Speech by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the opening of the German-American Conference: The Marshall Plan and its legacies – Towards a strong transatlantic partnership

16.05.2017 - Speech

Friedrich Merz,
Robert Kimmitt,
Fellow members of the German Bundestag,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to the Federal Foreign Office! I am very pleased that we, together with Atlantik-Brücke and the American Council on Germany, are hosting this conference.

This is because Atlantik-Brücke and the American Council on Germany have for a long time now been mainstays of transatlantic dialogue. This makes them more important than ever today. To be precise, they have performed this role for 65 years. I warmly congratulate them on this anniversary!

It is closely connected to another special anniversary of an event that decisively shaped transatlantic relations. On 5 June 1947, someone who would be of tremendous importance for the development of Germany and Europe delivered an address that we today call the Marshall Plan speech. That is why we thought it was a very good idea to organise this conference – especially because, early in the term of the new US administration, there was some talk of the European Union being a German plot against the United States. It is astounding what sorts of theories people will come up with. That is why we thought we should remind everyone it was actually the other way around. Namely, that the project of European integration had not only European patrons, but also American ones. Today, there are not many traces of how, seven decades ago, especially here in Germany, our situation was entirely different.

I suppose very few of you will recall George Marshall’s speech. Because Marshall did not stand on the town hall balcony – like John F. Kennedy. And he did not say anything in German.

He also did not stand in front of the Brandenburg Gate, like Ronald Reagan, and he did not directly address the Soviet Union.

Marshall actually delivered his speech in a courtyard at Harvard University. He didn’t even invite any members of the press – which would never happen today! His speech, which he himself described as an “informal talk”, was a mere eleven minutes long and fit on seven tightly printed pages. He barely looked up from them while speaking. When he had finished, he even apologised for the “technical discussion” that must have bored his listeners. There could be no greater understatement.

All of this stands in stark contrast to the effect it generated. In the words of Henry Kissinger, “he had in fact proposed a new design for American foreign policy”.

I am firmly convinced that we, too, are again living in decisive times for transatlantic relations.

We need to do everything we can to renew our partnership and intensify it with renewed vigour.

The heading we decided on for this afternoon’s discussions is “The Marshall Plan and its legacies”.

We are well-advised to revisit all of the major political decisions that nurtured the growing together of, and close ties between, Europeans and Americans after the Second World War.

The Marshall Plan is more firmly and positively rooted in Germany’s collective memory than almost any other US policy decision. It has taken on an almost mythical quality. This becomes apparent whenever a crisis needs solving, because in such situations at least one German politician always says “we need a new Marshall Plan.”

Please don’t worry. I won’t be calling for a new Marshall Plan today. If only for the fact that George Marshall’s ideas are sometimes oversimplified and merely described as an economic silver bullet.

What I want to focus on, instead, is the core political message of his ideas. It’s a message that can be valuable for us today.

Ladies and gentlemen,

What, then, did this policy comprise?

For us Germans, at least in West Germany, we were first of all incredibly fortunate that the US was willing to take us back into the fold of the international community of nations. What a contrast to the situation after the First World War! Instead of being faced with reparation claims, we were provided economic aid!

But it must be said that this was not just an altruistic effort on the part of the United States. One of the reasons European countries were to be rebuilt was so that they could become economic partners of the US. In fact, it was the United States that had an enormous trade surplus back then. The country urgently needed new markets.

But the plan amounted to more than that. Marshall understood it was fully in the interest of the United States to work to ensure “economic health” in the world, as he put it. In his view, without this economic stability “there can be no political stability and no assured peace.” He believed stability could only be created by interlinking national economies, not through isolationism. What is more, he believed stability and security could be guaranteed by developing sustainable prosperity.

Second, Marshall helped design a policy that recognises the value of long-term alliances. Of course, the United States was in a dominant position. The “American century”, as Historian Eric Hobsbawn called it, was just gaining momentum. Despite America’s newfound power, call it superiority, Marshall knew that even the United States could not reach its goals unilaterally. The US needed joint action. As Marshall said, “The initiative must come from Europe.”

Third, this realisation led Marshall to not limit his focus on building a partnership between the US and Europe. Marshall also sought to exert gentle pressure from the outside, in the hope that this would help overcome any remaining prejudices among Europeans so soon after the end of the war. One interesting detail was that the funding of the European Recovery Program was administrated in Paris – which also at that time was a hub of European cooperation.

Marshall had recognised that a unified and strong Europe also benefited the United States. His thinking included all of Europe, also the countries of Eastern Europe, which he invited to participate in his plan. Although they were not free to take part, the original intention was for them to do so. Of course, in pursuing his policy, he was fully aware that his model stood in contrast to what was being propagated on the other side of the Iron Curtain – a curtain that was already slowly being drawn shut.

Yet, I must say that US policy also sought to make Europe a partner with shared values again. A partner for achieving an open, liberal world order. Return to a world order based on true Western values: human rights, democracy and the rule of law – not the grotesque pursuit of death, violence, expulsion and barbarism. At that decisive point in time, the United States took the lead, as a pioneer of these values. This forged a bond that is resilient and much more meaningful than any shared interests.

My generation is proof of how well this worked. I have sometimes asked myself: why is my generation so fascinated by America, considering that we were also some of its harshest critics? One need only think of the interventions in Viet Nam, Chile, Nicaragua or Iran. The answer can be found in the idea of freedom and democracy that has always defined the United States, no matter what. This then became a true moral compass for us.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I can only give you a short sketch here, not a detailed picture. Some may say that this is an all-too-optimistic and positive view of past US policy.

However, it is clear that George Marshall’s plan was part of calm, well-considered national policy that was in his country’s interest. Kurt Schumacher, who was Chairman of the SPD at the time, realised this as early as 1947. As he put it himself, “Marshall is thereby saying that, to secure the future of the United States, it is in the United States’ best economic and political interest to promote a Europe that is healthy, has strong purchasing power, and is politically and economically vibrant.” So, instead of being a zero-sum game, it was beneficial to both sides. Reliable cooperation was to be preferred over short-term transactions. The aim was to make long-term investments in alliances and in structures to support these alliances – instead of pursuing isolationist policy.

Ladies and gentlemen,

George Marshall proved he was impressively far-sighted. He did this in a situation that was extremely opaque. The old Eurocentric world order had broken down, at the very latest with the Second World War. The initial traces of a new order were only just emerging, with the establishment of the United Nations, and with tensions increasing between the former allies of the United States and the Soviet Union.

Although what we are witnessing today is certainly similar, it cannot be exactly compared with back then. Europe has not been reduced to rubble. We are also not on the cusp of a new Cold War.

Nevertheless, we do see that the world as we know it is being recalibrated. It is not just economic balances that are shifting. Asia, for example, has become a leading economic player.

The world order that has been built up since 1945 is, generally speaking, no longer seen as a given by all countries.

Countries which have for a long time not themselves been involved in shaping this world order are now rightfully demanding a greater voice. They are expressing their own interests and setting up organizations that they think better meet these interests than those that were set up in New York and Washington 70 years ago. And we are witnessing another new development: illiberal countries and social models are on the rise.

That is why I believe that we, both in Europe and in the United States, are standing at a crossroads. Should we just stand by and watch as our liberal and open world order, built on balance and compromise, is increasingly threatened with disintegration? Or should we rather make this world order fit for the 21st century? This would mean making the approaches that were originally liberal attractive again, and offering them to the entire world. So-called “Western” values would no longer be geographically constrained, but would instead become universal.

George Marshall would probably give an optimistic answer to this question. He would propose using transatlantic cooperation and our community of values to achieve this aim. He would also emphasise that the United States’ interests must be promoted at the same time.

I, for one, am convinced that this is a good guideline for us today. We must, however, be aware of one thing, 70 years after the Marshall Plan: none of this is going to happen on its own. We have to roll up our sleeves and get to work, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ladies and gentlemen, George Marshall spelled it out for us: “The initiative must come from Europe.” I think this is a mistake that is currently being made. It is perfectly OK for us to take a close look at what the US administration is doing. But maybe we are too focused on reacting to the messages, reports and tweets that are being sent from the United States. Maybe we are not asking ourselves enough: What can we do to make the partnership attractive again? It is, of course, easier to point out all the things one’s counterpart is doing wrong. I will admit that we do not fully agree, and that there are some things we are concerned about. And yet, we must remember what Marshall said: “The initiative must come from Europe.” In the end, that may not be enough. However, without us seizing the initiative, things will not get moving.

Most importantly, this means that we must not sit back and relax, for example now that Emmanuel Macron has been elected. Of course all of us are pleased about that. However, eleven million Frenchmen and women voted for a party that, here in Germany, would be politically situated between the AfD and the NPD. We’ve bought ourselves some time, but we haven’t solved the problem. That means we’ve got work to do here in Europe. We must show that we’ve got a role to play, and that it is worth dealing with Europe. Currently, the one thing that Washington, Moscow and Beijing have in common is that they do not really pay attention to the European Union. At least not as a significant player on the global stage. The danger for Germany is that we will be asked to do everything on our own. Recently, here at the Federal Foreign Office, we named a room after Hans-Dietrich Genscher. I think that, looking at his foreign policy, policy that did very much benefit Germany, we can see how important it is to understand that Europe has more small countries than large ones. Ultimately, policy coordination can only work if we all meet and discuss matters on an equal footing. We Germans must therefore be careful to not give people around the world, whether it be in Washington, Moscow or Beijing, the impression that it’s perfectly sufficient to talk to us, the French and the British. Europe is more than two or three large countries. Therefore, we must also make this clear in our relations within Europe. In our political dealings, we would be well advised to pursue a little more of the old Bonn Republic approach, and to drop some of the Berlin Republic swagger.

To make this new European initiative possible, we, too, will need to change. Germany should become more of an honest broker and less of a protagonist with regard to Europe’s big, hotly debated issues. Because our voice will only be heard by the US and in the world of tomorrow if it is a united European voice.

We must also liberate ourselves from our attitude about burden-sharing between the United States and Europe, which essentially says “when push comes to shove, the Americans will take care of it.” And if that doesn’t actually happen, we’ve already decided whom to blame. This attitude has become part of our narrative. The United States is right to say that Europe, with economic output on a par with that of the United States, must assume greater responsibility for security. Of course they are right about this. This also has nothing to do with the current US administration. Every administration would have asked us this same question.

In Europe, we must free ourselves from the mistaken and misguided view that, in a complex world with an increasing number of threats, we in Europe don’t need our own military assets.

What we’re missing in Europe is the ability to project power. This is not even that surprising, or even something that can be held against us. Europe was not founded as a global political player. However, this will not be a viable option in the long run. We also cannot decide to be only a purely economic power. We will need to be part of efforts to address difficult issues in our neighbourhood.

These are very tough issues, because they mean we will need to consider options that we, as Germans, have been extremely reluctant about in the past, for good reasons.

How we do this, and how we link these efforts with crisis-prevention, economic-development and humanitarian-assistance activities – so that we will not focus solely on increasing the projection of military power – that is an unanswered question. But I do think we will eventually have to deal with this. Not because the US is calling on us to do so, but because it is in our own European interest. I am not making the case for irrationally high military spending. I myself believe it will not be helpful at all to require nations to spend an amount equivalent to 2% of national GDP on defence. Although we in Europe spend some 50% of what the United States does on defence, we achieve only 15% of US efficiency. So it would be much wiser to think more in terms of how we can increase efficiency than for each of us to strive to achieve this target. I am also not sure if our neighbours would approve in the long run if we were to invest, on an annual basis, 70 billion euros in Germany’s Bundeswehr. That is why I think we must back down from our ideological entrenchments on both sides of this argument. On the one hand, we must make progress on force integration, on better spending, so to speak, and we will probably also need to spend more. On the other hand, we must also stop debating this issue in a way that will make any reasonable observer simply shake his or her head. Especially if one of the arguments being made is that increases in military spending should be funded by cutting crisis-prevention and development-aid budgets. All around the world, every crisis shows us that, for stability and peace to be achieved, military force may be required – but development cooperation, humanitarian assistance and economic development is always needed. One will not succeed without the other.

In the entire debate on hard power – to be clear, we’re talking about the military – we must not forget the insight that George Marshall provided. Because the success of his plan has taught us that the non-military means of power projection, so-called soft power, are at least as important when we want to win the hearts, minds and loyalty of people, countries and regions.

That is why we now more than ever must strengthen the tools of diplomacy. We need a diplomatic surge!

Or, as the current US Secretary of Defense put it in 2013: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.” I hope that this realisation will also be reflected in NATO Member Countries’ budgets.

Ladies and gentlemen,

When I say that we in Europe must liberate ourselves, I do not mean we should do so because of, or even in opposition to, the United States.

Many in Europe want to be different from the US. They want to be anything but American. They want Europe to define itself in contrast to the United States. Europe, the “Not-America,” in the words of Timothy Garton Ash.

I think these efforts will lead to a dead end, and I think they misinterpret reality, which is much more multi-faceted. Just as there is no single European identity, there is also no monolithic America.

Our present-day societies, in fact, are fragmented. Europeans and Americans are becoming more and more devide amongst themselves. The alienation that is occurring within our societies is also making relations between our societies more complex.

If you take, for instance, the world of a lawyer in Boston, then it will certainly be more similar to the life of a European lawyer who works in London, Hamburg or Paris, and it will have less in common with his or her fellow American who runs a farm in Iowa. This farmer, on the other hand, may easily and directly relate to an Irishman or woman when discussing the importance of religion.

The examples could go on and on. But what they illustrate is that there is, in the end, no distinct cultural divide between the United States and Europe. It is simply the fragmentation in our societies that is also becoming manifest in our transatlantic relations.

We must overcome any alienation that is caused by this. We must get those parts of our societies in touch with one another that do not congregate in the Frankfurt Airport frequent flyer lounge, or at Dulles International Airport. This is actually the key task that we must tackle if we want to stop the fraying of our social fabric. Another aspect is that it must become more normal again to take a look at life on the other side of the Atlantic.

The Federal Foreign Office will therefore work hard to give Americans access to Germany and to German culture. That is why, in a joint effort with the business, academic, and cultural communities, we want to raise Germany’s profile in the United States. During my trip to the US, which begins tomorrow, and in the German Bundestag, I will campaign for a Year of Germany in the United States in 2018 and 2019. And why shouldn’t there also be a reciprocal event?

We also want to find new formats and ways of establishing contacts across the greatest possible range of our two societies. We want to reach precisely those who would never think, or who could never afford, to go on an exchange or to travel across the Atlantic. So we are working on these ideas, as well.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We Europeans have to get to work. We must find ways for people in our societies to engage in debate in new and different ways.

Finally, we, too, as governments on both sides of the Atlantic, must clearly state our convictions. We must declare that we espouse a revitalized, common transatlantic agenda. We need to ask ourselves: do we not, as Americans, as Europeans, have a great deal in common, despite all our differences?

After all, there is more that connects us with one another, as Europeans and Americans, than with all other regions of the world. That is, after all, one of the most important messages of recent weeks and months.

Among the things we have in common, there is what has for so long defined American politics and what the German historian Heinrich August Winkler calls the “normative project of the West”. Namely, the conviction that we must fight for a universal order, the separation of powers, inalienable human rights, the rule of law, and representative democracy.

The ability to check power and reassert these values, over and over again and in spite of any flaws or contradictions, is what has made America so successful.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I therefore propose that, in renewing our transatlantic ties, we should be guided by the following five principles:

1. The United States and Europe are stronger together. Our transatlantic partnership benefits both sides.

2. The rules-based international order – the safety net of our external freedom – is increasingly being called into question. Social and political tensions in our societies are on the rise. We need to stand up for our values and principles at home and abroad. We need to jointly defend them. For without this engagement, serious damage may be done.

3. The more stable, successful and able to act the United States and Europe are each independently, the more effective they can be in working together in the world. Transatlantic ties therefore begin with each side doing its homework.

4. The United States and Europe need a balance of hard and soft power. We must not allow this balance to be lost: Europe needs to increase its hard power, and the United States must not lose its soft power.

5. Transatlantic relations are not something to be taken for granted. We constantly need to re-anchor them in our societies. And we must ensure that the burdens of these relations are fairly distributed.

Ladies and gentlemen,

By following these principles, we will weather any controversial transatlantic discussions.

Specifically, there is a heated debate in the U.S. these days about how to proceed with the Paris Agreement on climate change. It is in Germany’s interest, and I believe actually in the long‑term interest of all of humanity, for the U.S. not to withdraw. But concerns do exist in the U.S. It would not be wise to ignore these concerns and leave them unaddressed. For there is the understandable fear that there may be adverse effects on the U.S. economy. As a partner, we are talking with the United States about how measures to protect the climate can actually help strengthen national economic output. Here in Germany, we've seen it happen.

On important foreign policy issues, we often share the same fundamental interests. However, we do at times differ on what strategies offer the best prospects for success.

In Europe, for example, we are convinced that the nuclear deal is the most promising option for preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Some in Washington are far more sceptical.

On North Korea, we are in close contact and are jointly looking for ways to peacefully defuse the extremely dangerous situation on the Korean Peninsula.

You can tell that these are not trivial side issues. We are deliberating on serious, and sometimes truly fundamental, political issues. That is why we are in such close contact.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Through joint action, the United States and Europe can make a tremendous difference, but we cannot – and don’t want to – be the only ones who call the shots in the world. We must more systematically include those who desire to, and who must, share global responsibility. Despite all of our serious, competition-minded and interest-based policies, we must constantly look for opportunities to cooperate, also with partners such as Russia, China and others.

Ladies and gentlemen,

70 years ago, George Marshall and other far-sighted Americans launched a truly remarkable initiative: they forged a transatlantic partnership that included several European allied countries as well as bitter war enemies, such as Germany. Not an alliance – but a community.

I think, ladies and gentlemen, that we all should take this as an example. I suspect that, back then, this project required a great deal of courage. Both in the United States and in Europe. It is a good idea, I think, for us to be guided by this courage today.

We should further develop the guiding principles, and discuss them in talks with our partners in the United States.

George Marshall laid the foundation 70 years ago – and he did so in much more difficult circumstances than we have today!

That is why we should be able to approach one another in a spirit of optimism.

Thank you.

Related content


Top of page