No more Marshall Plans

Benn Steil, The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War (Simon & Schuster, 2018).

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Ideas are dangerous, none more so than the belief that history teaches just similarities and not differences. Those who cannot remember the past may be condemned to repeat it, but those who attempt to repeat the past may be condemned to disappointment.

So it has been with leaders during the past 60 years who recommend curing everything from poverty at home to violent extremism abroad with a new Marshall Plan. Just invoking the name, it seems, is enough to suggest that the hundreds of billions spent will work the same miracles seen in Europe's economic recovery following the Second World War.  Benn Steil's comprehensive history of the Plan, along with a final chapter on contemporary European security, helps readers see through these flimsy rhetorical analogies.

Our current, politically toxic moment is unlikely to produce a Marshall Plan for our greatest challenges because, as Steil shows, the Plan was a tough sell in its own time. Congressmen and pundits feared higher taxes and inflation in return for European dependency and socialism.  Government bureaucrats in the Truman administration advanced competing visions of what needed to be done.  European powers wrangled over terms for accepting American largesse, while the Soviet Union moved to defeat the Plan's development at every turn.

"For the State Department, the military, and the President to coalesce, in peacetime, so rapidly around such a far-reaching, potentially open-ended, American commitment abroad was unprecedented," Steil observes. It's unlikely we'll see officials coalescing behind ambitious aid packages within a system which has produced a complete budget on schedule only four times since 1974.

More disheartening for advocates of new Marshall Plans is Steil's important reminder that economic recovery was not a substitute for military power. The Plan has become convenient shorthand for vague alternatives to militarized foreign policy, a Back to the Future reversal of America's long, slow slide from Vietnam through Afghanistan to whatever's next.

Contrary to popular understanding of the Plan, Steil shows that Europe's economic recovery had its roots in President Truman's 1947 pledge of economic and military support to Greece and Turkey—the first expressions of what became the Truman Doctrine. Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg advised Truman, a Democrat, that he needed to "scare the hell out of the country" with the threat of global communism if he wanted support from a war-weary public and their representatives.

Americans stayed scared, as did everyone else. United States security guarantees underwrote reconstruction and growth in Europe under the shadow of the Soviet Union. In response, the Soviets further tightened their grip over the buffer states of Eastern Europe and provoked confrontations like the Berlin Blockade that necessitated greater U.S. military involvement. The result was a divided Europe where Russia and its satellites faced off against a NATO alliance that ensured the United States would not bring its troops home.

The tragic figure of Steil's history is the brilliant State Department official George Kennan, whose conception of containment elevated "the military as a tool of peacetime diplomacy," leading to his marginalization as a Cold Warrior and his disillusionment with his intellectual legacy.

Steil's coda is more tragic, as the end of the Cold War turned the Marshall Plan on its head, seeking greater European unity through the expansion of NATO into the former Soviet sphere while the European Union did little to help its poor neighbors.  The Russian bear has done what bears do when they're poked, with worse perhaps to come.

The Marshall Plan therefore provides important context for the security situation in Europe today.  Although Steil's book stays focused on Europe, it also sheds light on the inevitable security implications of China's Belt and Road Initiative—which, like the American project it resembles, can only pair prosperity with provocation.  Unless, just this once, the difference between the past and the present is sunshine and rainbows.