Daniel W. Drezner

What Marshall Plan-mania?

What Marshall Plan-mania?

In honor of President Obama’s Afghan drawdown plans to be announced today tomorrow, David Brooks’ column on Afghanistan that opens and closes as follows:

So far, few politicians have embraced my plan for a Marshall Plan Tax. The idea is that every time a think-tanker, op-ed writer or retired senator calls for a new Marshall Plan or a moonshot-type initiative to solve a social problem, they would have to pay a tax of $50. Within a few months, we’d have enough money to pay for an actual new Marshall Plan.

The problem with my proposal is this: Do Marshall Plans work? If this country really did galvanize its best minds and billions of dollars to alleviate poverty somewhere or to solve some complicated problem, could we actually do it?

Well, the U.S. has been engaged in a new Marshall Plan for most of the past decade. Between 2002 and 2010, the U.S. spent roughly $19 billion to promote development in Afghanistan. Many other nations have also sent thousands of aid workers and billions of dollars….

This experience should have a chastening influence on the advocates of smart power. When she became secretary of state, Hillary Clinton sketched out a very attractive foreign policy vision that would use “the full range of tools at our disposal: diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural.” But it could be that cultural and economic development works on a different timetable than traditional foreign policy.

Perhaps we don’t know enough, can’t plan enough, can’t implement effectively enough to coordinate nation building with national security objectives.  

Brooks looks at development in Afghanistan and safely concludes we haven’t gotten much bang for the buck. 

Brooks’ points on Afghanistan seem on the mark, but my problem is with his framing.  First of all, it’s not like the foreign policy community is clamoring for more Marshall Plans.  Given the current U.S. budgetary picture, I think it’s safe to say that foreign aid will be the first thing that will be cut in any fiscal deal.  Indeed, here’s thje Google Trends analysis of the term: 

Google Trends analysis of

Second, as Tom Maguire points out, Brooks “misses a blindingly obvious point,” which is that, “the original Marshall Plan we were re-building Europe, not building it.” 

Third, and most important, the Marshall Plan was implemented in an environment in which traditional security has already been secured.  It’s one thing to promost economic development in a place in which security is assumed.  Trying to promote economic development, peace and statebuilding at the same time is a hell of a lot harder. 

Brooks is right to highlight the massive problems with statebuilding in Afghanistan.  His attempt to generalize from that woebegotten, landlocked Central Asian battle zone to the rest of U.S. foreign aid is a serious analogy foul, however.