Applying the Marshall Plan to current global problems is not easy

Question: Does the Marshall Plan, launched 40 years ago to spark post-World War II reconstruction, offer lessons for solving contemporary international problems such as third-world indebtedness and global climatic warming? Answer: Yes and no.

Political leaders have mistakenly proposed Marshall plans to solve a host of modern international and domestic ills, according to John Sullivan, a US Agency for International Development official in the Carter administration and now vice-president for Development Associates in Arlington, Va.

``The analogy overlooks the complexity of modern problems and has limited applicability,'' Mr. Sullivan says.

The Marshall Plan, financed by the United States, provided more than $13 billion, roughly 2 percent of the US gross national product, to help 16 European countries recover from the ravages of war. By wide acclaim, the plan ranks as an outstanding 20th-century achievement in international cooperation and planning.

The one lesson of the plan that can be carried forward, Sullivan says, involves the freedom the US gave to the Europeans to design the plan themselves. The process forced weakened nations to grapple with problems and establish priorities among themselves.

This same approach was not used with non-European nations in the 1940s, says George Kennan, the retired diplomat and historian. He was speaking at a conference of Europeans and Americans who met in West Berlin this summer to mark the 40th anniversary of the Marshall Plan.

``We did not see the prerequisites for a collaborative approach,'' Mr. Kennan said.

Today, Sullivan says, education and experience levels are much higher in developing countries. ``How can you set a goal for people in LDCs [less developed countries] if they don't have the goal themselves?''

Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey told the Berlin conference that collaborative techniques are useful in resolving the third-world debt crisis.

The Bradley proposal would have debtor nations submit plans on a case-by-case basis for reforming their economies along lines that create greater economic opportunity for their citizens. Creditor nations, acting in concert, would ensure official and private bank relief on debt interest and, in some cases, on the principal itself.

Common interests and aspirations are at stake, Senator Bradley said. In the case of Latin America, relaxation of debt problems will create improved export markets for the US and enhance regional stability.

The United States has lost more than 1 million jobs because of the loss of exports due to Latin America debt problems, Bradley said.

But the Bradley plan has been criticized for being unrealistic about commercial bank participation.

The Berlin conference, sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, singled out acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) as a global problem that could be approached in a way similar to the Marshall Plan. This is because AIDS has hit the most productive age groups especially hard. In developing countries this may eventually mean sharps cuts in productivity and erosion of previous development gains.

The AIDS toll is also high in the United States. By 1991, annual direct costs of medical care in the US could amount to the total cost of the Marshall Plan, says Ottar Christiansen of the World Health Organization.

Likewise, the prospect of a global warming trend is a long process that does not command the attention it deserves, says Dr. Bert Bolin of the Stockholm University Institute of Meteorology. A reduction in the use of fossil fuels such as coal could arrest the process of atmospheric change, says Gus Speth, president of the World Resources Institute in Washington. ``But we need a sense of urgency.''

That sense of urgency pervaded the original Marshall Plan. In 1947 the US worried that Soviet communism would spread throughout a vulnerable Western Europe. US leaders also worried about the loss of export markets in Europe.

Another change from the late 1940s is that the US no longer dominates capital markets. With the success of the Marshall Plan, as well as the speedy recovery of Japan after the war, the US is now just one of a number of economic actors.

Although there is little political will among industrial nations to do so, transferring 1 to 2 percent of the GNP from all the industrialized countries to debtor nations would be of great benefit to impoverished people, says Charles Maier, a Harvard University economic historian. At the moment, total development assistance by industrialized countries is below 0.4 percent of their combined GNP.

What is needed for any global initiative, however, says Lord Oliver Franks, a British architect of the Marshall Plan, is the international leadership and determination demonstrated in that plan. Without that, using a Marshall Plan approach to solve problems such as third-world debt, AIDS, or global warming will continue to be only theoretical.

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