June 12, 2008 | Commentary on Europe, Foreign Aid and Development, Trade

Bush' trans-Atlantic tour: American contributions to European prosperity

Did you know that President Bush left on Monday for a week-long trip in Europe? Unfortunately, an outgoing president is not going to command as many banner headlines as the contest between his potential successors. On his final lap around the continent, Mr. Bush is visiting friends of the United States and making an effort to strengthen trans-Atlantic relations.

On the list of countries he will visit are: Slovenia, where the president on Tuesday participated in the annual U.S.-EU summit; he will also travel to Germany, Italy, and France. In all of these countries, Mr. Bush will meet with leaders friendly to the United States: Angela Merkel, Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr. Bush will then meet with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown - who has not turned out to be as much of a friend as the White House no doubt hoped. And Mr. Bush will call on Queen Elizabeth II. He will finish in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to celebrate its tentative exercise in power-sharing between Protestants and Catholics. The trip certainly illustrates that American foreign policy is not conducted in a unilateralist vacuum.

The president, however, also has a theme and a historical purpose. His visit to Europe coincides with the 60th anniversary of the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Airlift - beyond doubt, the most important U.S. foreign-aid programs ever created. The Marshall Plan has since become a label for advocates of massive foreign aid programs: We have seen Marshall Plans proposed for the former Soviet Union, Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Bush himself has talked about a Marshall Plan for the Middle East. A look at what the Marshall Plan actually did and what it did not do is therefore important.

Together, the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Airlift transformed the fate of Western Europe, as it was poised to fall under communist sway following the devastation of World War II. In the history of U.S. public diplomacy, there has been no more successful endeavor than the unprecedented airlift of food and coal to West Berlin - which had been cut off by the Soviets. American pilots who just a few years before had been dropping bombs on the city, were now "candy bombing" Berlin's children. This helped the U.S. image enormously, even among the war-weary Germans.

The Marshall Plan - named after U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall and known at the time as the European Recovery Program - was implemented in 1948 to help get the devastated European continent back on its feet. This was an assertion of U.S. leadership on a massive scale. The initial commitment by Congress, when it approved the plan, was for $13.3 billion over four years (more than $100 billion in today's dollars). The offer of aid extended to all of Europe, but only the countries free of Soviet domination were able to accept. Of the countries on Mr. Bush's itinerary, only Slovenia did not have that opportunity.

Of the Marshall plan's key features, the most important was that it left the responsibility for rebuilding with the Europeans. Funding was channeled through European Central Banks. The U.S. Economic Cooperation Administration worked with each country to create a plan with a unique mission. It was also based on competition; European countries bid against each other for American donated goods, which they then resold. They used the proceeds to rebuild infrastructure. And finally, cooperation between European countries was fostered by the European Payments Union that was founded in 1950. This consolidated European debts, unified the European economies and aimed to ensure that no single country would emerge as an economic superpower.

Helmut Schmidt, writing in "Foreign Affairs" in 1997, commented that the success of the Marshall plan was critically tied to the ability of the recipients to make use of it. "Marshall Aid was successful because Europe possessed a long-standing entrepreneurial heritage, a base of business acumen, a high level of general education as well as engineering capabilities. No Marshall Plan can succeed where such prerequisites do not exist."

Where such an understanding of economics and political culture does not exist, a Marshall Plan cannot work. While foreign-aid programs may have their own political or humanitarian motivation, they have to be conceived on a basis that helps produce those important factors. And much lower expectations are in order than the spectacular success of the Marshall Plan. This is where government programs like the National Endowment for Democracy, the Center for International Private Enterprise and the Millennium Challenge Account come in.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush can take heart from the prosperity and success of the countries on his European visit. American visionary leadership and generosity had a big role in making that happen.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times