Secretary of State John Kerry left a major policy suggestion for his successor. “I believe we need urgently a new Marshall Plan, which is focused on the most critical states in the world in certain locations, particularly Middle East, South Africa, South Central Asia,” he said at a January 10 conference at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, DC. Kerry added that, “There are about a billion-and-a-half children in the world under the age of fifteen and about 100 million of them will not go to school. That is a problem for all of us.” This suggestion reveals that Kerry has a big heart and also that the State Department urgently needs more sociologists and anthropologists, and fewer well-meaning visionaries. There is no way the United States and its allies can provide an education for all those children and help develop various economies in order to ensure that the children are able to find jobs once they graduate from school. Providing those kids with an education but no job prospects would hardly solve the refugee problem, which is sociologically explosive. Of course, helping children gain an education is, morally speaking, a good unto itself.
Advocates of a Marshall Plan for the Middle East and other parts of the world, such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former British prime minister Tony Blair, often point to the great success the United States had with nation building in Germany and Japan after World War II as evidence of what can be achieved. (Actually, Japan was not covered by the Marshall Plan, but it received similar assistance.)
Even a cursory examination of the sociological conditions in those two countries reveals that none of the conditions that allowed the Marshall Plan to succeed back then exists in the majority of the countries that Kerry called upon the Trump administration to build up.
First of all, Germany and Japan surrendered after its armies were defeated in World War II. Second, development only occurred after hostilities had completely ceased and a high level of domestic security was established. There were none of the terrorist and rocket attacks that Western forces would encounter if they were to play a similar role in Sudan, Yemen, or even in a post-Qaddafi Libya. After Iraq and Afghanistan, few countries will even consider the idea of the West occupying more lands in the Middle East and managing their transformation—as the United States did when it implemented the Marshall Plan.
Germany and Japan were strong nation-states before World War II. In contrast, the first loyalty of citizens in many Middle Eastern countries is to their ethnic or confessional group—not to the nation. Thus, people tend to fight for their tribe’s share, rather than make sacrifices for the country as a whole. Deep hostilities, such as those between the Shia and the Sunnis, Pashtun and Tajik, and various tribes in other countries, hinder political and economic development. They either gridlock the national politics, lead to large-scale violence, or result in massive oppression and armed conflicts.
German sociologist Max Weber argued in the early twentieth century that a culture’s values were important for understanding capitalism. He said that Protestants were more imbued than Catholics with the types of values that led to hard work and the high levels of saving essential for economic development. For decades, developments in Catholic countries in southern Europe and South America lagged behind those in Protestant Anglo-Saxon nations and northwest Europe. Similarly, Weber pointed to the difference between Confucian and Muslim values. He noted the striking difference between the high rates of development among the Asian “tigers”—China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea— and the low rate of development in Muslim nation-states, especially those that adhere to Sharia law. The thesis is not that Muslim nation states cannot be developed because of some genetically innate characteristics of the people, but because their cultures prioritize traditional religious values, as well as communal and tribal bonds. These cultures can change, but only slowly, and those changes involved cannot be rushed by outsiders.
Moreover, Germany and Japan were developed countries before World War II. They had strong industrial bases, good infrastructure and educated populations. They mainly had to be reconstructed. In comparison, many Middle Eastern states lack such assets and must be constructed in the first place. This is most obvious in Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan and Libya. Additionally, this is a major issue in nations like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which have capitalized on one commodity (oil) without developing the basis for a modern economy. Other nations, such as Tunisia, Pakistan, Morocco, Syria and Egypt, have better-prepared populations and resources, but still score poorly compared to postwar Germany and Japan.
Finally, the advocates of a new Marshall Plan tend to disregard the cost of the plan. During the Marshall Plan’s first year, it demanded 13 percent of the U.S. budget. Today, foreign aid commands less than 1 percent and, in the current climate, America and its allies are more inclined to cut such overseas expenditures than to increase them. Additionally, what little is spent on foreign aid is often lost to corruption, both in the targeted country and in Washington, DC. Large portions of the aid budgeted for Afghanistan and other developing countries are handed over to nongovernmental organizations subject to little accountability. That aid is sometimes spent on exorbitant salaries to Western contractors and corporations, or high-fee Western consultants.
The United States and its allies should provide as much humanitarian aid as possible to help feed, house and clothe refugees, as well as other displaced people. If conflicts in nations can be settled, then the United States and its allies should help shore those nations up with peacekeeping forces. Some investment and trade might also be possible. Still, the main economic and political developments in those nations will need to come from indigenous processes and forces. Raising the expectation of nation-states that the United States and its allies will provide much of what they need through a Marshall Plan will only disappoint them and backfire.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University. He is the author of COIN: A Study of Strategic Illusion. To contact him, write to [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@ICPS_GWU.
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