A Marshall Plan for European Responsibility

June 06, 2022
Photo credit: AB Visual Arts / Shutterstock.com
As we approach the 75th anniversary of the plan hatched to unite Europe to withstand the Soviet threat, Russia is again threatening peace and Europe is still too weak to muster a proper defense.

The Marshall Plan, officially the European Recovery Program (ERP), was an inimitable success, so much so that its copies are countless. But it has also failed. A Marshall Plan for Ukraine, as some are calling for, only makes sense if it is accompanied by a road map toward a properly geopolitical Europe.

The generous aid of the Marshall Plan helped Western Europe resist the Soviet threat. The structures of cooperation it insisted on launched the process of integration, which transformed bitter adversaries into partners and resulted in a European Union that supported the democratic transitions and integration of former Warsaw Pact countries. Competition between European powers, once the source of global conflict and instability, is now friendly and firmly within legal and market structures—an estimable achievement. Yet the supranational continental power envisioned by US policymakers of the 1940s never emerged, and Europe remains unable to provide for its own security or deter aggression in its neighborhood.

Competition between European powers, once the source of global conflict and instability, is now friendly and firmly within legal and market structures—an estimable achievement.

As Europe rallies behind Ukraine, it is again “the hour of Europe,” as former Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos declared in 1991, referencing the outbreak of violence in Yugoslavia. Many such hours have come and passed since: this time it must be seized. As the European security order crumbles before us, a new bold plan is needed to offer hope to Ukraine. But security for Ukraine can only come with a plan that will also resolve, finally, what Henry Kissinger over 50 years ago called the “evils of European dependence.” In 1991, after claiming the hour for Europe, Poos continued, “it is not the hour of the Americans.” He was wrong on all accounts. This time, too, Americans will be indispensable in helping it finally be the hour of Europe.

The good news is that there is a blueprint. The Marshall Plan incentivized European economic integration through massive aid packages (a total of about $160 billion in today’s dollars) that were conditioned on European cooperation. This forced collaboration, together with the security guarantees provided by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, enabled rapprochement and trust, and the impressive process of integration. But part of the goal of the policy behind the Marshall Plan had been to decrease the security burden of the United States, and this goal has yet to be achieved.

More than seven decades later, as Ukraine fights for its freedom and European capitals have been forced to confront ugly geopolitical realities, Europe needs a similarly designed push out of comfortable dependency.

More than seven decades later, as Ukraine fights for its freedom and European capitals have been forced to confront ugly geopolitical realities, Europe needs a similarly designed push out of comfortable dependency. Recent decades of successive crises—and most importantly, Europe’s tranquilized strategic response to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and the 2022 EU Strategic Compass—suggest that the EU cannot get there by its own momentum. This push can take the form of a European Responsibility Program, which would commit the United States to partner on a program to rebuild and integrate Ukraine and commit to remain a European security provider—on the condition that European partners, working together with the UK, agree on 5-, 10-, and 15-year plans to eventually provide at least sixty percent of the capabilities needed to secure the UK, the EU, and its eastern neighborhood against an aggression from Russia and beyond.1  As with the ERP funds, which were conditioned on the Europeans developing a plan together, this plan too would require that the Europeans, the EU, and UK together are the architects. To enable this, the United States will need to commit to stay as an equal, but no longer controlling, partner and to do nothing to block a more unified (and competitive) defense industry in Europe. US policymakers will also need to remember the insights that drove US post-war policy toward Europe and why the architects of containment and the Marshall Plan supported supranational integration.

Washington “Insists” on Integration

The role of the United States in European integration is as widely acknowledged as it is frequently forgotten. This is true on both sides of the Atlantic, though perhaps for different reasons. As the broad lines of US policy remain unchanged, it is helpful to remember how and why they were initially drawn.

In the first decade after World War II, integration was more an American project than a European one. There were, or course, important 20th-century European proponents of European federalism, from Austria’s Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, to the Frenchman Aristide Briand, and the Italian Communist politician Altiero Spinneli. But Europe’s capitals were not thinking in federalist terms in the early post-war years. And in 1945, neither was Washington. President Franklin Roosevelt feared that Germany would eventually come to dominate an integrated Europe, and in any case, the United States hoped to soon withdraw and leave Europe’s problems behind it.2  But by 1947, the team advising President Harry S. Truman had decided that a militarily and politically united (Western) Europe was needed to help the United States hold off the Soviet threat in Europe. The plan’s architects in Washington were also thinking beyond immediate threats, toward a lasting solution to European conflict and the German problem. In 1787, American Federalists had drawn on the example of the incessantly warring European states to argue that peace on the new continent could only be sustained through a closer political unification of the 13 colonies. In the wake of another European great war, Americans were drawing the same conclusion for Europe’s states.

Thus, the US government decided to push the project of integration through economic regeneration. Secretary of State George Marshall’s plan for the economic regeneration of Europe announced in June 1947 would supply massive amounts of aid to European states—but in exchange, Washington demanded that European states work together. The plan envisioned economic integration on as comprehensive a scale. The Truman administration pressured Europeans into coming up with better cooperation to administer the funds, urging freer trade and more inter-state integration.3  The European Payments Union, which was launched a few years later (again at the insistence of the United States) multilateralized European economic policy by establishing a debt and credit clearing house and limiting European countries’ ability to restrict imports from each other.

Thus the stage was set (politically, economically, even socially) for the Schuman plan and the first institutions of supranational European governance, the creation of which was again supported—in fact prodded—by the US administration. As Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote in a secret document to the French embassy in October of 1949:

The key to progress towards integration is in French hands. In my opinion, France needs, in the interests of her own future, to take the initiative promptly and decisively if the character of Western Germany is to be one permitting healthy development in Western Europe. Even with the closest possible relationship of the US and the UK to the continent, France and France alone can take the decisive leadership in integrating Western Germany into Western Europe.

In return for its efforts, Acheson continues, France “can be sure of our support and encouragement and every safeguard we can reasonably be asked to provide.”

Thus, shortly after the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in 1949 to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down” (in the words of the organization’s first Secretary General), a supranational Europe was born with the French initiative of a European Coal and Steel Community. This “first step in the federation of Europe,” as the Schuman Declaration of May 1950 announced, met with high praise from members of the Truman administration. In a telegram to Dean Acheson on May 10, 1950, John Foster Dulles wrote, “While obviously many details lacking necessary for final judgment, it is my initial impression that the conception is brilliantly creative and could go far to solve the most dangerous problem of our time, namely the relationship of Germany’s industrial power to France and the West. This proposal is along lines which Secretary Marshall and I thought about in Moscow in 1947 but which we did not believe the French would ever accept.”

Frustrated Support and Forgetting the “Why” of Integration

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who succeeded Truman in 1953, supported the European project even more explicitly and saw “a federal Europe on the American model” as the long-term objective.4  His administration continued to push European integration, including advocating forcefully for the unsuccessful Defense Community. According to historians Geir Lundestad and Richard Aldrich, between 1949 and 1960, the United States invested a total of $4 million dollars (around $42 million today) to support federalist activities in Europe.

By the end of President Eisenhower’s second term, US support for European integration was more complicated. France had killed the efforts to create a European Defense Community in 1954, and there was little indication of Europe making progress toward security cooperation —undercutting what had been a central goal of US Europe policy. Plus, there was consistent frustration with Europeans wanting to “have it both ways:” privately relying on, even demanding, US support, while simultaneously complaining about it.5  In a letter to Chancellor Konrad Adenauer on February 1, 1963, President John F. Kennedy voiced this frustration, complaining “that $45 billion and 16 years of continuous economic and military assistance have earned us nothing but the hostility of certain European leaders and newspapers” and threatened that this could lead some in Congress to “take out their resentment by pressing for a return to restrictive, isolationist concepts that would end Western unity and, according to our best military judgment, seriously weaken the security of Western Europe as well as the United States.”6  A resentful isolationism never won out in Congress under Kennedy, but 53 years later, this resentment did find voice in an isolationist President Donald Trump.

A subtle but significant shift happened during the administration of Richard Nixon (1969–1974). According to Lundestad, the Nixon administration did not oppose integration and indeed Kissinger was most worried about “the evils of European dependence,” which could only be prevented through greater unity. Nonetheless, Kissinger concluded that the United States should “leave internal evolution to the Europeans and use its ingenuity and influence in devising new forms of Atlantic cooperation.”7  The different administrations between Nixon and Barack Obama varied in their investment in European integration: Gerald Ford was rather disinterested while Jimmy Carter was a vocal supporter; George H.W. Bush was more favorable than Reagan had been. In general, though, the shift that Nixon initiated stuck. With the notable exception of supporting German unity (against French and British objections) in 1989/90, Washington has largely left European integration to the Europeans, supporting it, with various degrees of conviction and force, from the sidelines. But the United States has never really been a sideline player in Europe.

No European Union without the United States

In 1973, Germany’s Defense Minister Georg Leber observed that “there is neither a political nor a military nor a psychological substitute for the American commitment [to Europe]. No European state could provide it, whether acting alone or with others.”8  Too little has changed in the nearly five decades since, despite a constant and nearly unanimous chorus both in Brussels and across European capitals for more European cooperation and capacity. In analyzing results from a survey of EU citizens done by the European Council on Foreign Relations in 2017, Jeremy Shapiro and Dina Pardijs underscore European security dependence: “the member states in the east look to America for security against Russia; the member states in the west look to America for security against Islamist terrorism. And, in a new twist, Greece—traditionally the country in the EU with the most anti-American attitudes—now looks to America for protection against Germany.”

Washington must finally offer a definitive answer to European partners, by laying out clearly that the United States is certainly withdrawing as Europe’s largest security provider but will stay on as a partner as long as the Europeans come up with a binding plan for a geopolitical Europe.

Is lack of trust why so little progress toward a more unified and robust EU has been made in the past two decades? My colleagues in Paris are far from alone in observing that “the transatlantic security debate seems stuck, unable to update itself.” They lay partial blame on “poisoned” and distracting semantic debates over sovereignty versus autonomy, and the like. But they also acknowledge that the post-World War II transatlantic security arrangement has created “comfortable habits” that are difficult to shed. The incentive to change has simply not been strong enough. For too many EU capitals, the risk of losing the US security guarantee seems higher than the potential of EU security sovereignty, even after the Trump presidency may have slightly changed the calculation. At a recent workshop in Berlin held under Chatham House rule, one European official expressed this insecurity perfectly to a US national security official: “We just want to know if you will leave if we invest [in more defense capabilities] or leave if we don’t.”

Washington must finally offer a definitive answer to European partners, by laying out clearly that the United States is certainly withdrawing as Europe’s largest security provider but will stay on as a partner as long as the Europeans come up with a binding plan for a geopolitical Europe.

The exact parameters will have to be negotiated by the European drafters. But the framework is straightforward. To keep the United States engaged as a central, if no longer dominant,  partner in European security, it must be a NATO plan and the European capabilities envisioned have to be coordinated among EU and non-EU NATO member states, particularly the UK. Washington will commit to stay and help secure Europe (and help Europeans trust each other) on the condition that European partners working together with the UK agree on 5- 10-, and 15-year plans to provide 30 percent, 40 percent, and finally at least 60 percent, respectively, of the capabilities needed to secure Europe and its eastern neighborhood against an aggression from Russia and future challenges. This “Responsibility Plan” will need to be a cooperative, with measurable benchmarks. Ideally, EU member states can get together enough to build a particular EU Common Security and Defense Policy pillar within this structure, that is integrated and interoperable but can also be used for EU-only operations. Plans for securing and rebuilding Ukraine can be negotiated, together with the United States, as part of this process. However, without such a process toward European responsibility, any plans for Ukraine would be built on sand.

A Marshall Plan Is a Strategic One

Two blunt truths must be accepted before it makes sense to discuss any road maps for Ukraine. First, Ukraine must win. A country that does not exist cannot be rebuilt. Any Western capitals talking about a Marshall Plan for Ukraine need to start by asking themselves whether they are doing enough to help it win. This is step one.

The second uncomfortable truth is that any rebuilding can only happen if security is assured: this will require that a properly geopolitical Europe be built alongside a new Ukraine. A Marshall Plan is a strategic one, one that matches an appreciation for cooperation with largesse and farsightedness. It was because the architects of the European Recovery Act had an open-market, federalist vision for Europe that they conditioned bountiful aid on collaborative planning and cross-border trading. Hence, Ukraine must be helped to rebuild according to a plan for its future relationship to the EU. And any EU capable of a realistic plan for Ukraine, one that is awake to the consequences of such a plan, must be part of a geopolitical Europe. Marshall Plan historian Benn Steil is right to argue in our collection and in Foreign Affairs that the success of the Marshall Plan is nearly impossible to repeat, also in Ukraine. But he overlooks that the heir of European Recovery Program, the European Union, has itself a powerful history of stabilizing transitions in eastern Europe.

If the Europeans manage to agree on a path toward greater geopolitical responsibility and an EU candidacy path for Ukraine, then a Marshall Plan for Ukraine could be worth its name. With such a process, Europeans can shape how and with what capabilities the United States stays on—nuclear and intelligence are two obvious ones—and Washington can ease its burdens without fraying the essential transatlantic ties. If not, the United States will be forced to withdraw when and as it needs to, perhaps already in 2024, and Europe will find that it missed the end of its last hour.

This year the German Marshall Fund marks its 50th anniversary and the 75th anniversary of the Marshall Plan. These historic moments serve as an opportunity to highlight the achievements of one of the most important American diplomatic initiatives of the 20th century and how its legacy lives on today through GMF and its mission. Learn more about GMF at 50. 

  • 1I first suggested such a plan in an op-ed published on May 18, 2022, by The Hill:Before we can rebuild Ukraine, we need a security plan for Europe.
  • 2See Geir Lundestad, The United States and Western Europe since 1945: from “Empire” by Invitation to Transatlantic Drift, p. 38, 2003.
  • 3Ibid, p. 39
  • 4For example, see Lundestad, The United States and Western Europe since 1945, p. 130.
  • 5Lundestad, The United States and Western Europe since 1945, pp. 122–126.
  • 6Letter From President Kennedy to Chancellor Adenauer, February 1, 1963. 
  • 7Quoted in Lundestad, The United States and Western Europe since 1945, p. 100.
  • 8Quoted in Josef Joffe, “Europe’s American Pacifier,” Foreign Policy, no. 52, Spring, 1984.