Three Questions with Bruce Jones
The Marshall Plan was conceived and implemented 70 years ago. Since then, many aid and development initiatives and institutions of greater scale have been created. Why does the Marshall Plan still matter after 70 years?
First of all, I challenge the premise of greater scale. If you look at the percentage of the federal budget that the United States poured into Europe in the period after the war, it was pretty extraordinary. There have been things that were larger in absolute dollar terms, but as a scale-of-effort phenomenon it was pretty substantial.
Look, it was specific to its time. It came after the wrenching experience of the Second World War, it was designed to reconsolidate democracy in Europe and it succeeded extraordinarily well in doing so. From my perspective, what was better about the Marshall Plan than many of the things that followed was the explicit tying together of political objectives, security objectives, and economic objectives, and the integration of those tools, through NATO and the Marshall Plan, to that purpose. I think in the period since we’ve often forgotten how important it is to fully integrate political, security, and economic objectives.
The Marshall Plan was the first post-war manifestation of the transatlantic relationship. The Marshall Plan takes a good deal of credit for the forging of the political west in the post-War period. The sense of a community of democracies, a community of western nations that had fought together and would rebuild together, and that sense of the political west – these are now under threat from within. I don’t mean in security terms — but they are under threat in political terms.
One interesting facet of the Marshall Plan is that the Truman administration worked hard to get American public support for the plan. Was public buy-in important to the Marshall Plan’s success?
It was necessary to get it through Congress, and so, yes, I think so. Look at the contemporary period. I think we’ve fallen short in the way in which we engage the American public in explaining the purpose of American foreign policy and the purpose of major adventures. I’ve been concerned for example, in the second phase of NATO expansion and the issues of Ukraine and the Balkans, that it’s a commitment and a conversation that exists essentially in the foreign policy establishment, and there’s very little engagement with the American public about why it matters and what are the terms in which it matters. So there’s a real distance between our alliance commitments and public support, and that’s deeply problematic.
What lessons should policymakers, including the present administration, take from the Marshall Plan?
I don’t know if the present administration will pay much attention, but I think there are three lessons.
The first is that ultimately you have to tie American foreign policy to democracy and I do not mean by that military intervention to create democracy, but to collaborate and nest our security and invest our security in other democracies.
The second is how important it is to recognize the economic underpinnings of political alignment. The authors of the Marshall Plan and architects of post-War strategy understood that countries weren’t going to sustain their political alignment with the United States if their populations didn’t see a material benefit from doing so, and that tying together of political, security, and economic strategy is essential.
The third lesson, which I think is much neglected in Washington, is how important it is to tie our foreign policy to durable institutions. The forging of the Marshall Plan, the forging of NATO as mechanisms to sustain political alliance, strikes me as a very important lesson that we sometimes neglect in the very Washington-focused debate that we have.
When we think about the contemporary moment, there are some tough questions we have to ask about whether the political west is still a coherent entity, and whether the institutions that undergird it are still effective at guarding national and international security. I have some deep questions about that. They are different questions than the ones President Trump poses, but I nevertheless think that we shouldn’t take for granted that the political West and its core institutions — NATO, the EU, the UN — are in fact a stable basis for managing international security in the coming period.
Bruce Jones is a vice president and director of the Foreign Policy program at Brookings and a senior fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy at Brookings. His book, The Marshall Plan and the Shaping of American Strategy, was published in February 2017.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.