The United States and Central Europe:
Looking to the Future
Commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the Marshall Plan
Dr. Daniel S. Hamilton
Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation Professor
Johns Hopkins University SAIS
Thank you for the gracious introduction and the opportunity to join you today at the Pfingstdialog. I would like to thank our hosts for their hospitality and their ability to gather a remarkable group of people here with us today. I’d also like to extend particular gratitude to the Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation for its leadership in maintaining strong ties between the United States and Austria, and for its support of my work and that of my Center, which enables us to strengthen the European voice in Washington and to generate new knowledge about the dynamics of central Europe.
In these days, as we consider the future of this dynamic region, we commemorate important milestones in America’s relationship with central Europe, a relationship that over past decades has been marked by cycles of American engagement and retrenchment.
We particularly recall the closing days of World War II in Europe–those dramatic days of liberation 72 years ago.
Unfortunately, in most of Central Europe, liberation from the grip of the Third Reich did not lead to freedom as it did in Western Europe, Austria and in Germany itself. By the end of May 1945, the American General George Patton and his advancing troops had already withdrawn from western Bohemia, which they had liberated, leaving the Red Army in control not only in Czech and Slovak lands, but throughout the region. The hope of liberation soon gave way to the sober reality of foreign rule and a new Cold War.
America’s withdrawal from this region was part and parcel of a general retrenchment by the United States from global commitments and responsibilities in those initial postwar years, as American soldiers, and the society that deployed them far from American shores, ached for their return, to gain victory’s dividend and to build a better future at home. After having sacrificed so many and so much for Europe, Americans were ready to look homeward. The popular mood was clear — it was time to put America first.
Meanwhile, Europe laid prostrate, devasted by its wars and unable to generate the capacity for a peaceful future. Between 1945 and 1948, the United States provided $15 billion in assistance to Europe — a huge amount at that time. By early 1948, however, it was clear that American largess alone had failed to revive the continent, which remained traumatized and torn by divisions within and among its societies.
It was only then, as concerns grew about Europe’s future, that American leaders understood that the United States could not afford to retrench, and that checkbook diplomacy alone was inadequate to safeguard the very U.S. interests and values it had sacrificed so much to defend during two world wars.
It was only then that a new cycle really began, one marked by a clear message, delivered by Secretary of State George Marshall on June 5, 1947: the United States would engage actively on the European continent, it would contribute as it could to Europe’s better future — but Europeans had to lead the way. If Europeans wanted American support, they would have to cast aside their divisions and demonstrate how they would build that better future — together.
This was the “Plan” in the Marshall Plan — America would fuel Europe’s recovery, America would stand with Europe, but Europe had to work together to chart the way forward.
The Marshall Plan was a tremendous success — and its legacy continues to pay dividends for our relations, as can be seen by the good work of the Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation itself. Perhaps no country benefitted more from the Marshall Plan than Austria, as Austria received about as many funds per capita as any other recipient country. Without the Marshall Plan, Austria’s postwar economic revival would have been difficult, if not unthinkable. Bruno Kreisky once noted that Austrian participation in the response to Marshall’s challenge is what turned Austrians into Europeans.
Today, everyone recalls the money behind the Marshall Plan — but in the end, the Marshall Plan amounted to $13 billion — less money than the $15 billion the United States had invested in Europe in the three years after the war.
It was not simply money that made the Marshall Plan, it was the “plan” behind the Plan — and its true legacy for Europe’s better future. Not only did Europeans have to tell the Americans how they would use the funds, they had to do so together. The effect was to galvanize the European movement, to make real and practical what had only been a dream — a true European Community. This month we also commemorate this success — the 67th anniversary of the Schuman Plan creating the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner to the European Union, whose founding treaty in Rome, signed 60 years ago, we celebrated earlier this spring.
Built on their newfound, common engagement, the United States and its partners forged other institutions, including the GATT, the OECD and NATO. The Atlantic Alliance created an umbrella under which Europeans unity could develop, and together these institutions helped produce unparalleled peace and prosperity for half a century–but only for half a continent.
The United States extended its offer of Marshall Plan assistance to all of Europe, including the Soviet Union. 16 west European countries accepted, as did the Czechs. Yet after meeting with Stalin on the matter, Czechoslovak foreign minister Jan Masaryk was forced to reject America’s offer. A dejected Masaryk commented that “I went to Moscow as the foreign minister of an independent sovereign state. I returned as a lackey of the Soviet government.”
Disputes over assistance soon turned into walls separating people, and Europe’s vibrant middle dissolved into two artificial Europes — one called ”East” and one called ”West.” Young Czechs grew up knowing more about Moscow than Vienna. Young Viennese knew more about Milan than Bratislava. Young Grazer knew more about Munich than Budapest. Hamburgers and Frankfurters knew all about London and nothing about Leipzig.
And then, 28 years ago, Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn joined Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock — a noted alumnus, I should add, of our School’s Bologna Center — to snip open the Iron Curtain. That event gave voice to the singular message that had been expressed by lonely souls for years and that then grew to a crescendo on the streets of Budapest, Gdansk, Prague, Leipzig, Bucharest and other central and eastern European cities. ”We want to return to Europe,” was the message of those on the streets and in their Trabants, Skodas and Ladas — to be part of a Europe to which they had always belonged, and yet had been prevented from joining because of where the Red Army stopped in the summer of 1945.
This message from central Europe unleashed an earthquake that is still shaking the continent and its institutions.
This message gave us orientation.
This message is both opportunity and obligation — the opportunity to build a continent that is truly whole, free and at peace with itself, and the obligation to see it through.
It was unclear in those waning days of the Cold War, however, when faced with peace’s dividend abroad and daunting challenges at home, whether Americans would retrench or engage.
In the heart of central Europe, America and its partners engaged vigorously, seizing history’s opportunity and meeting its obligation, by helping Germany to unify in peace and Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to join our institutions. Austria, too, joined in this historic process of reconciliation and integration.
In southeastern Europe, however, we failed to heed history’s lesson. As violence began to engulf the Balkans, America retrenched. American leaders declared that the U.S. had “no dog in the fight.” Many Europeans seemed to agree, proclaiming this to be “Europe’s hour.”
America’s failure to resist its historic temptation toward retrenchment, and our joint failure to understand America’s continuing role as a European power, not just a power in Europe, amounted to the greatest collective failure of the West since World War II. Only after great tragedy — marked this year by the 22nd anniversary of the horrific genocidal acts at Srebrenica — did the United States and its European partners understand again the lessons they had learned — and lost — forty years earlier.
Once again, we applied those lessons, by working together to bring the Balkan conflicts to an end and to set that part of the continent on a course to rejoin “Europe” — a Europe where war simply does not happen, where democracy and prosperity prevail.
Once again, Western — and, this time, primarily European — financial support was important, but more important was the message behind the money: stability cannot be imposed from outside; it must be built from within. Only if the countries in question are committed to create conditions by which their integration into this community can be possible — resolving bilateral disputes and ethnic tensions, engaging in true political and economic reforms, respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, working together rather than standing apart — are they likely to leave their turbulent history behind.
Looking back over 70 years, we can be proud. But we cannot be complacent.
Despite our efforts, Europe is not yet whole, free or at peace.
Europe’s west is facing a conflation of crises — migration, terrorism, Brexit, low and uneven growth, high youth unemployment and significant debt challenges in many countries, the cancer of ”illiberal democracy” — that have unsettled European polities, economies, and security policies.
Europe’s south and east are faring no better.
Turmoil continues in the western Balkans, endangering 20 years of progress.
A decade after the European Union offered six eastern countries its ”Eastern Partnership,” Russia has invaded two of them and has positioned Russian forces in five of them.
For some years, Belarus became known as ”the last dictatorship in Europe.” It is no longer — not because it is no longer a dictatorship, but because other dictatorships have joined it.
Right before our eyes, the cancer of so-called ”illiberal democracy” is spreading from east central Europe, infecting Europe’s body politic.
Right before our eyes, two artificial Europes are again rising — a turbulent grey zone to the east and southeast, whose people do not know where their future lies; and an inward-looking, fractious disunion to the west whose people seem to have forgotten why they ever joined together to build ”an ever closer Union.”
Of course, Europe is not alone in its dysfunction. The election of Donald Trump, an anti-establishment economic nationalist, as the 45th president of the United States, has rocked the very foundation of the transatlantic partnership.
Trump’s victory was a triumph for Jacksonian America — an important minority political current that has always influenced our debates about how the United States should relate to the rest of the world. Of America’s great political traditions, Jacksonianism is perhaps the most baffling to Europeans. But it is the America that has always rejected elitist opinion, been suspicious of centralized authority in Washington but supportive of a strong military, and skeptical of what they call ”do-gooding,” whether that be welfare at home or foreign aid abroad.
Jacksonianism was an important movement during the 1940s, when the original ”America First” movement sought to keep the United States out of yet another European war. Jacksonian influence was behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s insistence that ”unconditional surrender” was the only acceptable option available to the Axis powers to end World War II. It was visible after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when President George W. Bush’s declared that in the fight against terrorism, ”you are either with us or against us.” And it is again visible in Donald Trump’s priority – ”America first.”
A Jacksonian foreign policy is unilateral at heart. It favors hard power over soft power. It seeks to shed burdens, not share them. Jacksonians are not interested in democracy promotion of multilateral processes. Trump wants to slash U.S. support for the United Nations, gut U.S. development assistance, and abandon U.S. commitments under the Paris Climate Change accord. He wants ”reciprocity” in trade deals and to ”buy American, hire American.” He wants to slash our diplomacy and boost our military.
Jacksonians view European allies as potential value-added partners when it comes to fighting terrorism or curbing Middle East security threats, but bristle whenever they perceive Europeans free-riding on American defense expenditures, helping America’s enemies via trade or other means, constraining American sovereignty or freedom of action, or extending European ways to American shores.
The Jacksonian impulse is to pull back from Europe. Yet for all of Donald Trump’s Sturm und Drang, I suggest that the United States retains three core interests with regard to Europe that are bigger than Trump, and that will outlive his Presidency.
First, the United States has an enduring interest in a Europe that is hospitable to freedom and open to American goods, investments, and ideas. Jacksonians are far less willing than others to invest significant energy or resources to advance this interest, but they recognize that America’s democracy is likely to be more secure in a world in which other democracies also flourish.
Second, the United States has an interest in a Europe that is free of the kind of strife that drains inordinate resources from the United States and the rest of the world. Jacksonians would be the first to cheer if Europeans proved capable of resolving European conflicts on their own. Unfortunately, this has not proven to be the case, as demonstrated by the Russian-Ukrainian and Russian-Georgian conflicts, the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and in America’s military presence, its peacekeeping forces, and its efforts at reconciliation and reassurance that — at European invitation — continue today.
Third, there is common agreement that the United States has a keen interest in a confident, capable, outward-looking Europe with which it can work to address a range of challenges that no
nation can tackle effectively alone. While Jacksonians are reluctant to invest American energy or resources in global do-gooding, they are not averse to seeing other countries dedicate resources to the UN, development assistance or humanitarian aid.
These core interests will continue to guide U.S. policies, even though the Trump administration will continue to be a turbulent partner.
Which brings me back to Europe — and to history.
Over many centuries, the nature of Europe was defined by the nature of its center — often as crossroads, often as battleground.
During the first half of the last century, Europe’s center sought to dominate the continent; the result was war, depression and widespread devastation.
During the next forty years, Europe was organized by its periphery. The result was a Cold War, massive military buildups, and a divided continent, half of which prospered, half of which stagnated.
28 years ago, Europe’s middle tore down those walls and again shaped the continent.
Today, however, we have come to the end of that cycle. Let me suggest that our dream of a Europe whole, free and at peace can only be realized when we recognize that Europe’s future will ultimately be determined by the nature of its center, not the preoccupations of its peripheries.
For untold generations, the nations of Europe’s center have been extinguished and reborn, its peoples pushed across frontiers. A 99-year old resident of Galicia, for example, was born in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, became of age in the Polish Republic, survived World War II as a Soviet citizen under German occupation, reintegrated into the Ukrainian SSR, and for the past 19 years has lived as a citizen of Ukraine — all without leaving her house. She has seen the two worst wars in history and the Cold War begin in her neighborhood. She has lived through colored revolutions red and black, red and white, orange and blue. Walking down the streets of her hometown of L’viv — or Lvov, or Lwow, or Lemberg — she can see the past everywhere: in the marble steps of the Habsburgs, in the German names engraved on public fixtures, in the baroque church of the old Polish commonwealth, in the cracked windows of the synagogue or the courtyard of the Armenian church, and in buildings dedicated to Hungarian merchants or adorned with Yiddish or Cyrillic inscriptions. The past is everywhere.
The question that should preoccupy us, now, is how and where her children and grandchildren see their future, and whether they believe their neighbors will be with them when they need them.
Today, this region of shifting borders and peoples, one whose turmoil has so often rippled across the continent, is once again our frontier of opportunity and obligation — opportunity to consolidate the progress of past decades towards a continent that is truly whole, free and at peace, and obligation to see it through. And once again, we face a choice between retrenchment and engagement.
Part of Europe’s center is integrated within the European and Euro-Atlantic mainstream. But another part is not. The prospects of those countries becoming members in European and Euro-Atlantic institutions any time soon is low. On the whole they have been less successful in their economic and political reforms, have yet to resolve lingering bilateral tensions or festering conflicts, and are roiled by ethnic and nationalist disputes. Moscow is suspicious of any effort by them to forge deeper bonds with the West, and both the EU and the United States are distracted by their own challenges.
The alternative, however, is to leave tens of millions of Europeans suspended between a prosperous, democratic EU, a largely authoritarian Eurasia, and a turbulent Middle East. As we know to our sorrow, such “in-between lands” are often the cockpits for violence, conflict and geopolitical competition.
The ability of governments in the region to deal with these issues, and the willingness of Europe and the United States to work together with them and with Russia, could determine not only where ”Europe” ends, but what ”Europe” means.
Despite transatlantic turbulence, America will stand with Europe. But Europeans must work together to chart the way forward. And as so often in the past, signals from Europe’s center are likely to prove decisive.
Over the past quarter century, millions of people in Europe’s center have ”rejoined Europe.” It is an historic achievement of which we all can be proud. But that is not enough. If we truly seek a Europe that is whole, a Europe that is free, a Europe that is at peace, then those who have ”rejoined Europe” must once again help to reinvigorate and renew Europe’s larger meaning. Through our actions — together — we can, and must, set ourselves a higher goal: no more grey zones of Europe, no more “Zwischeneuropa.”
If we fail to engage vigorously now, if we succumb to the comfortable temptation to retrench, to turn inward, we — Americans and Europeans together — could end up paying a much higher price later.
For there is no ”Europe whole and free” without America.
And there is no ”America First” without Europe.
That is the lesson of the Marshall Plan.
That is the lesson of 1989.
That is the lesson of our partnership.
That is the lesson of history.