Danielle Allen is a political theorist at Harvard University and a contributing columnist for The Post. This column is adapted from Allen’s keynote address at a 70th anniversary celebration for the Marshall Scholarship last weekend at Harvard University.
Secretary of State George Marshall visited Harvard on June 5, 1947, to give a commencement address. In it, he laid out his vision for the Marshall Plan, a framework for U.S. investment in European reconstruction after World War II. One of his worries was that the burden of power and influence had fallen on an American people still on the whole underprepared for it. Whatever the good intentions of ordinary Americans might have been, the fact was that, in his words, “the people of this country are distant from the troubled areas of the earth and it is hard for them to comprehend the plight and consequent reactions of the long-suffering peoples.” Moreover, the world situation was “of such enormous complexity that the very mass of facts presented to the public by press and radio make it exceedingly difficult for the man in the street to reach a clear appraisement of the situation.”
Seventy years after Marshall’s compelling articulation of a vision for American links to Europe, we find ourselves in an America full of fog and confusion — beset by a whirlwind of fictions bruited about as facts — and as distant in our sympathies from the troubled areas of the earth as most of us have seen in our lifetimes. Current circumstances might incline some to think that the time has arrived not to celebrate the Marshall legacy but to bury it.
It strikes me, therefore, that this should be a moment to recommit to the cause of connection that Marshall identified as urgent. Figuring out concretely how to do so is no small matter, however, because the geopolitical situation has changed profoundly since 1947. These shifts also seem to have been accompanied by a diminishment in U.S. foreign policy foresight.
We rarely say it out loud, but three American administrations have now moved steadily away from Europe. Despite the Blair-Bush alliance, the George W. Bush administration castigated “old Europe.” The Obama administration pivoted toward Asia and devoted relatively little attention to the euro crisis, and scarcely more to the refugee crisis. This was the case despite the United States’ having been a central cause, ultimately, of both crises, given our destabilization of global financial markets through mortgage-backed securities and our destabilization of the Middle East through the invasion of Iraq. The Trump administration has moved away more aggressively, of course.
The rise of China as the only genuine global competitor to the United States is reason enough, a foreign policy realist would say, for the United States to shift its energies and resources from the Atlantic to the Pacific Rim and to seek to nudge Europe toward assuming more proactive leadership in its own defense. But realism comes in many flavors — and this is where we come to the more important point, the issue of decline in American foreign policy understanding.
Last week H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, President Trump’s national security adviser and chief economic adviser, respectively, published a statement of this administration’s foreign policy principles in the Wall Street Journal. If we trace a 70-year arc leading from the realism of Marshall to that of McMaster and Cohen, we have no choice but to acknowledge a diminishment.
In his brief, eloquent commencement address, Marshall organized his approach to foreign policy around a key idea that “any successful action on the part of the United States requires an understanding on the part of the people of America of the character of the problem and the remedies to be applied.” To this end, Marshall walked his audience through a concise analysis of the economic and political problems facing Europe at the end of the war, not merely naming them but dissecting and explaining them. The achievement of peace, which brings security, required, Marshall argued, a policy directed “not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.” Restoring a working economy would permit the development of political and social conditions that would ward off desperation and chaos, precisely by enabling the construction of free institutions.
This formulation rested on three important ideas:
First, there was the idea that successful foreign policy actions require domestic political work: the cultivation through argument of a shared understanding among the people why the action is needed and how it is expected to work. Second, that successful foreign policy requires a big-picture diagnosis of the conditions that are causing desperation, and a commitment to bringing about conditions that ward those off. Third, that our strategic interest encompasses a moral interest in free institutions as the better solution, the more permanent solution, among the array of options, to the problems of desperation and chaos.
None of these ideas is present in McMaster and Cohn’s essay. They assert that we need to do more to defeat terrorism, but provide no explanation of the “character of the problem.” They complain of trade deficits but provide no big picture of the challenges facing the global economy and their consequences for hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. They ignore what is surely the biggest threat to our prosperity, namely climate change.
Their eschewal of any effort to cultivate a shared understanding in the American people of the character of the problems defining the world today reflects an absence of comprehension on their part of what politics is — the achievement of shared understandings, shared at least by a majority, to ground and stabilize the actions of a democracy. Similarly, as they list the tools and goals of their foreign policy, “military strength” comes first; diplomacy is an afterthought. They see no moral interest intrinsic in our strategic interests, instead viewing the world as “an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” They seek bare advantage, not peace.
This brings me back to my suggestion that we ought to take this moment not merely to celebrate but also to revive Marshall’s vision. As successive American governments have pulled away from Europe, they have neglected one other important element of foreign policy foresight. Human societies are learning organizations.
Just as individuals take on shapes responsive to the adversaries on whom their attention is concentrated, so too do nations. In 1954, as part of fighting the Cold War, the United States added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, thereby dividing the phrase “one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” The goal was to distinguish the theistic United States from the atheistic Soviet Union. Paradoxically, we thereby took the conflict into our midst, driving a wedge between the secular and the faithful with regard to the capacity of each group to embrace a basic ritual of affiliation.
As the United States pivots toward Asia and seeks to counter China’s rising power, we find ourselves modulating our educational practices in the direction of Chinese competitors who outperform us in math and science. We’ve shifted our educational investments away from the humanities and social sciences and toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics ; we’ve developed a far more extensive regime of high-stakes tests. Consequent to this is the underpreparation of our citizenry for their civic responsibilities. Studies show a decline of time spent on social studies in K-12 classrooms over the past decade and a half.
To counteract the gravitational pull in the direction of our main competitor, we Americans need tight relationships with our friends in Europe, whose political systems are like our own, who recognize the value of an education for citizenship, and who continue to preserve an education in the humanities and social sciences as well as in STEM fields. We need a learning partnership with, for instance, Britain, whose traditions of constitutional rights and decision-making through parliamentary debate provide the world’s longest-lived example of free institutions. We need context and occasion for relearning that a shared moral interest in itself supplies a strategic interest.
We Americans need these things not just for our own advantage but also so that we may again equip ourselves to meet our responsibilities in the world.