Demise of a Metaphor

Reviewed by Moises Naim
Sunday, November 4, 2007


By Greg Behrman

Free Press. 448 pp. $27

Al Gore has called for one to deal with climate change. Bill Gates wants one to widen access to technology. Senate Democrats demanded one after Hurricane Katrina, while French President Nikolas Sarkozy promised one to defuse the violence in France's poor suburbs. Bill Clinton, Bono, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Archbishop Desmond Tutu all believe Africa desperately needs one. Newt Gingrich wants one for Iraq, and the AFL-CIO urged one for the auto industry. Belgium launched one to boost the economy of its Wallonia region.

What is this magic potion that so many luminaries and institutions believe can be successfully applied to such a variety of intractable problems? A Marshall Plan.

Unfortunately, the metaphor does not work. Greg Behrman's meticulously researched The Most Noble Adventure offers ample evidence that unique conditions prevented the Marshall Plan from becoming the wasteful catastrophe its critics originally predicted. The plan, launched in 1947 by then Secretary of State George C. Marshall, sought to help in the postwar reconstruction of Europe. During the four years it lasted, the U.S. government spent $13 billion on European infrastructure projects and economic and social programs, a sum equivalent to at least $100 billion today. Just as important, the plan's designers combined financial aid with economic and institutional reforms. For example, by forcing many small economies into a larger market, the plan helped to lay the foundations of today's European Union. It also fostered the emergence of more democratic institutions, especially in what had been Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

Inevitably, such an ambitious, expensive endeavor was bound to be controversial. No sooner had Marshall announced it in a Harvard commencement speech than the criticisms poured in. In Congress, it sparked bitter denunciations by the Republican opposition. Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy derided it as a "massive and unrewarding boondoggle." Critics argued that taxpayers' money ought to be spent at home. In Europe, left-leaning politicians and Soviet sympathizers didn't much like it, either, and Moscow's propaganda machine went all out against the plan. A Soviet-sponsored medical publication informed readers that egg powder imported from the United States thanks to the Marshall Plan was deliberately laced with bacteria to drive sick Europeans to American doctors.

Historians here and abroad still argue about the plan's impact; many believe that it has been overrated and that Europe would have recovered without it. Others maintain that the plan played a crucial role in postwar development and was a masterful move in the Cold War chess game, helping to undermine Soviet influence in Europe.

Among educated Americans who are broadly familiar with the plan, however, there seem to be few doubts: For many, the Marshall Plan still stands as the most noble foreign policy initiative ever undertaken by Washington. To this policy elite, it represents not just a 60-year-old good deed but a series of enduring lessons: Humanitarian aid can advance U.S. national interests. The U.S. government knows how to reshape the politics and economies of other nations. Massive infusions of money can solve major national or international problems.

It's only natural, therefore, that "New Marshall Plans" are proposed so often. Behrman, a fellow at the Aspen Institute, is firmly among those who think the original plan was a huge achievement. "Much of what is best about America, its potential and its possibility was alive and in operation in the Marshall Plan," he writes. Yet his thorough discussion of the economics, politics and administration of the plan suggests that it is not easily emulated.

In contrast to many of the places for which Marshall Plans are regularly prescribed, Europe had a solid, pre-war set of institutions (courts, stock markets, etc.), a competent public sector and vibrant businesses. Though prostrated by war, it had far greater ability to put large investments to immediate, efficient use than does Afghanistan, for example.

Behrman vividly describes many of the larger-than-life individuals who converged to design and execute the plan. The statesmen on both sides of the Atlantic who pulled off this complex project were not merely brilliant and farsighted but also excellent organizers. Such men as George Marshall in the United States and Jean Monnet, Ernest Bevin and Robert Schuman in Europe combined their vision with astute political instincts. Some, like Marshall, had been war-time leaders and could draw on a vast reservoir of public affection and trust. Others -- including William Clayton, Paul Hoffman and W. Averell Harriman -- were recruited from the top ranks of U.S. businesses and brought extensive managerial experience.

Behrman's analysis confirms an obvious point: the importance of identifying and recruiting the best talent available, regardless of political affiliation or personal background. Who can disagree with that? Yet as we know from recent experience in New Orleans and Iraq, "recruiting the best" is a principle often upheld in speeches but ignored in practice. If not even the United States has been able to follow this simple lesson, then it is naive to think that the best talent available will run vast governmental efforts elsewhere. And the Marshall Plan is the wrong metaphor to inspire them. *

Moises Naim is editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine and author of "Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy."

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