Donald Trump and the Marshall Plan

Had Donald Trump, not Harry Truman, been president in 1947, would there have been a Marshall Plan? Judged by his “America First” rhetoric, there’s a plausible argument that Donald Trump would have opposed the Marshall Plan.

But first, some facts. Former Secretary of State George C. Marshall proposed the Marshall Plan in a June 5, 1947, Harvard University speech. A national “warrior turned diplomat,” General Marshall observed that “[t]he breakdown of the business structure of Europe during the war was complete.” The European Recovery Plan (subsequently dubbed “the Marshall Plan”) had a simple goal: deploy $13 billion to restore Europe’s confidence in its own future and rebuild parts of Western Europe, especially Germany.

The funds also served a political purpose: to strengthen democracies in Greece, Turkey, Italy, and even France, in order to blunt surging Communist influence. Seventeen European nations ultimately benefited from the Marshall Plan, which laid the foundation for subsequent European integration and, most importantly, peace.

Today, many consider the Marshall Plan a phenomenally good public investment -- an excellent example of American “soft” power. Government “investments” these days often invite skepticism – think of the Energy Department’s Solyndra solar energy panels. But the Marshall Plan belongs among the top four examples of government investments that paid off big time: the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the 1944 “GI Bill” that enabled millions of returning military personnel to attend college, and the 1960s funding of “DARPA,” the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, that led directly to today’s Internet.

At the time, however, the Marshall Plan drew substantial skepticism and strong opposition. Why use American taxpayers’ dollars to rebuild Germany, which we had recently bombed into near oblivion? We won the war; they lost. The defeated Axis powers must pay the price for their folly. It was a period of “putting America first,” of focusing on nation-building at home rather than abroad.

Fortunately, thanks to Truman and Marshall, another approach prevailed. Truman knew that the Marshall Plan would be a tough sell, so he tapped a consummate salesman, Paul Hoffman (then CEO of the Studebaker car company) to help sell the Marshall Plan to the American business community. Hoffman left Studebaker and became the Marshall Plan’s first administrator.

Choosing Hoffman was not accidental. In 1942, Hoffman became the founder and chairman of the Committee for Economic Development, a business-led organization whose first efforts were to determine how to “retool” the U.S. postwar economy from wartime to peacetime production without experiencing another recession (or major depression). Under Hoffman’s direction, CED’s business leaders also developed the design of what became the Marshall Plan.

Brookings Institution vice president Bruce Jones has recently edited a superb, concise book entitled, “The Marshall Plan and the Shaping of American Strategy” (Brookings Institution Press 2017). This insightful volume includes Marshall’s 1947 Harvard speech and his 1953 Nobel Peace Prize lecture. The Brookings Institution also played a major role in shaping the Marshall Plan, and its outgoing president, Strobe Talbott, has penned an important Foreword. Editor Jones and research assistant Will Moreland conclude the volume with a thoughtful, forward-looking essay entitled, “Of Statecraft and War.”

This book is short – only 130 pages – and President Trump should read it now. He will discover, for example, that Winston Churchill considered the Marshall Plan as “an act of the most enlightened self-interest in history.” Talbott’s excellent essay explores “the link between international security and economic development, and the importance of American leadership in strengthening regional and global institutions and agreements.” As the contributors explain, there are well-established connections between strong economies, political stability, and sustained peace.

Jones and Moreland cite three important lessons from the Marshall Plan: (1) “the importance of tying American power to the defense of democracy,” (2) the importance of acting economically “and not just militarily to shore up friendly states,” and (3) “the merits of forging lasting institutions and arrangements for security” and nurturing them instead of pursuing “ad hoc, usually temporary approaches.”

Since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which effectively codified the idea of the nation state and established the concept of an international architecture among nations, pursuing these linkages is generally called “statecraft”. As we saw repeatedly during the Cold War, statecraft often entailed a subtle push-pull between “soft power” (economic, cultural, and ideological efforts) and “hard power” (military force).

We countered Soviet expansionism through nuclear deterrence and messages broadcast by the Voice of America. Theodore Roosevelt memorably characterized the push-pull of statecraft in his advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” and consummate diplomat George Kennan remarked: “You have no idea how much it contributes to the general politeness and pleasantness of diplomacy when you have a little quiet armed force in the background.”

President George W. Bush got it wrong when he said, “I don’t do nuance.” Whether he liked it or not (and, as he ultimately came to appreciate), nuance must be at the heart of U.S. diplomacy and effective statecraft. We need a wide array of approaches -- hard power and soft power -- for effective engagement with the rest of the world.

Globalization, technology (especially information technology), capital flows, cyber and terror threats, mass migrations, trade patterns, the fragility of some democracies, and global climate change, all push back against the notion of an isolated, disengaged United States. These 21st Century challenges will not recede any time soon; they will impact us for decades to come. If we ignore them and try to act alone – an approach that rejects much of our history as an engaged nation – we will pay a high price. We will see both our security and our national values undermined and risk what Jones and Moreland call the potential for a future “violent disordering.”

As President Trump ponders the direction of his presidency and how he uses American hard and soft power, let’s hope that he remembers General Marshall’s words that “the whole world of the future hangs on a proper judgment.”

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he was president of the French-American Foundation – United States from 2012-2014 and president of the Committee for Economic Development from 1997-2012.

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