The Value of the U.S.-European Alliance: From the Marshall Plan to Today

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Assistant Secretary Mitchell speaks at a podium, behind him is a U.S. flag.
Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs A. Wess Mitchell speaks at the U.S. Diplomacy Center event "Perspectives on the Marshall Plan" on April 3, 2018, in Washington, DC.

The Value of the U.S.-European Alliance: From the Marshall Plan to Today

Seven decades ago, Americans made a decision to rebuild Europe after the Second World War. The six years of fighting that followed Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 left much of the European continent in ruins. Many of Western Europe’s largest and most famous cities were rubble. Most of continental Europe’s men between the ages of 15 and 60 were dead, maimed, imprisoned, or vagrant. A large proportion of the continent’s women, children and elderly were on subsistence diets and, in many places, only a few meals away from starvation. Even Britain, which had been guarded against invasion by the Channel, was bankrupt.

The United States had options for how it would respond to Europe’s plight. But rather than punishing our enemies or retreating from Europe’s problems as we had done after 1918, America’s leaders chose to remain in Europe—and to use our great national wealth to nourish and rebuild its shattered societies. As Secretary Marshall said in 1947 the United States would “do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability or assured peace.”

In the years that followed, the United States gave more than $13 billion to the nations of Europe—in today’s terms, more than $110 billion. Money was only part of this investment. We built permanent U.S. military bases to ensure future peace. And we built new institutions—together with our European allies, we formed NATO and helped with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, which later became the European Union.

The history of the last seven decades validates the wisdom of these investments. Thanks in part to the Marshall Plan, European societies were able to stabilize themselves and resist the menace of Communism. Building on this stability, we and our allies engineered the great Western economic miracle of the post-war world. Many European economies grew by more than 30 percent annually in the years after the Marshall Plan. America’s national wealth jumped from $200 million in 1940 to more than $500 million in 1960. And with this united strength we resisted the Soviet Union until its demise.

Today we face new threats. A revisionist Russia that invades its neighbors, props up hostile regimes, and works to undermine Western societies from within. A China that seeks to expand its sphere of influence through military pressure on neighbors and perpetuates dangerous imbalances in the international economy. Extremist terrorists who plot acts of savagery against our citizens as they go about their daily lives.

These problems are no less complex then those faced by earlier generations of Americans and Europeans. After 1945, the task was one of creation – to forge new relationships and to bring fruition to a new reality that could not have previously been imagined. Today our task is preservation – to rally and conserve the West as a realm of ordered liberty against threats that few would have dreamed possible in the heady days after the fall of Communism. Succeeding in these tasks requires us to strengthen our alliances and the values of democracy upon which they are built.

There is no major foreign policy challenge in the world today in which the United States and Europe can expect to succeed without each other. America’s commitment to the Western alliance is borne out in the more than $11 billion we have pledged over the past year to the European Deterrence Initiative, in the defensive weapons we are providing to Ukraine and Georgia, in the reconstruction support we provide to countries of North Africa, in the aid and encouragement we provide to reformers in Eastern Europe and Ukraine, in the reduced barriers to U.S. liquid natural gas exports to allies, and in the cooperation on border security, intelligence-sharing, law enforcement and cyber defense that we carry out every day with our European allies.

Our allies must be willing to do more. Americans cannot be expected to care (and spend) more for Europe’s security than Europe’s own leaders. We cannot be expected to be more opposed to pipelines that make Europe more vulnerable to supply cutoffs in winter than Europeans themselves. And we cannot be expected to take more seriously the growing threats on Europe’s southern and eastern frontiers than Europeans themselves.

In all of these areas we must show responsibility by acting together to shared challenges. We must embrace opportunities to remind both sides of the Atlantic that allied cohesion is of inestimable valuable, but also that it requires sacrifice to maintain. Our grandparents’, my grandparents’ generation grasped that fact after the Second World War. It is up to us to ensure that the peace and prosperity they helped to broker, and from which we have benefited in our lifetimes, is extended to future generations.

About the Author: Dr. A. Wess Mitchell serves as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor’s Note: This entry is drawn from the author’s remarks at Marshall Plan 70th Anniversary Commemoration held at the U.S. Diplomacy Center on April 3, 2018.

This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State’s publication on Medium.