George C. Marshall was a man of few words, so it's ironic that 50 years later the world is commemorating a speech he made. When Secretary Marshall addressed Harvard's 1947 commencement, he did not, in fact, offer a plan. Rather, Marshall described a vision of US leadership, born of a recognition that US and global interests would henceforth be inextricably intertwined. At a point when US foreign policy is searching for direction, we would do well to recall Marshall's vision, which still has surprising relevance.
The Marshall Plan is remembered primarily for its size and the urgency of its implementation. But, while typically remembered as having supplied the bricks and mortar of European reconstruction, its most important legacy was in providing the architecture for decades of European integration, economic reform, and transatlantic partnership.
It would be facile to suggest that a "new Marshall Plan" could be implemented for the former Soviet Union or parts of the developing world. The postwar reconstruction of Europe necessitated a type of aid that was unique. But the way in which US aid was leveraged - creating partnerships and structures for stability - still provides an important lesson for US foreign policy. The Marshall Plan's most critical, and often underappreciated, element was to link US assistance, European monetary discipline and trade liberalization, and the stability of the postwar world.
The cooperative nature of the plan enabled the US to overcome European suspicions about US intentions while still meeting our own long-term goals. Used as a lever to promote an integrated European economy, lower trade barriers, and entice membership in multilateral institutions, the plan helped ensure decades of European prosperity and linked the US irrevocably to Europe as a partner, not a rival. This approach - more than the plan's largesse - is the enduring lesson for US foreign policy.
Today industrialized countries are generally well integrated into the international economy, but most developing nations are not. Not only are developing countries the fastest-growing markets for US exports, but the world's most pressing issues - pollution, climate change, infectious diseases, drug trafficking, refugee resettlement, and the threats of crime and terrorism - link the fate of the industrialized nations to the future of the developing countries. These transnational problems demand transnational cooperation with US leadership. Given the globe's increasing dispersion of political and economic power, a go-it-alone policy will limit rather than enhance US influence.
In half of the developing world - much of Asia and Latin America - real gross national product per capita has quintupled within a generation, and this growth will continue. If we do not seize the agenda today in extending multilateral trade and financial institutions and security arrangements, we risk diminished influence in regions that will increasingly affect our own well-being. American exports will be threatened by unfair trading practices unless these nations begin to comply with international norms.
The global trading system that protects US interests cannot continue to function adequately unless poorer countries establish more sophisticated legal and administrative capabilities, and are brought more fully in line with the standard policies and practices envisioned by international organizations such as the World Trade Organization. Similarly, just as international environmental conventions are unworkable today without the cooperation of major polluters like the US, the health of the global ecology tomorrow will hinge upon the environmental compliance of countries like China and India.
Equally challenging are those areas of the developing world - especially in Africa - that are yet to reap the benefits of science, the new technologies and expanding markets. Will the United States provide the leadership needed to generate a sustained, coherent, and generous policy toward the nations that represent the poorest third of the world's people? A great many of the least-developed nations teeter on the verge of marginalization. And, in the long term, peace and stability cannot be built in a world marked by increasingly obvious inequality.
Facilitating reform in the developing world, while linking these countries into the arrangements of global cooperation, is a major challenge facing the post-cold-war world. The world needs US leadership, and the cultivation of myriad economic, political, and military relationships, as was done by the Marshall Plan, is the best way to project that leadership into the next century. Yet funding for the tools of international cooperation - development assistance, the multilateral development banks, international specialized agencies, and the United Nations - have been targets for congressional budget axes, and their future is in doubt. We should not be seduced by the notion that trade and private investment alone will solve the challenges of the developing world.
The Marshall Plan was born of a generation that endured economic calamity and world war growing out of a failure of international cooperation and a lack of US leadership. Distressingly, that generation's wisdom, which helped guarantee a half century of prosperity and security, may not survive its passing. The establishment of ambitious European partnerships was the most important and enduring aspect of the Marshall Plan, and the incorporation of developing countries into this architecture should be a major goal of US foreign policy.
* John W. Sewell is president of the Overseas Development Council in Washington; David Gordon is director of its US Program.