Instead of Fighting
70 years after it was initially announced, the Marshall Plan is in vogue. Everyone wants one – whether for Africa or Greece, for French suburbs, or any number of disadvantaged regions. A Marshall Plan conjures ideas of showering wealth, advancement, and prosperity. It reminds us of our rich uncle, the benefactor, of the America that we like and want to have back.
Of course everyone who calls for a Marshall Plan knows that it is not going to happen. No one would wish for a situation that made the enormous undertaking of rebuilding Europe necessary: a continent left devastated from years of war and the emergence of a new conflict between rival great powers. But still, the constant calls for new Marshall Plans matter. They symbolize the persistent desire for a cooperative world, for solutions based on international collaboration. The European Aid program that the U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall presented in a commencement address at Harvard University on June 5, 1947 remains a kind of foundational document to the spirit of international cooperation. In time like these when nationalists are making their voices heard again, the Marshall Plan can be a source of inspiration for internationalists, and provide highly relevant lessons.
First, there was the dimension of the aid provided to help 16 European countries out of their post-war misery. In 1949 it comprised 12 percent of the total U.S. budget. A lot helps a lot, was the motto. Winning approval for such generosity was not easy, especially not after years of war-time suffering that the U.S. public was eager to leave behind. But prominent politicians traversed the country by car and train, in some cases for months, to try to convince mine workers and trade associates, rotary-clubs and women’s organizations to support the plan. Those who want to send taxpayers’ money abroad cannot assume public support, not in America and not anywhere else. But leaders should also not fear polls. Citizens want to be convinced, need to be convinced, that there is a payoff to investing in the international order. 70 years later, not much has changed.
It seems downright unbelievable, especially from a German perspective, that at the time the Americans did not issue loans, but rather simply donated the money. The argument was that the receiving countries were not going to be able to service their debts anyway, so why risk endangering the projects’ success by demanding repayment? This mix of generosity and economic pragmatism bought the Americans decades of affection and loyalty. What it means to have to make do without winning the hearts and minds of the local population is what the Germans are currently experiencing in Greece.
Not that the Americans did not demand conditions in return for their help. Aid was conditioned on reforms, trade liberalization and European cooperation, also between the former combatants. Out of this the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (the OEEC) was set up to facilitate the Marshall Plan. So it was the Americans, and not the Europeans, who laid the institutional foundations for the process of European integration.
The Marshall Plan was designed as a development-aid program, but in fact, it was a lot more than that. It was meant to prevent the economic collapse of much of Europe and, in doing so, also prevent the Communists from gaining ground especially in Western Europe. It provided the groundwork for the alliance against Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. It was premised on the understanding that political alliances only last if the partners expect cooperation to bring long-term economic advantages.
The United States experienced the first peak of their global power at the end of World War II. They enjoyed economic and military dominance, but they decided to embed themselves in a network of norms and institutions that circumscribed their power. This self-constraint was a clever version of “America First” politics. For U.S. power and interests were never denied, but with a smaller footprint and in coordination with others it was easier and less costly to hold on to power. This was the secret of America’s global dominance. And this is an insight that sometimes needs to be rediscovered, including by Americans.
These days we often hear complaints that the liberal world order is facing collapse, and rightly so. The opponents of the system of norms, rules, and institutions built around democracy and respect for the individual often seem to be on the offensive. But the post-war order was never without challengers. Yes, the Marshall Plan, even if it was theoretically open to participation from Eastern European countries, was always designed as an alternative strategy against communism. A bit of competition does not seem bad at all for this type of design work for an alliance.
Cooperation between Washington and Europe’s democracies is not self-evident. Time and again American presidents try to settle issues by way of great power accommodation, bypassing smaller nations. At the end of World War II President Franklin Roosevelt envisioned a world patrolled by “four policemen for world peace.” In addition to the United States, China, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain should guard their own sphere of influence. In the end, mistrust between the democracies and the autocracies among these great powers proved the death of the sheriffs that never went on patrol..
Only after the four policemen idea proved impossible, did energies turn to the Western club of democracies. That is how the idea of the Marshall Plan and, similarly, the plans for the founding of NATO. Nonetheless, U.S. presidents have tried time and again to build a great power axis, which explains the repeated “resets” of U.S.-Russia relations, most recently under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. So far, the results are always the same. Currently, a new president is trying his hand at another restart: Donald Trump.
One thing is certain. The Marshall Plan will endure – as an admonition to do the right thing, even when it is difficult.
Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff served as a head of policy planning and speechwrting for Germany’s President Joachim Gauck. Currently, he is a Vice President and Director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States