Lessons From History Series: The Legacy of the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan
TEPPERMAN: Thank you, Sam. Hi, everyone. I’m Jonathan Tepperman. Welcome to this Council on Foreign Relations Lessons from History meeting on “The Legacy of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.”
The Lessons from History series is made possible through the generous support of David Rubinstein. David, we thank you for this.
CFR could not have picked better time for this discussion I have to say, and it could not have picked three better experts to have it with. Let me start by saying a few very brief words about our topic. I’ll then introduce our guests, and we’ll dive into the conversation.
So, as you all know, the antecedents for today’s discussion date back seventy-five years. In 1947, a United States that had barely finished fighting World War II and was then led by an inexperienced, accidental president, announced two bold and sweeping new policies: the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.
Under the first of these, the U.S. government pledged its support for countries struggling against Soviet communism, and under the second, previewed in a speech that Secretary of State George Marshall gave at Harvard in June 1947, the United States would start spending huge amounts of money to help Europe rebuild its war-torn economies. So that’s where things started.
Now let’s fast-forward. As recently as a year ago today, following the chaotic U.S. departure from Afghanistan, pundits and experts across the spectrum and around the world were talking about an America in retreat. We seemed to have finally entered the age of retrenchment and withdrawal that Presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden had all promised.
But then, of course, came the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of this year, and everything seemed to change. Since then, the United States has adopted a much more aggressive foreign policy, pouring billions of dollars’ worth of aid and weapons into the fight against Moscow. More recently, Washington has also started helping out anti-government protesters in Iran, and Biden administration officials have said explicitly that it was a mistake for the United States not to do this the last time Iranians took to the street.
So given both of these events, not to mention the dismal state of U.S. relations with China, it would be easy to conclude that Washington is once again fighting a global cold war against authoritarian countries; the kind of struggle that gave birth to the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan in the first place and which they helped define. But historical parallels are tricky, right, and they can be either very useful or totally facile.
So as we think about the legacies and the relevance of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan today, we should I think keep in mind three basic overarching questions that will help keep us honest. And the first of these is, how is the world the same or different today than it was in 1947? The second is, how is the United States and its position similar or different to 1947? And third, what are the true or actual lessons of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan? And especially in light of the two previous questions, how should they inform policymakers right now?
Well, to discuss all this we have a truly all-star panel. I’m sure that each of our guests is familiar to you, but let me quickly introduce them just in case. To mention all of their accomplishments would take the entire hour, so I’m just going to say the following.
Mary Sarotte is a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the author of several books, one of which just won the Pushkin House Prize—congratulations, Mary—and many articles on the Cold War and what came after.
Benn Steil is a senior fellow and director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also the author of numerous books, including one especially relevant for us today on the Marshall Plan.
And Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European Studies at Oxford, and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. He, too, has written many books; his mostly focusing on modern European history.
Timothy, if I may, I’d like to start with you and ask you a very big-picture question since you are a big-picture guy. Talk about—in order to set the context for the conversation that will follow—the key ways in which the world today is similar or different to the one that Truman inherited in 1947 and how those differences should affect our thinking about U.S. and Western policy.
ASH: Well, thank you for a modest little question, and it’s a great pleasure to be on with two scholars and authors whose work I greatly admire.
To keep it brief I would say two similarities and two big differences. First similarity—again, we have a major European crisis which poses the question of European order in which the primary challenge comes from Russia and which has a military but also a strong economic dimension.
Secondly—and this is a point that Benn, rather interestingly, I think, teases out and which I want to extend. If I understand Benn’s argument aright, it is roughly that the United States was engaging in Europe in the hope of being able to disengage. But the more it did so, the more it got drawn into engagement. And I want to suggest that that’s been true for the last eighty years because, of course, that started literally eighty years ago with Churchill trying to get the United States into the Second World War. Then again in this period you have Europeans—particularly the British at that time—again trying to make sure that the United States stayed in or came back into European affairs. Churchill with the Fulton speech is the obvious example. And it continues to this day so that, for example, the George W. Bush administration wanted to focus more on the wider Middle East, post-9/11, but got dragged back into European affairs. The Obama administration with the pivot to Asia; again dragged back into European affairs. The Biden administration the same story.
So there’s, I think, a really interesting continuity there, and a continuity which has to do with us Europeans doing everything we can to make sure that the United States stays in Europe. And that’s still very true today.
Two big differences: number one, then the United States was in a unique position of power. Benn will know the exact estimate of the proportion of world GDP occupied by the United States in ’45-’46, but there’s been nothing like it. And there was really one other major player that they confronted—the Soviet Union.
Today, it’s a multi-power world in which, as we’ve seen over the Ukraine crisis, China and India in particular take very different and very significant positions in relation to Russia. And if we’re talking about a new global cold war, it is as much or more about China as it is about Russia, right? So that makes it a whole lot more complicated, and indeed, in terms of the whole U.S. discussion about a potential new cold war with China, Russia is pulling you away from that concern.
Second difference: then Europe was on its knees. It was down and out. It was KO and the Marshall Plan was about building it back up. Now it’s an economy and a polity of equal size, and except in the military field, roughly equal weight to the United States. And so if we’re talking about a new Marshall Plan and indeed about a new Truman Doctrine, it seems to me we actually need to be talking as much about Europe as an actor as about the United States.
So Benn finishes his book talking about the lack of U.S. grand strategy for Europe. I would say that what we need most of all is a European grand strategy for Europe.
TEPPERMAN: Thanks, Tim.
So Benn, that teed you up nicely. Let’s go to you now.
Since you literally wrote the book on the Marshall Plan, why don’t you start by telling us how the Marshall Plan should be understood, and how it is often misunderstood today. And then we’ll get into the contemporary relevance.
STEIL: Well, the traditional view, which was widely held at the time, was that the Marshall Plan was a sort of kinder, gentler corrective to the more aggressive Truman Doctrine. The Truman Doctrine—to remind people—that’s a speech that Truman lays out before Congress on March 12, 1947—Marshall’s speech at Harvard a few months later, June 5.
As I said, even notables at the time took this view; people like Eleanor Roosevelt; FDR’s vice president, Henry Wallace. But the two were actually far better coordinated than is generally recognized.
There are three aspects of Truman’s speech that I would emphasize that were targeted as sending different messages to different people. The first basic purpose of Truman’s speech was to get $400 million of economic and military aid for Greece and Turkey; basically to tell the Soviets to back off there.
The second purpose of Truman’s speech was to scare the hell out of Congress, and that wasn’t his initial purpose, but Republican Senator—chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—Arthur Vandenberg warned Truman that to get his request through a Republican Congress he was going to have to scare the heck out of them. And that’s why he makes broad, sweeping, almost martial—M-A-R-T-I-A-L—pledges, saying, for example, that the United States needs to, quote, unquote, “assist countries facing aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes wherever they are in the world.”
But if you read Truman’s speech more carefully, he actually foreshadows what becomes the Marshall Plan. He emphasizes that it is, quote, unquote, “economic and financial aid,” not military aid. That is essential to economic stabilization and orderly political processes.
So fast forward to June of that year and Marshall’s speech, you get the economic dimension of Truman’s program. Why was that necessary? Because Truman was carrying out FDR’s pledge, made openly at Tehran in 1943, to withdraw all American troops from the European continent within two years of the end of fighting in Europe. So the State Department had no choice but to find innovative methods of diplomacy to allow the West Europeans to defend themselves; not just their borders, but the integrity of their own political systems, the integrity against outside threats, in particular from the Soviet Union, but of course there was also concern at the time about a revived Germany.
The last point I’d like to emphasize is that Marshall—excuse me, Stalin actually understood the messaging very well. I myself was surprised when I went into the Soviet archives when I was writing the book to see that the Soviets really did not react very strongly to Truman’s speech. They understood it as being fundamentally a statement of U.S. regional policy in the Mediterranean. Stalin got the message and he backed off. But he simply switched the locus of his emphasis to Germany, which of course became the heart of the Cold War conflict.
Stalin, quite rightly, took the Marshall Plan far more seriously as a threat; not because he was able to read much into Marshall’s short and ambiguous speech, but because he had an excellent spy network in London and Washington. And he came to three conclusions that I think were very important. One was that the Marshall Plan was a clear message that the United States was not going home as it had after World War I; it was going to maintain a robust presence in Europe; two, that it was going to make a revived, reindustrialized Western Germany the heart of its program in Europe; and that—third, that the United States was going to try to pry away some of the Soviet Union’s new satellite states in Eastern and Central Europe. And indeed, Stalin changes his approach to those countries very radically after Marshall’s speech.
There were coalition governments of sorts in Central and Eastern Europe—most notably in Czechoslovakia—and Stalin began cracking down on all of them immediately after Marshall’s speech. And of course in February 1948 we get a Kremlin-inspired communist coup in Czechoslovakia which has the effect of motivating Republicans in Congress to pass the Marshall aid legislation in April of 1948.
TEPPERMAN: Thanks, Benn.
So Mary, keeping in mind that we only have forty-five minutes, I want to bring you into the conversation in the following way: I would love to hear your thoughts on the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine, but since we’ve already touched on those, unless you have something dramatically different to add, perhaps you could talk a bit about how the enemy is similar or different today than it was in 1947; that is, compare the threat posed by Stalin’s Russia to Putin and Russia today.
MARY SAROTTE: So first of all, let me just say what an honor it is to appear with you, Jonathan, with Timothy. I’ve learned so much from your writings, Timothy, and of course, with Benn—I’m deeply grateful to Benn because as I was writing my book, Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate, Benn and I had many phone conversations, which was terrific because, as many in the audience may know, his wonderful book, The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War—prize-winning book—includes a Chapter 14 on the post-Soviet era and on the connections between the Marshall Plan and the contest with Stalin’s Russia, and then in today’s world, the enlargement of NATO and the contest with Putin’s Russia. So this relates to your question, Jonathan.
And so Benn and I had many phone calls about this. In particular, Benn talks in his book about a speech by Madeleine Albright at Harvard commencement in 1997—a speech I coincidentally attended—where she talked about the goals of NATO enlargement being, quote, “to integrate new democracies, to eliminate old hatreds, to provide confidence in economic recovery, and to deter conflict.” Again, that’s Madeleine Albright in 1997 talking about NATO enlargement. But Benn points out, I think rightly, that that was originally the goals of the Marshall Plan.
And so from my point of view it’s essential to understand the origins of the Marshall Plan together with the origins of NATO, and how that plays into conflict with the Soviet Union because of course after the Marshall Plan’s announcement, you have then in 1949 the creation of NATO, largely at the pressure of Europeans, as Timothy rightly said—Europeans who wanted a security guarantee to go along with the economic assistance they were being offered.
As Benn quite rightly has pointed out, Truman brought the boys home, right? Soviet troops came in World War II and stayed until 1994, but American troops largely withdrew and then went back. Now this gets forgotten. There is sometimes just a tendency to think American forces just stayed there from World War II through the Cold War, but that is not the case. As Benn rightly points out, Truman brought the boys home to a large extent and so that raised a lot of concerns in Europe about being left alone with the Soviet Union. And so even though you had the Marshall Plan, the Europeans—above all, Bevin and the U.K.—pressed very, very hard for a security guarantee as well because of the threat about Stalin.
So if you fast-forward to the era I know well, the post-Soviet era, it’s amazing how much these same discussions take place. Throughout the whole post-Soviet era, there was discussion about—in Moscow about trying to get a Marshall Plan for Russia, which is of course a supreme historical paradox because the Marshall Plan was originally part of a strategy aimed against Moscow, and then in the post-Soviet era, you had attempts to get the Marshall Plan as part of a strategy, ideally aimed at helping Russia. That of course doesn’t happen, but as in the 1940s, it happens in dialogue with developments within NATO and NATO enlargement, which of course is my area. And I’m happy to talk about that in more detail if the audience wants to go in that direction.
Timothy, I want to come back to you and ask you about signaling. The last Cold War, as we’re discussing, started with these big, sweeping statements. We haven’t seen anything very similar today. Yes, various members of the Biden administration have articulated bits and pieces of it, and they’ve tried at times to talk as though there is a big project afoot. But there has been no real declaration of a new doctrine in the way that there was in the—in the late ’40s.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
ASH: I would slightly disagree with your premise because I think that is true if you look at the United States, but much less true if you look at Europe. I mean, it is very striking that, even in the most critical moments of the war in Ukraine, the three things President Zelensky was asking for were more weapons, more sanctions, and a path to EU membership.
And so the grand strategy—inasmuch as it exists—is a vision of an extended European Union which has now been endorsed crucially by Europe’s central power, Germany, by Olaf Scholz in his speech in Prague, so that I actually think there is an element of a European vision, which is extremely important to Ukrainians, just as it was very important to democrats in Greece and, to some extent, in Turkey, to have this vision and this promise.
So I think it is there, and I actually think that the difference is that if you like the Truman Doctrine bit, continues to require the United States. The Marshall Plan bit, in my view, should mainly be addressed to Europe.
One last thing: whenever anyone wants to propose a Marshall Plan, the last thing they should do is to call it a Marshall Plan because the history of the last forty years is littered with the ruins of proposed Marshall Plans that have never happened. Do you remember for east-central Europe, for the Balkans, for Iraq—it goes on and on. So whatever else you do, don’t call it a Marshall Plan.
TEPPERMAN: I just want to push you slightly on your previous point and get you to be a little bit clearer on whether you think that Biden’s messaging should be clearer or whether it’s sufficient.
ASH: I think that it’s not up to Biden to propose a geopolitical future for Ukraine, let alone in any kind of conversation, however adversarial, with Russia. And by the way, just to go back to Benn’s point, of course what preceded that was a so-called percentages agreement in October 1944 between Churchill and Stalin in which, in the fashion of old great powers, they actually divided up Europe—90 percent Russian influence in Rumania, but 90 percent Western influence—British and American influence in Greece.
So I don’t think we want anything of that kind, but I do think that the greater clarity that is needed is about the security lines, right? There, I think that is something that only the United States can offer, and this goes back to the conversation about NATO.
TEPPERMAN: So, Benn, let’s talk some more about Ukraine. You’ve argued that despite some superficial similarities to the original Marshall Plan recipients, Ukraine is not a good candidate for a similar program. Explain why.
STEIL: Yeah. In theory, the Marshall Plan—the old, original one—was open to all of Europe, including the Soviet Union. But the State Department was not naïve. They did not have great expectations that they would be able to peel off any of Stalin’s satellites because they knew Stalin wouldn’t accept it. And to the extent that Stalin suddenly because reasonable and decided that he wanted the Soviet Union to participate, the State Department had all sorts of plans to provoke him into rejecting it.
So to make very clear, the Marshall Plan helped draw the iron curtain, as it were. Marshall had a very distinct, clear view of what the borders of the Marshall states should be and what they—what was included on the left side, the Western side, and on the right side, the Soviet side. For example, George Kennan had predicted the coup in Prague in November of ’47, four months before it occurred, and Marshall quite deliberately decided to write off Czechoslovakia—that they were not going to be part of the Western bloc, and the reason was because the U.S. did not have the military capacity to defend it. So this was a geographical issue.
So fast-forward to Ukraine and we are faced with the same sorts of issues. I completely agree with Timothy. It’s a bad idea to refer to aid to Ukraine, for example, as a Marshall Plan because it raises expectations that somehow, by applying the force of mass amounts of money, we can easily incorporate Ukraine into a Western political and security context. But given its geography, given its importance in the Russian view of what its national security interests are and what its legitimate sphere of influence is, we will not be able to succeed in that regard.
So I think we must proceed much more cautiously with countries like Ukraine that are on Russia’s borders than we did with the Marshall nations, which were not on Russia’s borders and could—with more extraordinary security commitments than the United States intended to provide in 1947—we could provide credible security guarantees to those countries.
I just point out that in Iraq and Afghanistan, we spent over $210 billion in reconstruction aid, which was over $50 billion more than the totality of Marshall aid in current dollars. But since we were unable to provide those two countries with credible security guarantees, either internal or external security, that money achieved none of our geopolitical aims.
TEPPERMAN: Mary, thinking about what Benn just said, you’ve written critically about NATO enlargement after the end of the Cold War and the way it affected U.S.-Russian relations for the worse. Even as policymakers work to—Western policymakers work to help Ukraine right now, should they also be trying to look for ways to preserve some room for cooperation with Moscow and with Putin? Or have things gotten so bad that there is no room for that anymore—the conflict has become all or nothing?
SAROTTE: Well, I—let me put it this way. I hope we’re not in an all-or-nothing conflict because that would, at this point—you know, the upper boundary of that is nuclear war, and I think it’s important to remember that more than thirty years after the end of the Cold War, Moscow and Washington, between them, still control more than 90 percent of the nuclear warheads in the world.
I often—when I—prior to the war—when the war started when I would talk about Russia, I would get pushback saying why are we even talking about Russia? It only has an economy the size of Spain. And I would say, well, first of all, the Spanish economy is not that small—number one—and number two, Russia and the United States are the only countries with strategic nuclear arsenals. They are the only countries with civilization-ending capabilities in the Cold War and now.
And obviously, during—what’s really—during the Cold War we had the evolution of many arms control agreements. Now we’ve lost those guardrails. We are down to only one nuclear treaty between Washington and Moscow. That is due to expire. And I don’t see any hope of renewal, so at that point, the nuclear relationship is going to be entirely unconstrained.
So I hope very much that we are not in a situation where it is impossible to talk. Obviously, what Putin is doing in Ukraine is unspeakable. He is committing brutal war crimes, there is no doubt about that. I would like to express my admiration for the bravery of the Ukrainians, for the intelligent way in which they are conducting their offensive. There is no doubt about any of that.
The problem is the old saying you don’t make peace with your friends. So the big challenge now is to find a way to resist Putin’s aggression without moving to nuclear escalation. That is an immense challenge. Fortunately, we have decades of experience in that; it’s called the Cold War. What’s a little difficult now—or a lot difficult is that we seem to have spun back up to cold-war-like conditions in an astonishingly rapid period.
Now, obviously, this isn’t exactly the same as the Cold War. It’s before people, you know, jump on me in the quick Q&A. Obviously, it’s not ideological in the same way. Obviously, you’ve got—you know, the world is not as bipolar because of China’s role. But in terms of a nuclear brinkmanship between Moscow and Washington, we are coming back in very frightening ways to the Cold War, and so we’re going to need to draw on that, to try to resist this aggression without moving to escalation.
But I see Timothy wants to jump in and make his case about this.
TEPPERMAN: Yes, please.
ASH: Yeah. If I may briefly—I know we want to go to Q&A.
Can I slightly disagree with the way Benn just agreed with me—in the sense that I don’t think that the reason for being cautious about a Marshall Plan is in any way, shape, or form that we should concede a Russian sphere of influence any more than Americans in the 18th century should have conceded a British sphere of influence. I don’t think—I don’t think I’d accept that at all as a legitimate position.
Of course we have to take account of the reality of Russian power, but in principle our position should be that they have no special rights in Ukraine, whatever the historical and cultural ties.
Moreover, Mary, we’re not in a new Cold War because we’re in a hot war. It’s a completely different situation in that respect. And my view is, that this is not the moment in which the kinds of negotiation that we had at the height of the Cold War to prevent nuclear conflict are necessarily appropriate.
What we have to do is to ensure effective deterrence against Putin escalating to the use of a tactical nuclear weapon, which I think is what he might do. But I don’t see that as being part of any diplomatic negotiation with Putin in which certain concessions are made to a Russian sphere of influence.
I think that negotiation—finding the place for Russia in the European security architecture, which Mary has written so well about in her book, actually comes now after Putin.
TEPPERMAN: Well, I would love to get into all of this, but I also don’t want to hog the microphone, so let’s open up the Q&A session.
With that said, let me invite members to join our conversation. A reminder that this meeting is on the record, and the operator will remind you how to join the question queue.
OPERATOR: Thank you so much. Ladies and gentlemen, as a reminder, to ask a question, please click on the raise hand icon on your Zoom window. When you are called on, please accept the unmute now button and proceed with your name, affiliation, and question. And as a reminder, this meeting is on the record.
Our first question will be from Kimberly Till. Ms. Till, if you could unmute your microphone. We’re having some technical difficulties with hers. We’re going to go next to James Lowenstein.
Q: Is my microphone unmuted?
Q: I am a long-ago retired Foreign Service Officer, but I began my government life at Marshall Plan headquarters in Paris in 1950, and so, from time to time, I’m asked to talk about the Marshall Plan.
And when I do, I find a total misunderstanding of how it worked, and so one understands the whole business of the dollar gap, counterpart funds, and most importantly, how long it lasted. When I ask people how long they think the Marshall Plan lasted, the response usually is seven to ten years—whereas the truth is three-and-a-half years.
Now, if more people read Mr. Steil’s book, they wouldn’t make this mistake. But when people talk about the Marshall Plan, it seems to me they ought to be a little more descriptive of how—exactly what it was and how it worked.
TEPPERMAN: Thanks. Let’s take the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from David Merkel.
Q: Thank you. David Merkel with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
My question is to Professor Ash. You discussed—in response to Benn Steil’s comment about how the economics have changed since the Truman Doctrine, I wonder if you’d talk a bit about the politicians, the statesmen, the challenge ahead of them, and whether we have the leadership in Washington and Europe that are up for the challenge?
ASH: It’s a very interesting question because, of course, you never know until they’re there. People greeted Truman with alarm—thought he a provincial politician who didn’t know what he was doing, and he turned out to be quite a remarkable statesman.
So far as I’m concerned, I think the Biden administration has so far handled this well—cautiously, clearly. The most difficult moment is now upon them because—precisely because the Russians are not winning militarily in Ukraine. We’re approaching the most dangerous moment, the moment of possible escalation, so that will be the great test.
The other person I would single out as being really put on the spot is the person I mentioned a moment ago—Olaf Scholz. Because if anyone is going to come forward with a—with all due differences, a Marshall Plan for Ukraine—a long-term plan for economic reconstruction in Ukraine, as it comes closer to the European Union—it’s probably going to be Germany.
And as I say, Scholz has made one good speech on that in Prague. Berlin is hosting an economic reconstruction conference in Berlin in October, and we shall see. But there, I think, is where I would want to look to see if we have that kind of leadership.
TEPPERMAN: Benn, I want to dovetail on that and ask you a related question. As you’ve pointed out, the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine were accompanied by the creation of a whole new set of international institutions.
So, as we’re thinking about parallels between leaders, then and now, we should think about institutions as well, and the question is, do our current institutions still—are they still fit to purpose? Can they still do the job that we need them to do now, or should we be thinking about new institutional constructional reform today the way we were seventy-five years ago?
STEIL: Excellent question. With regard to NATO, I think we should have had a more grown-up discussion about this in the 1990s because, as it were, it’s a little too late to talk about how we might reconstitute the grand architecture of European security.
NATO is basically back to where it was during the Cold War in terms of who its adversary is, who it’s there to deter, and so we have to deal with the reality of that. I would have preferred a different approach in the 1990s. Mary’s book deals with that issue extremely effectively.
With regard to other institutions that the United States set up in the immediate postwar period, particularly ’45-’49, I would point out that we in the United States are really benefitting now from those institutions that we built when we were at the apex of our military and economic power.
For example, take the IMF, in particular—I would say also the World Bank, but in particular, the IMF, which was much more important back then and continues to be more important today. Those institutions—again, particularly the IMF—are doing quite different things today than they were doing in the 1940s, but consider how they function institutionally. The United States granted itself sole veto power within both those organizations, and really nobody batted an eyelash about that back that.
And that’s because we were so dominant economically, monetarily, militarily at the time. But fast forward today, and we still have sole veto power within those organizations.
So I would emphasize that one of the priorities of the United States entering the postwar period was to create institutions and alliances which would allow us to leverage our political influence in the world. We are benefitting from the continued existence of those alliances in a way we couldn’t back in the 1940s because of the fact that we dominated those alliances so much.
We were over 50 percent of world GDP at the time. Now we’re down to a quarter. It will almost certainly continue to fall from there. The fact is—and I give the Biden administration considerable credit for this—they have recognized the importance of reinforcing these alliances and expanding them into other areas.
So, alliances of all sorts. That was the central message of the Marshall Plan that the United States could not and should not go it alone, and this, I believe, is the—should be the emphasis of our foreign policy approach today.
TEPPERMAN: Thank you, Benn. Let’s take the next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Andrew Gundlach.
Q: Can you hear me?
Q: Good morning. I have a question for Timothy. You are a prolific writer on Germany and its history, and I’d like to understand from you how—well, I guess a few things.
One is, what is the lesson that Germany has learned? A huge pivot from Merkel’s policy. Number two, what is the reconstruction plan that they should lead? And then, number three, how that changes the balance of power in Europe, especially with Poland, which is now everybody’s best friend because Germany, being the power that it is, has a complicated history, as you well know?
And then, within that reconstruction, if Poland is now such an important power—which may be the biggest winner of this war—how do you deal with the difference of religion—Catholic versus the Orthodox Church—and make that all work?
I’m just curious as to your views. Thank you.
ASH: Thank you very much. I’ll try and be brief on that.
First of all, what lesson has Germany learned? It’s not clear that Germany has learned any lessons yet. There was a huge debate in the country about what lessons they should learn.
But the lesson they should learn is that they made a huge mistake after the end of the Cold War, and believed that the military dimension of power could be neglected, that they could have extensive energy dependency on Russia—Nord Stream 2 was entirely built after the 2014 seizure of Crimea—and that Russia would not use it as a tool, and that interdependence was itself a source of peace. So there are some big lessons to be learned there.
In terms of reconstruction, actually the immediate challenge is this. The Ukrainian economy is on the verge of collapse. There is an imminent danger of hyperinflation. The needs for budgetary support alone are in the order of $5 billion a month.
The EU has promised $9 billion. It has so far dispersed just over 1 billion (dollars). So the immediate need is not even reconstruction, it’s budgetary support, and then beyond that, a plan which would get the economy back on its feet.
In terms of the balance of power inside the EU, you’re absolutely right. One effect of the Ukraine conflict long term has been to strengthen the position of the Scandinavian, Baltic, and East European countries in the (councils/counsels ?) of the EU.
If I may very quickly, Jonathan, say two things on the institutions. One is, it’s really important to remember that the most important institution in Europe today did not exist in 1947. That’s the European Union. For us that’s, at least as important, actually more important, than NATO.
Secondly—I’m putting it very, very quickly—I suspect I disagree with Mary and Benn on NATO enlargement. I think NATO enlargement was the right thing to do. I think that—you know, I wouldn’t want to be Estonian, or Lithuanian, or Latvian today if I wasn’t in NATO.
I don’t agree—the one thing I do not agree with Mary’s book on—Mary’s wonderful book, a superb piece of work—is the counterfactual that they would have been better off left in a more ambiguous and softer arrangement called partnership for peace.
The one mistake we did make was to send a profoundly ambiguous message on Ukraine and NATO at the Bucharest Summit in 2008—the worst of both worlds. Either we should have gone for a membership path for Ukraine, or we should have followed the German and French line and not gone for it at all. But to say they will be members without actually doing anything about it was absolutely the worst of both worlds, and that’s, I think, a lesson to be learned from history.
Last comment. I don’t think there’s any negotiation about this to be had now with Putin. In that sense, Benn is right. It’s too late, but also too early. But absolutely we will need a negotiation with a post-Putin Russia about the security architecture in relation to NATO, and the economic and political architecture in relation to the EU.
TEPPERMAN: Timothy, let me put you on the spot—impress you. Do you think Ukraine should be a candidate for NATO membership?
ASH: They’re welcome to apply, which they have done.
ASH: I think that, in principle, absolutely they have a right to membership and there may be some way down the road. It is totally unrealistic to imagine a country in the middle of the largest war in Europe since 1945, which doesn’t control 20 percent of its membership, should actually now become a member of NATO.
So, in my view, that is an issue for a larger conversation about a future European security architecture.
TEPPERMAN: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Edwin Truman.
Q: Thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed this and learned a lot from this discussion.
I’d like to—one question—one aspect of the so-called Marshall—the Marshall Plan, which you have touched on but not expanded on—and maybe—I haven’t read Benn’s books, so I apologize; it probably covers this—is the sense in which it was very intrusive into the economic arrangements in that—for the countries that, as I understand it, they benefitted from it.
I mean, it created a structure. Things like the European Payments Union came out of it and things like that, and its successor, in some sense, was the OECD. And it was a very—my understanding, it was a very intrusive mechanism for restoring some level of prosperity to the benefitting countries.
But please correct me if I’m wrong, probably Benn.
STEIL: Marshall’s speech in June of ’47 was deliberately ambiguous because he wanted the Europeans to take complete ownership of this project. The United States only had two non-negotiables.
One was stated. One was unstated. The stated one was that the Europeans have to get together—there were ultimately six Marshall Plan nations—and produce a consolidated plan to present to the United States.
That is, it couldn’t be sixteen separate shopping lists. They had to decide as a unified whole. This is really the beginnings of the European Union right here in the summer of 1947 very much instigated by the State Department.
They couldn’t have, for example, sixteen separate steel industries. They would have to produce steel where it’s most efficient for them to produce. The unstated requirement was that the communist parties, particularly in France and Italy, should not be allowed back into government. They were kicked out in May of ’47 just prior to Marshall’s speech, and they were not to be allowed back.
Other than that, the United States really wanted the Europeans to take ownership of this and not to be able to claim that this was something imposed on them by the United States. Now, European cooperation was harder to achieve than the United States wanted to believe. There were intensive summer negotiations in Paris in July, August, into September on what that unified plan would be, and the United States did have to intervene, knock heads together, bring a sense of realism to the parties, and force them to cooperate.
But in terms of the actual programs that were implemented—in particular in Britain, Italy, and France—they were very, very different, and in each case, the United States has significant objections to those national plans. But the United States decided quite wisely that it was fundamentally more important to have these governments take ownership of their plan than it was for the United States to impose what they consider to be more sensible versions of the plan.
For example, with regard to Britain, the Truman administration felt that the British labor government was too far to the left, was pursuing an unwise socialist agenda, nationalizing industries and so on, and there was a robust debate within the State Department about the extent to which the United States should intervene.
But the State Department ultimately decided that more important than getting the economic policy precisely right, as they saw it, was to re-enforce the fact that these democratic governments were wholly legitimate. They were of the people in these states, and so that the United States, even if they didn’t agree with the policies, needed to support, in the case of Britain, what they called the NCL, the non-communist left, because the non-communist left had legitimate democratic support. And ultimately what the United States wanted to preclude was the coming to power of communist parties in these countries.
So to get right to the heart of Ted’s question, yes, the United States certainly did intervene in economic policy in all the participating countries, but not to the extent that has been popularly understood.
TEPPERMAN: Mary, do you think that argues for a certain American deference toward the Europeans today in leading the campaign in support of Ukraine?
SAROTTE: I think that the Biden administration has been doing a great job so far in working with our European leaders, and that if there is any silver lining to the utterly terrible things that are happening, it’s that we are seeing a renewed energy in the transatlantic partnership.
As Benn was saying earlier, in some ways NATO is essentially back to where it was in terms of who its adversary is again, and it’s also, in some ways, back to where it was in terms of cooperation.
I think I might just add a few things because Timothy Garton Ash has talked about my work explicitly a couple of times now, and with respect, push back on some of his assertions. I do think it is apt to talk about being in a new Cold War because, of course, the old Cold War wasn’t cold, as there were many, many hot wars within it. I recommend Paul Chamberlain’s book, The Cold War’s Killing Fields, to anyone who would like to know more about that.
What is cold then, and for now, at present, is the tension between NATO countries and Moscow. We are not in a hot war between NATO countries and Moscow, and we hope very much that that won’t happen.
Also, on the subject of NATO enlargement, just to clarify, I am not opposed to NATO enlargement. I think that NATO enlargement was the right approach. The problem was how it happened. The way that it happened came at the cost of Ukraine, and we are paying the price for that today.
The big play in post-Soviet Europe was to do three things. It was to enable Central and Eastern Europeans to join NATO, number one. It was to provide a security berth for Ukraine, number two. And to keep the strategic disarmament going with Russia, number three. The challenge was to square that circle—or to be more precise, to square that triangle, and unlike circles, triangles can be squared.
And there were people at the time opposing ways to succeed in that and who knew at the time that just extending Article 5 would leave Ukraine in the lurch, and that was known at the time. And I think we’re seeing now the fallacy of that decision.
TEPPERMAN: Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Thomas Remington.
Q: Thank you. My question is about the concept of containment and back, of course, to Russia. How relevant do you think—any of the panelists think the doctrine of containment is to our times?
I very much take—I agree with the comment that Timothy Garton Ash made and others that a postwar European security architectural cannot include a Putin under Russia, but we do have to look at a post-Putin Russia. But it seems to me for the interim, so long as Russia is in the hands of a very, very aggressive, really fascist regime, we’re going to need to look at some form of containment.
And I do think that Kennan’s vision of the Stalinist regime is relevant here, that long-term pressure is required until the regime changes its own internal weaknesses. Would the panelists agree with a perspective like that?
TEPPERMAN: Since we’re almost out of time, why don’t we do a wrap-up on that question and have each of you come in on that, and spin forward what your thoughts are on containment today, but also the key lessons of the Marshall Plan for policymakers now, and what you think Biden and his advisers and their European counterparts—what are the lessons that they should be keeping in mind?
Mary, why don’t we start with you?
SAROTTE: I actually authored an article called Containment Beyond the Cold War in Foreign Affairs, and you might be of interest to look at that. I chose that phrase because in internal discussions in the Clinton administration about NATO enlargement there was explicit use of the term neo-containment. So the idea that, you know, we’re going to need to keep containment going, that was explicitly discussed. It was also explicitly discussed that that should not be made public.
Now, what’s important to note is that the February invasion was a real breaking point. As the Germans say, it’s zeitenwende, a change in times. What might have been possible before this conflict is now no longer possible. There is no going back.
We are in a new situation now. The post-Cold War era has ended, and so all these discussions about, you know, potential and creating some security architecture with Russia—I agree with what’s being said here—that all needs to be on hold until this conflict has at least moved from the level of violence to the level of politics.
So what I’m talking about is not current. What is currently is clear, as I said, the Ukrainians are at war with enormous bravery, and we should be supporting them to the fullest—to our fullest ability, as should the Europeans be.
So these are historical discussions we’re having, but there certainly was a sense in the post-Soviet period, inside the White House, that containment never stopped, that you’re going to keep needing neo-containment. Certainly, Lech Walesa and Polish leaders were repeatedly telling Washington, you know, the bear is only asleep. The bear is only wounded. Every possible bear metaphor you can think of popped up in the evidence. So there is very much a strong sense of continuity in this notion of containment.
Now, of course, again, just to conclude, we’re in a different world now. Now we’re actually in a world of combat between Ukrainians and Russians, and the challenge now, as I said before, is to try to settle that conflict, or at least move it on to a nonviolent plane without escalating.
TEPPERMAN: Thank you.
Timothy and Benn, with apologies, we only have about a minute left for each of you. Timothy, why don’t you go, and then, we’ll wrap up with Benn.
ASH: Absolutely, we’re in a world where we need containment. In a sense, we thought we could do eastward enlargement of NATO on the cheap, and now it turns out it actually has to be made a military reality—with the additional factor that while Ukraine is not in NATO, NATO is in Ukraine. I mean, in that sense it is different from the Cold War. Massive amounts of NATO weaponry, ammunition, and training are participants there.
I think the key takeaway for me is that we need a quite different division of labor from in the late 1940s. The United States is still absolutely crucial for the security dimension, and particularly avoiding escalation. On the other hand, for that whole large area of political economy, I think that’s really should be mainly up to the European Union; Europeans to take the lead.
And by the way—last sentence, Benn—it’s, of course, in a sense even more difficult than then because, although ruined, the economies of Western Europe had been developed capitalist economies with good administration, company law, independent courts, the whole structure of a modern bourgeois capitalist economy. That is not the case in Ukraine. So it’s, in a sense, a whole lot bigger task.
TEPPERMAN: Thank you. Benn, last thoughts?
STEIL: Just trying to unmute myself here. George Kennan—the George Kennan of the so-called Long Telegram and Mr. X—that was a much more hawkish George Kennan than the one who staunchly publicly opposed NATO enlargement in the late 1990s, and indeed going back to 1948.
George Kennan spent the rest of his career trying to walk back the perception that containment was all fundamentally about a military approach. He wanted a much more holistic political approach to containment of which economic intervention in the form of things like the Marshall Plan was to take center stage.
And I agree strongly with Timothy that with regard Ukraine, the Europeans today do need to take the lead in this respect, and hopefully political economy can be made the centerpiece of that approach rather than relying on military force, which, as I think Mary’s rightly emphasized, is exceptionally dangerous in the nuclear context.
TEPPERMAN: Well, Benn, Timothy, Mary, thank you, all, so much for joining us and for your thoughts. I only hope that policymakers will keep in mind at least some of the things that you’ve said. We could easily have gone on for many more hours, so it’s painful to cut this short, but the time is nigh.
So let me thank you, again, for joining us. Let me thank everyone who called in for this fascinating conversation. And please note that the video and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website soon. I hope to see you all again very soon. Thank you, and all the best. Bye-bye.