mean, your book illuminates this compressed late-1940s moment, with its ever-shifting perspectives on whether one should consider Chinese Communist Party leaders committed radicals or pragmatic reformers, Soviet vassals or indigenous revolutionaries (or, slightly later, whether CCP or Nationalist aggression represents some new negotiating tactic or some more substantive strategic shift). But even amid our ongoing struggles to gauge everybody else, we seem to want to assume that our own motives and actions will get perceived as transparent and comprehensible and fair by all.

    Right, and that we can control how various parties perceive us — that they’ll just take our declarations of intent as sincere and straightforward. You see this again and again. Marshall says something and hopes the Communists or the Nationalists will believe him, but both groups have their own historical perspectives and strategic reasons to think otherwise. And they’re often right.

    Here again I first want to acknowledge that reductive historical analogies can prompt their own contemporary foreign-policy quagmires. But so many of the dilemmas you describe Marshall facing on his China Mission do feel quite timely. So for a few additional application questions, first on a local tactical / strategic level: when you write of how an extended US troop deployment might forestall catastrophe in some country but still not actually do much good, or of how US intentions never alone determine whether a nation’s people come to perceive US troops as an occupying force, or of how guerrillas possess a basic territorial advantage in an expansive country with a rugged hinterland, which analogies to contemporary circumstances do seem most tempting, most salient, and / or most potentially misleading to you?

    Marshall had served in the Philippines. He knew the experience of being an occupier. He knew that American troops arriving in China during and after World War Two at first might get welcomed as saviors and hailed as heroes. But the perceptions of a populace living under an ongoing foreign-troop presence tend to sour pretty fast. Ordinary Chinese people inevitably would start to see American service members tearing around in jeeps and spraying mud on them, and getting into accidents and behaving drunkenly or coarsely. What starts off as a welcome presence soon becomes a liability. Marshall basically says that all of this will happen. He knows this dynamic well. He can predict and measure the costs. And of course a similar dynamic has played out in our own lifetimes as well in various countries.

    A second caution that Marshall and some of his staff learned over the course of this China Mission has to do (as you suggested) with how you assess the balance of power between opposing forces: one of which looks quite modern (with the latest weaponry, with its troops in fresh uniforms), and the other of which looks like a pretty ragtag guerrilla operation with older weapons. Even today we tend to assume that the more modern-looking force inevitably has the advantage. But Marshall comes to see in China how what looks like a huge military advantage sometimes actually might reflect underlying weaknesses. And again, we know from our own era that the best-funded, most capable military in the world can find itself up against insurgents who look easy to beat — and then can get stuck in some Iraq-like quagmire.

    And then, on a wider geopolitical level, when you describe how a savvy regime might confidently ignore US policy recommendations if it knows that the US will continue to provide material and / or diplomatic assistance anyway, or how astute international players can triangulate US military / economic might amid broader regional and global contests, or how domestic US politics at least used to require substantial public support when waging war or committing significant resources — where again could / should such historical precedents from the postwar China Mission apply to today’s decision-making?

    Well we do see, especially in Marshall’s interactions with Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists, this attempt by a weaker partner to identify its own battles with American interests — along with this pretty intense insistence that America too will find itself mortally threatened if we fail to do what the Nationalists believe is best. And today, you can hear contemporary echoes, for example, in domestic US debates about whether America’s allies pay enough for their own defenses. Again Donald Trump might sound especially uninformed and boorish and clumsy when he handles these topics, but foreign-policy analysts do need to ask themselves what we owe which allies and partners, and when supporting them also serves our own interests, and when it doesn’t. US debate on these questions basically hasn’t stopped since Marshall’s China Mission.

    I also would flag here how our domestic politics play into this international dynamic, in which foreign partners and adversaries will hear some official American statement from a diplomat or policymaker or political leader — but then they’ll also listen to what others in the United States have to say. We have an active press. We have opposition politicians expressing alternate viewpoints. So assessing America’s diplomatic commitment and leverage and credibility and potential internal divisions doesn’t just mean paying attention to the official statements.

    In the China Mission case, Marshall basically says to Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists: “Look, here’s what you have to do if you want continued American support.” But the Nationalists already have gauged, by talking to lawmakers and journalists in the United States, that with the emerging Cold War politics, US policymakers will need to support the Nationalists (at least to a point) whether they want to or not. So Marshall’s message of conditionality doesn’t ring true to the Nationalists, in part because it’s not the only message coming out of the United States. Again, you see something similar today in our discussions with Iran, or with Russia. America doesn’t always speak with one voice. We might consider that one of our democratic strengths. But it also can create a lot of difficulty for diplomats and other officials.

    One additional dynamic I think Marshall grasped much better than most policymakers and military planners again comes out of his own longterm efforts to build a strong military within a democratic culture, especially during World War Two. Within that context, Marshall came to see how much American military efforts really depended on our whole society, on sustained support from voters, and on public officials consistently making a persuasive case to the American people for why we need to stay invested in a certain fight or cause. Many of Marshall’s foreign-policy contemporaries might have had the tendency to write off these domestic political considerations as secondary irritations. To Marshall, persuading a democratic society to support ongoing military efforts and foreign-aid investments became a necessity. And I would add here, by extension, Marshall’s recognition that when you can’t see the public supporting some prolonged on-the-ground commitment of troops and resources, you probably should rethink your strategy from the start.

    Here your book also makes clear that even more abstracted, hypothetical, potentially nonpartisan debates (for example, about whether US aid to Chiang or to China could actually produce constructive outcomes) themselves took place within a charged political arena: with stationed US troops protesting to demand an end to their deployment, with domestic inflation, labor unrest, and consumer shortages prompting calls for the US to prioritize concerns back home.

    That’s exactly right. Today we might have a mythologized sense of this period, in which Americans supposedly understood and accepted every obligation that history laid on their shoulders, and just stepped up and took these burdens on happily, with no doubts about American global leadership, no isolationist instincts, no hesitation about all of these new factors that policymakers said had to be addressed. But in fact, the American public had just recently sent family members off to war, had just itself gone off to war. 400,000 Americans had died. Our own economy faced huge difficulties. Americans had good reason to wonder if we should deal with our own problems back home before committing to anything like the Marshall Plan. So Marshall again really had to make a case to this public that we can’t just retreat to safety behind our borders and let the rest of the world’s chaos play out.

    Sure, so alongside the “great man” mythologies you mentioned earlier, your book also ends up complicating any “Greatest Generation” mythology of everyday Americans stoically putting their army helmets back on and heading out to fight the latest battle (or paying taxes to fund the latest mission) without thinking twice.

    Yeah, you actually see a lot of young officers even around Marshall saying: “I don’t really care what happens over here. I just want to go home.” Many Americans already had served in this terrible world war, and had lived away from home for a very long time. So you can understand the impulse when they say: “What happens in China isn’t really my problem. Please just let me go back home.” Again that’s a departure from gauzier versions of the Greatest Generation story that we tend to get today.

    So here could we also start to address how Marshall’s China Mission shapes (directly, not just analogically) our present polarized foreign policy in any number of ways — with Marshall’s diplomatic overtures to the CCP viewed suspiciously both by a postwar American right and American left? And even on a much shorter timeline, the Washington D.C.-based debates and controversies quickly catching up to Marshall’s mid-40s China Mission show us an activist president struggling to push a reluctant Congress towards constructive engagement. This moment shows us ideologically driven conservatives refusing to provide stabilizing assistance to a country espousing values quite different from ours, yet incentivized to cooperate in quite practical terms (foreshadowing US failure to provide such assistance to the Soviet Union and its Russian offshoot at the Cold War’s end). This moment shows us a liberal Democratic administration feeling threatened by (and then itself start to escalate) a paranoid anti-leftist rhetoric undermining progressive politics for a long time to come. It shows John Birch himself get martyred, and Senator Robert Taft declaring: “There is no such thing as bipartisan foreign policy.” So if the Marshall Plan crystallizes some of our country’s brightest prospects for substantial cross-party commitments, how else might Marshall’s China Mission, by contrast, anticipate and exacerbate some of today’s worst partisan tendencies?

    You framed it well. You can trace more or less directly the effects of Marshall’s China Mission on foreign policy today. When Mao wins in 1949, we all of the sudden hear this question of: “Who lost China?” How did America, which had seemed so commanding at the war’s end, which seemed well-poised to bring about this kind of Christianized, capitalist, US-allied country…how did that all suddenly turn into this major defeat, with a huge Asian power going communist? How did our Nationalist partners, with US money and weapons and advice, lose to this guerilla army? Very quickly these poisonous questions start circulating, and even a towering and widely respected figure like Marshall isn’t spared. Joseph McCarthy starts talking about “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man…. so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.” It surprised me to learn that McCarthy offers that charged formulation in a speech delivered on the floor of Congress, directly attacking George Marshall. And to give a sense of what a powerful force these McCarthyite politics quickly become, keep in mind that Dwight Eisenhower, running for president in 1952, doesn’t feel that he can stand up and defend Marshall. Eisenhower embraces McCarthy in that moment, even though Marshall more than anybody else had raised up Eisenhower to become this prominent public figure in the first place.

    And of course, a decade later, we get the Kennedy and Johnson administrations escalating American engagements in Vietnam to prevent another Asian “domino” from falling to the Communists. You can hear on tape LBJ directly talking about the experiences of the Truman administration and Marshall “losing” China. LBJ says: “You saw what happened to those guys who lost China? It will be much worse for us if we now lose Vietnam.” Even as LBJ expresses wariness or skepticism about any major Vietnam intervention succeeding, he thinks: We just can’t pay those kinds of political costs. And on the flip side, you see contemporaries of Kennedy and LBJ advocating for a major military action in Vietnam by saying: “We need to do here what we should have done in China 15 years ago, had George Marshall not stopped us.”

    Projecting forward, we still ask this kind of question: “Who lost country X,” right? Who lost Iraq? Or why didn’t we get better results in Libya and Syria?

    And even with less militaristic scenarios in mind, I also very much appreciate your point that General Marshall himself would dismiss any reductive presumption that every complex domestic and international problem we face calls for “a new Marshall Plan.” I appreciate again Marshall’s own meticulous emphasis on addressing local vectors rather than sketching grand solutions. So what thresholds might you set before we start framing domestic, international, ecological crises today as necessitating something like a Marshall Plan? Or when might General Marshall’s legacy serve America best by prompting us not to dream of once-a-century policy triumphs, so much as to consistently pursue and promote the basic goals laid out in Marshall’s Harvard address: such as sustainable economic development, administrative accountability, citizen buy-in, collective commitment to liberal-democratic values — again all as part of a pragmatic US best harnessing its strategic, moral, and material capacities to act for the world’s good (as part of acting on its own behalf)?

    Right. Another part of this book’s origin story comes out of my own experience serving on the policy-planning staff that Marshall himself created for the secretary of state’s office. One of that staff’s very first tasks involved helping to shape the Marshall Plan. Now, when you work in policy planning, you get this constant demand to come up with a new Marshall Plan for whatever latest topic. A newspaper columnist will say: “Alright, we need a Marshall Plan for Tunisia.” Or your boss might tell you to draft a new Marshall Plan for Central America, or for the Middle East. Today people call for a Marshall Plan for Middle America.

    But we have to keep in mind the quite unique conditions that allowed the Marshall Plan to work. That plan would cost something like a trillion dollars today, measured as a percentage of GDP. So even if you spend five billion dollars on an ambitious program, you can’t expect to have a Marshall Plan-like impact. That again just shows us Marshall’s own impressive achievement at building the political will at all levels to make this commitment, this investment at such a scale.

    Here I see two additional positive lessons that you can pull out of Marshall’s China Mission experience. First, you have to face this question of getting your priorities squarely in place. You have to recognize all of the endless problems that should matter to the United States (either because of our values or because of our interests). You have to recognize all of the many causes that we really want to support. But then you also have to get a sense of priority, a sense of where our efforts really can make a difference. Once we have both our moral and our strategic priorities in place, once we know which particular leaders or causes we both can and should support, then making a really significant investment is worth it, and making a convincing case to the American public is crucial.

    So again, the China Mission shows us how these big geopolitical questions intersect with these countless quotidian or domestic or even interpersonal concerns. Developing a grand strategy from a 30,000-foot perspective, without needing to resolve all of the muddled local conflicts, without needing to appeal to the people most directly impacted, or appeal to a broader public, can come pretty easily for policy analysts. But a society (at least a society like ours) can’t find the right big-picture strategies unless it also makes good day-to-day on the ground problem-solving decisions.