Enduring lessons of the Marshall Plan

Can its principles be applied to the Middle East?

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Sixty years ago today, US Secretary of State George Marshall publicly called for a grand aid package that would transform European postwar politics. The European Recovery Program, or Marshall Plan as it became known, was crafted to accomplish three priorities of the Truman administration: help restabilize the European economy, encourage European postwar integration, and, ultimately, stave off the westward spread of communist ideology.

That all three objectives have been largely realized is beyond question. His-torians may question how much credit the Marshall Plan deserves for these accomplishments, but it is unlikely that Europe would stand now as an ideologically integrated economic world power without it.

Today, transatlantic relations are marked by a mix of obvious successes and abundant challenges. So the United States and Europe would do well to commemorate the Marshall Plan's 60th anniversary with a blend of humility and satisfaction. Recent strains between the US and its closest European allies make it impolitic for Americans to tout too loudly their contribution to Europe's postwar recovery. (What marriage can endure too many "look at everything I have done for you" reminders?) Still, there is value in reflecting on the plan's lessons for today.

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Its economic dimensions were massive – in four years, the US gave some $13 billion in aid – but its political dimensions were even more consequential. "Marshall aid was about hearts and minds, not just mouths and bellies," historian David Reynolds wrote in the May/June 1997 issue of Foreign Affairs, and it was only effected by what we now call a "public diplomacy" program of massive proportions. Few efforts were spared to convince Europeans that the plan was in their interest.

In this sense, there is a spirit of the Marshall Plan that suggests economic aid in certain conditions can result in ideological victory and cultural transformation. The transition of postwar Europe from a handful of democracies in 1947 to a 27-member European Union and 26-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with others vying for membership, re-inforces the good feelings surrounding Marshall Plan discussions.

But aside from enduring goodwill, what is the Marshall Plan's legacy in 2007? Can the program's principles be applied to the very different, but equally complex, conditions of the Middle East? Five timely reminders of the plan's most enduring principles come from the Harvard commencement address of 1947 in which Marshall outlined his vision for European renewal.

First, "the world situation is serious" and enormously complex. "That must be apparent to all intelligent people," Marshall stated, with clear resonance in 2007. Second, the US – and today the powerful European recipients of original Marshall aid – have a natural obligation to help. "It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace."

Third, the purpose of reviving the world economy is to "permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist" and "any government that is willing to assist in the task of recovery will find full cooperation" from the United States.

Fourth, to effect a massive aid program of the sort Marshall had in mind, it would require "breaking the vicious circle and restoring the confidence" of aid recipients to govern themselves and create their own prosperity. The initiative must come from those receiving aid and it must be a multilateral endeavor. "There must be some agreement among the countries of Europe as to the requirements of the situation and the part those countries themselves will take.… It would be neither fitting nor efficacious for this Government to undertake to draw up unilaterally a program designed to place Europe on its feet economically. This is the business of the Europeans."

Finally, the effort should cut across party lines. "Political passion and prejudice should have no part," Marshall declared. In 1947, he mostly meant that Republicans and Democrats should work together. But intergovernmental prejudices also pose a challenge. If Americans and Europeans, as allies with a shared history and heritage, cannot find harmony in assistance plans for Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, and others, then it will be difficult to keep the spirit of the Marshall Plan alive.

On that note, the most valuable comparison between the complex, postconflict world of 1947 and the complex, still-conflicted world of 2007, comes in the need in both cases to overcome cynicism and despair in looking for the right kinds of assistance, balancing among economic, educational, political, military, and other forms of aid. "With foresight, and a willingness on the part of our people to face up to the vast responsibility which history has clearly placed upon our country," concluded Marshall, "the difficulties I have outlined can and will be overcome."

David Kirkham is a professor of international politics and democratic studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. His views are his own.

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