America's greatest achievement in foreign affairs

`WHAT have been the leading achievements and failures of US foreign policy since 1917, given the objectives of US leaders?'' Twice I have put this question to panels of experts at the Smithsonian Institution's Wilson Center - 10 years ago and again this spring. Each time, the Marshall Plan topped the list of achievements. How was it a success? Why? Are there lessons from the Marshall Plan experience that are relevant to policymaking today? The European Recovery Program (ERP) was an exercise in mutual aid, openness, and long-range planning. Washington took the initiative and provided the seed money - outlays over four years amounting to nearly 3 percent of the US gross national product (compared to less than 0.3 percent for foreign aid in recent years). But the Europeans invested their own energies, skills, capital, and other resources. They informed the US about their needs and how they proposed to use US aid. Planning quickly became mutual; each country (18 were involved) made whatever contributions it could. Soon benefits, too, were mutual.

In 1947, European economies were running at much less than pre-war industrial capacity; by 1952 they were surpassing pre-war capacity by more than one-third and the administering agency closed up shop. The groundwork had been laid, not just for a prosperous Europe but for one in which expectations of cooperation overshadowed fears of another war; a Europe bound to the US, and not just by memories of the recent war.

The men who guided Europe's recovery after World War II had learned something from history. They learned that repression does not work well in the long run. Instead of treating defeated Germany and Austria as partners, the Versailles system had treated them as objects to be restrained and punished. This approach fostered the very monster that France wanted to exorcise - a Germany eager for revenge and conquest.

Stalin did not master this lesson. He sent Vyacheslav Molotov and more than 90 experts to the first planning meeting for the ERP in Paris, but soon the Russians went home, insisting that their East European comrades also steer clear of the Marshall Plan. Russia's absence and the beginnings of a ``Molotov Plan'' for Eastern Europe helped to screw down the Iron Curtain. Countries were cut off from world markets, and to this day, Eastern Europe's isolation obstructs its capacity to compete internationally.

While the United States transferred some $13 billion in aid under the ERP (and got much of it back through European purchases of US products), the Kremlin extracted some $20 billion in goods from Eastern Europe - impoverishing the region and sowing the seeds of anti-Soviet hatred. Stalin's approach was a rerun of the Versailles system with the predictable backfire.

Stalin feared openness and expected conflict. The State Department architects of postwar recovery in Europe and Japan presumed rather that nations could live and thrive in harmony if they build institutions to minimize conflict and reward cooperation. The Bretton Woods agreements facilitated free trade, the flow of capital, and monetary transactions.

Americans also believed that it is possible and useful to forgive and forget. They therefore leaned on the French until they agreed to cooperate with the Germans, and on the Benelux countries until they cooperated with the French.

In contrast to many policies emanating from Washington in recent years, the Marshall Plan was planned, operated, and evaluated openly. Leaders on all sides brought to their task an outlook that was humane, enlightened, and realistic. They took on a task that was large and important but also doable. The entire experience created guidelines world leaders would do well to consider today.

When Westerners complain about each other's beggar-thy-neighbor policies today, they should recall the much more difficult winter of 1946-47, when George Marshall was shocked to find Frenchmen desperate for food and coal.

There may also be a lesson here for Western relations with the USSR. Stalin's Russia would have been a very awkward partner in the effort to rebuild Europe. Gorbachev's regime, in contrast, asserts its readiness to join the international system still dominated by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and capitalism. The superpowers have had little experience in creating values with one another, but arms control, outer space, world health, and other arenas beckon. ``Restructuring'' and rebuilding East-West relations could be useful for all.

Walter C. Clemens Jr. is professor of political science at Boston University, and adjunct research fellow at the Harvard Center for Science and International Affairs.

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