70 Years Later, George C. Marshall’s Values Are Still Relevant

It may be an awkward moment for a birthday, but the Marshall Plan turned seventy on June 5. Designed to give Europe a hand up rather than a handout following the devastation of World War II, the Marshall Plan became the cornerstone for the emergence of a US-led, rules-based order that has enhanced Europe’s and our own prosperity and security ever since. Few will be celebrating this week, though, as never before has that order seemed more under siege. 

The threats to that order come largely from within. The current US administration appears not to share the values that animated Gen. George C. Marshall when he made his June 5, 1947, speech at Harvard University announcing the plan. He explained then that Europe’s economic devastation would, if left unaddressed, have far-reaching “consequences to the economy of the United States.” The war had so undermined confidence in Europe’s economies and currencies that few were producing for the market, depriving the United States of demand for its exports. The only solution, according to Marshall, was for the United States to “assist in the return of normal economic health.” The Marshall Plan’s genius was that it was grounded in an enlightened understanding of American interests. America would seek to expand the global economic pie so that all countries might have a larger slice. The entire edifice of the post-war American order— from NATO, to the World Trade Organization, to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund—was built on this principle:  the United States would forgo short-term gains in the interest of creating a rules-based system that would advance the stability and prosperity of all. 

This foresightedness, generosity of spirit, and sense of common purpose seem sorely lacking today. US President Donald J. Trump’s foreign policy of America First (a term first used to refer to isolationists who opposed US entry into World War II, even as Hitler was conquering large swaths of Europe) asks not what American leadership can do to advantage the world as a whole, but simply what America is getting out of the bargain. In announcing that the United States will be withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, Trump has pitted America against the entire international community on a matter of grave consequence to the entire planet. On his first foreign trip, the president came across less like a world leader like Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Harold S. Truman and more like a Third World strongman, currying favor with Arab monarchs but not our longstanding, democratic European allies; pushing the Montenegrin prime minister out of the way at a NATO ceremony; and picking a fight with the German chancellor over trade—only underscoring how small-minded American foreign policy has become. 

To be fair, America’s retreat from global leadership began well before Trump’s presidency. The collapse of the Soviet Union removed the common threat that had long bound the Western alliance together. George W. Bush subsequently invaded Iraq despite the opposition of two of our closest European allies—Germany and France—and without a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force. That brazenness might have been excused had his administration not bungled so badly the ensuing occupation of Iraq. The extraordinary rendition of terror suspects to sites such as Guantanamo Bay and the abuses committed against Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib represented blatant violations of international law. Barack Obama, for his part, was meek in standing up to Russian aggression in Ukraine and its intervention in the war in Syria. He blinked rather than enforcing the red line he drew for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against the use of chemical weapons, and he did not do enough to halt the unspeakable atrocities that Assad committed against his own people, which contravened long established rules of warfare. 

The problem, though, runs deeper than our leaders. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, we live in an era where we as Americans know the price of everything but the value of nothing.  We are so caught up in our consumerism, our worship of celebrity, and our quest for eternal beauty that we have forgotten the basics that allow us to exist as a society: most fundamentally, the existence of order. For most of human history, war among states and chaos within them have been the norm rather than the exception. The first half of the twentieth century, which included two world wars, was among the bloodiest on record; the second half, the most peaceful. Yet as unprecedented as the last seventy years of relative peace and prosperity have been, they have depended critically upon American leadership and could well prove fleeting. In many respects, order is akin to our backbone: we depend upon it for all that we do, but only appreciate its importance when it ceases to function as intended. 

Today, perhaps more than ever, we would do well to remember Gen. George C. Marshall and the legacy he bequeathed to us. From creating a modicum of order in the Middle East, to halting Russian aggression, to managing China’s rise, to fighting terrorism, the need for common purpose and common endeavor endures. 

Stephen R. Grand is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council  

Image: US Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (left) sat in the back of a jeep with US Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall, as he waved to spectators at the Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, on June 18, 1945. In a speech at Harvard University on June 5, 1947, Marshall announced an unprecedented American commitment to help rebuild the economies of Europe after the devastation caused by World War II. (Reuters/United States National Archives and Records Administration)