Transatlantic Take

Double Take: What Would a Marshall Plan for Europe Mean in Today’s Transatlantic Context?

June 05, 2020
Photo Credit: Shutterstock
On the anniversary of the Marshall Plan, two GMF experts reflect on the post-Second World War effort to rebuild Europe’s economies and societies—and to build transatlantic ties—in the context of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and of tense relations between Europe and the United States.

Facing the Same Need, but Different Constraints

The success of the Marshall Plan was the product of many dimensions that complemented each other to help create the conditions for Europe to recover economically and politically—and, equally important, it contributed to the vitality and security of the postwar United States. The creation of the Marshall Plan was a combination of strong leadership in Washington to make the program acceptable to a war-weary country, the active engagement and responsibility of European leaders in taking ownership of the program, the growing concern about the collapse of European countries and their vulnerability to subversion by Soviet support of Communist parties, and the capacity of the U.S. and European governments to work together to assure success.

The urgency of the financial aid made available to participating countries was supplemented by the need to help stabilize their security, which was accomplished through the creation of NATO. Those two tools incentivized the ability of European countries to begin the process of working together that today is embodied in the European Union.

Strong transatlantic linkages widened and deepened over the following decades. There was a confirmation on both sides of the Atlantic that European and American security and prosperity were inextricably linked. The web of interdependence that grew out of that bond was to be a cornerstone of European-U.S. partnership. One important dimension of the Marshall Plan was the creation of an enormous network of Europeans and Americans who became the backbone of the transatlantic relationship.

Applying the Marshall Plan’s lessons to today’s challenges is challenging. The core argument still holds anywhere in the world: economic stability is linked to the requirement of political stability and security. But the capacities and political will to craft a response such as the Marshall Plan are hampered by many constraints.

In contrast to a Europe that was recovering from war in 1947, many areas today are riven by ongoing wars, terrorism, environmental dangers, and disease. In many countries, infrastructures are weak and governing capacity unstable. Additionally, the United States is in a different economic situation. As rich and powerful as it remains, its ability to stand up resources on a comparable scale for a foreign aid project is limited, given its war-weary public focused on domestic problems, and is exacerbated by the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Nevertheless, the idealism of the Marshall Plan remains an inspiration that continues to prompt us to respond to the challenges of today. The partnership built between Europe and the United States offers the chance to combine their resources now for global social and economic progress in support of many countries far greater than achieved through the European Recovery Program.

Realizing that opportunity is dependent on the kind of goodwill, alignment of interests, aspirations, and capacities that underpinned the Marshall Plan. General George Marshall concluded his 1947 speech that outlined the plan by saying that “the whole world of the future hangs on proper judgement...what are the sufferings? What is needed? What can be done? What must be done?” These urgent questions remain a challenge for the United States and its partners today in a world still very much in need of great acts of statesmanship.

Jackson Janes, senior fellow, German Marshall Fund, Washington


A European Plan, but Not a Transatlantic One

Rebuilding Europe’s economy after the struggle with the coronavirus will prove more difficult than the economic recovery after the Second World War. Most importantly, it is unclear what stage of the crisis Europe is in—the end, the middle, or just the beginning. This uncertainty makes it difficult to foresee the extent of the ensuing economic and financial crisis, as well as the impact of the “new normal” on the future of the workforce and society. We live in a world of connected economies and societies, and this simply generates more unknowns and uncertainties than the world of 1947 did, when the Marshall Plan was announced. Moreover, the European Union comprises more countries than those who benefitted from the plan 73 years ago, and it has a more complicated construction than the individual countries of the postwar world.

The €2 trillion economic recovery plan announced recently by the European Commission is ambitious, although critics deplore that it falls short of finally challenging and changing the European financial construct and of showing the highest level of solidarity. The plan still requires the approval of the European Council, further delaying the much-needed infusion of capital and resources. Despite this, it is admirable for a union that has been very much tested in the last few years by an economic crisis, a migration crisis, and Brexit to have found the resolution to pull the plan through. And to have done so in the spirit of solidarity—measures are to be taken across the EU, access to funding is open to all countries, and the consultation process so far has been open and inclusive, albeit rough at times. It is the first time since the expansion of the EU that the east-west divide has withered—although a north-south divide seems to have only widened. While many unknowns and challenges remain, a general feeling of “We will weather the storm together” seems to slowly settle in.

Not only is the nature and the extent of the coronavirus crisis different from the post-1945 world, there is yet another, more important and sadder, difference. The financial aid that Europe received in 1947 was offered by the United States, to assist European countries with their recovery from the war, and to forge the transatlantic alliance. The Marshall Plan cemented a relation with the United States that helped Europe not only recover economically, but also remain at peace and safe. The economic recovery plan that EU leaders are debating these days—a European plan for European countries—only reflects the sadness of the current context, with a weak transatlantic relation and an ever-growing U.S. tendency toward isolationism. There is no new Marshall Plan for this crisis; the New World, with all its power and might, does not step forth to the rescue of the old. 

Alina Inayeh, director, Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation, Bucharest