The Marshall Plan and China’s “belt and road”

In 1945, Europe lay in ruins. Its cities were devastated, its industries destroyed, and millions of its people homeless. The key to the recovery of Western Europe lay with the Marshall Plan, a decisive tool for the United States to rebuild Europe after World War II.

Seventy years later, history may be repeating itself. Only this time it is China that is the strategic benefactor with the United States playing the role of the post-war Soviet Union, on the outside looking in as China strategically uses its largesse to develop lucrative new markets.

In June 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall, gave a speech at Harvard’s commencement announcing a plan to provide economic assistance to all European nations, including the Soviet Union. Although Russia and its Eastern satellites predictably rejected the plan, 16 Western European nations eagerly participated.

The Marshall Plan, the largest peacetime foreign aid program in U.S. history, channeled over $13 billion of American aid (some $150 billion in 2017 dollars) into 16 Western European countries between 1948 and 1952, to help them rebuild their economies and normalize their societies. The Congressional Research Service estimates the plan’s 1949 appropriation accounted for 12 percent of the entire federal budget.

But the Marshall Plan was more than economic and financial aid; it was a way for the United States to promote its anti-communist agenda, rebuild the economies of the recipient countries and make them prosperous enough to buy large quantities of American goods. By the end of 1950, European industrial production had risen 64 percent, communist strength was declining in Western Europe and opportunities for American trade had revived.

The Marshall Plan boosted American exports, manufacturing, and employment, and led to the economies of the participating countries surpassing pre-war levels. In the two decades that followed, Western Europe achieved unprecedented growth and prosperity.

American goods flooded eastward and political and economic ties with Western Europe grew even stronger. One unintended consequence is that it later made it possible for Western European companies to compete against American business in the automobile and other industries.

Some observers have compared China’s ambitious new endeavor, the so-called Belt and Road Initiative unveiled in 2013, to the Marshall Plan as a game-changing effort to revolutionize trade and recast many long- standing relationships. The multi-trillion-dollar proposal is China’s largest economic and foreign policy undertaking since the founding of the People’s Republic. The infrastructure plan that spans more than 60 countries, about 65 percent of the world’s population and about one-third of the global economy, would spread Chinese investment and influence across Asia, Europe, and Africa.

The “belt” refers to a land route from western China through Central Asia to Europe; the “road” links to Europe by sea, connecting the country with Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. The initiative has gained momentum thanks to the decline of American influence in East Asia in the wake of withdrawing first from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and then the Paris climate agreement.

After World War II, the United States needed to export excess capacity. Today, China’s economic growth is slowing and it too is looking for new markets. And just as the Marshall Plan was a blueprint for undermining the influence of the Soviet Union, so can the Belt and Road Initiative marginalize U.S. influence by improving relations with traditional American allies.

As German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s most influential leader, said after three days of trans-Atlantic meetings, “The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over.” She was referring to America’s positions on NATO, Russia, climate change, trade and its apparent relinquishing of a leadership role in world affairs contributing to a post-hegemonic era in which no country has a dominate role.

If she’s right, it could mark the end of 70 years of American world leadership.

originally published: June 24, 2017

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