The Marshall Plan Taught Lessons Trump Refuses to Learn

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Short speeches can leave long legacies. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is remembered because it crystalized, in just a few sentences, why the Civil War was fought and what it would ultimately achieve.

Tuesday marks the anniversary of another landmark address characterized by admirable brevity. On June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall delivered a short speech at Harvard that laid out, in a handful of paragraphs, the rationale and outlines of the European Recovery Program, commonly known as the Marshall Plan. It proved to be one of the greatest achievements in the history of American diplomacy, and looms all the larger today because we seem to be forgetting the ideas and traditions that made it so effective.

In the aftermath of World War II, a Europe that had dominated global affairs for centuries had been reduced, in Winston Churchill’s phrase, to “a rubble heap, a charnel house, a breeding ground for pestilence and hate.” Wartime destruction had compounded the misery of the Great Depression, leaving much of the continent in desperate economic privation.

Economic chaos and human suffering were fueling political radicalism, with well-organized Communist parties vying for power in France, Italy and elsewhere. If those parties took power, by staging coups or simply winning elections, the Soviet Union might gain effective control of much of Western Europe, achieving a geostrategic coup of the first order.

“A very serious situation is rapidly developing which bodes no good for the world,” Marshall warned. Unless America catalyzed “the rehabilitation of the economic structure of Europe,” it might lose the incipient Cold War without a shot being fired.

What Marshall proposed at Harvard, and what took shape in the subsequent months, was a program designed to avert this catastrophic prospect. The U.S. would ultimately provide a major infusion of money, along with technical expertise, diplomatic support and other assistance, to make possible a collective recovery program.

“Collective” was the key word. Marshall insisted that “the program should be a joint one, agreed to by a number, if not all European nations,” and that the Europeans, rather than Washington, take the lead in outlining their needs and their proposals for addressing them. European recovery could only occur on a continental basis, Marshall argued, and so the U.S. role was to catalyze the cooperation, assist with the planning, and provide the resources that would make that cooperation possible.

The U.S. would ultimately provide some $12 billion in Marshall Plan aid to Western Europe (Moscow forbade its satellites in Eastern Europe from participating). This was an enormous amount of resources -- in 1948, Marshall Plan aid, when combined with U.S. aid to Japan, was equivalent to nearly 5 percent of American gross national product.

Yet if American money was indispensable to European recovery, just as significant was the psychological and political impact of the program. By signaling that the U.S. would not retreat across the ocean as it had after World War I, that it would not simply stand by as Europe descended into depression and radicalism, Marshall’s speech and the plan that followed helped stimulate the confidence necessary for economic recovery to begin.

Moreover, by insisting that the Europeans proceed as a unit, the plan beat back the threat of protectionism and pushed Europe down the path toward prosperity and continental integration that would characterize subsequent decades. The democracies of Western Europe did not collapse and fall under the sway of the Kremlin; they became a bulwark of economic, political and military strength for the West.

The Marshall Plan was therefore one of the signal triumphs of age of U.S. global primacy. Yet it is also worth remembering today because it reminds us of three critical characteristics that U.S. foreign policy has, more recently, lost.

First, the plan was rooted not in a narrow, zero-sum form of self-interest but in an enlightened, positive-sum form of self-interest. What is often forgotten today is that the Marshall Plan was not initially popular in Congress, because it required a massive outlay of U.S. resources that would never be directly repaid. It was -- literally -- a giveaway of American wealth. What Marshall and other Truman administration officials understood, though, was that Washington had to play the long con rather than the short con -- that America would become most secure and prosperous by helping like-minded nations become secure and prosperous.

This approach represented a conscious shift from the unilateralism and beggar-thy-neighbor policies of the 1930s, and it paid enormous long-run dividends. The contrast to U.S. policy today -- the assertion of an “America First” agenda, the return to economic protectionism, the framing of U.S. foreign relations as a zero-sum contest in which even friendly countries’ gains are America’s losses -- is deeply disheartening.

Second, the Marshall Plan involved the deft use of economic tools for geopolitical gain. It was rooted in the sense that America’s greatest strength -- its unmatched wealth -- could be used to stabilize a critical region and bind the countries of Western Europe to the U.S. Diplomacy and economic statecraft, Marshall and his contemporaries believed, went hand-in-hand.

Fast-forward 70 years, and this, too, is a lesson American officials seem to be forgetting. By withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a trade deal meant to offset China’s rise by tying a number of Asia-Pacific countries more closely to the U.S.), by wielding tariffs as bludgeons against some of America’s closest allies, by attempting to slash economic and development assistance, the Trump administration is ceding the field to Beijing and other competitors who realize how powerful economic statecraft can be.

Third, the Marshall Plan reflected a tragic sensibility. Having experienced the Great Depression and the war, Marshall had seen how easily the fabric of international civilization could tear and how quickly the global situation could deteriorate. He understood that tragedy often lurked just over the horizon, and believed that America must thus undertake great, unprecedented exertions to prevent tragedy from striking.

Only with a willingness "to face up to the vast responsibility which history has clearly placed upon our country,” he argued, could “the difficulties I have outlined … be overcome.”

This sensibility was at the core not just of the Marshall Plan but of America’s broader international engagement in the decades after World War II. And it, too, has faded. As I argue in my book "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump," polling indicates that the American people are becoming more skeptical of the need for intensive global activism on behalf of a congenial world order.

Even worse, the U.S. now has a president who has repeatedly characterized that activism as a fool’s errand, and has treated with carelessness and contempt the relationships, alliances and institutions that have helped ward off tragedy for generations.

There is little recognition by the president of what Marshall and his generation instinctively understood -- that things can go south in a hurry if the U.S. does not use its power and creativity to foster a secure and prosperous world.

At a time when great-power competition has returned, disorder is proliferating, and the international landscape is once again darkening, this appreciation of tragedy, and of the critical U.S. role in averting it, is the legacy of the Marshall Plan that America most needs to recover.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.