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Transcript: Secretary Buttigieg Remarks on the 75th Anniversary of the Marshall Plan, Berlin, Germany

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Well thank you very much, first of all, to Heather Conley and to the GMF for hosting us for this timely conversation. To Stefan Wintels and KfW, thank you for literally hosting us for this conversation. Minister Lindner, we know how many consequential conversations are on your plate today, so I’m thankful to be with you. And to all of you for joining us at such an important time. 

The moment when we’re gathering – 50 years after the creation of the German Marshall Fund; 75 years after the Marshall plan – is of course very timely for very current reasons, which I’ll mention in a moment, but I would also say because a 75th anniversary is always among the most important landmarks that you can note.  

And I know that this might be considered a strange opinion. Some might think you only do 75 out of mathematical tidiness. But I would argue, especially in the context of events that contribute decisively to the shaping of a world order, that 75 years on is a uniquely important phase to think about their impact. Because it marks the stage at which those events are decisively and irreversibly passing out of living memory.  

I would be considered a young man, at least as American political figures go. But I am old enough to feel connected to the events of World War II and its immediate aftermath in personal terms. My parents were born in that period. I know how those events shaped the communities and the institutions in which I have lived and worked.  

My children, on the other hand, will be students still when we begin to mark that period in terms of 100-year anniversaries. For them the entirety of the Cold War will be strictly a matter of history, and not one of memory. So that means that we who are living at this hinge point between history and memory have a special responsibility to mark, and to reaffirm, the lessons of that period.  

And then of course you have the more immediate reasons. As fate would have it, 2022 is not just some random year that falls 75 years after 1947 and 50 after 1972. The brutal, unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the necessities of the united international response to it, make this year one of profound and swift and tectonic change. Sweden and Finland are seeking admission to NATO. Germany, already such a leader in diplomatic and economic terms, is taking major new steps in security and energy policy.   

These and other changes are underway in ways that shake assumptions, agreements, frameworks and institutions that have been relatively stable and predictable since the end of the Cold War, or even since its beginning. And I recognize with all humility that as important as these developments are to us in the U.S., they are still more immediate and more central here in Europe.  

I don’t come with many easy answers, but I wanted to contribute to the conversation by reflecting on some of the affinities between today and that period 75 years ago – and some of the most important differences.  

And above all I want to speak to how these conditions reinforce the importance of our commitment to the relationships and the values that connect us.  

Maybe the most important thing we have in common with our forebears 75 years ago is a consciousness that a future for liberal democracy is not guaranteed. This fact would have been blindingly obvious for those picking up the pieces after the second World War; in this century, by contrast, it has come to many as a rude and recent awakening. The durability of democratic processes, norms, rules, and institutions that was an article of faith—certainly for my generation growing up—is I think now very much in question.  

And of course, this touches the legacy of the Marshall Plan—and the daily work of a U.S. Transportation Secretary in many ways—because the question has also been called of whether liberal democracies are in fact the most effective at delivering in concrete and material terms.  

Marshall of course understood the dynamics between democracy and delivery. He understood that material well-being was necessary for liberal democracies to thrive in the first place. The line of his speech that is so often quoted is “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.” But I think it’s the very next sentence that might resonate with us right now, when he defined the purpose of his plan as “the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.” 

That insight – that the existence of free institutions depends on certain economic, political, and social conditions – is, I think, as relevant in our time as in his.  

The Marshall Plan delivered much-needed infrastructure across international boundaries, fortifying the development of liberal democratic institutions and polities in Europe – and it helped to establish a virtuous cycle between the economic security of free nations and their overall political stability through their capacity to deliver. 

In the United States, in recent years we have been contending with the fact that decades of disinvestment turned that virtuous cycle into a vicious one, with our political institutions sometimes lacking the resources to deliver well, therefore losing their legitimacy, eroding trust, giving credence to those who would undermine those institutions, further diminishing their capacity to deliver, and so on.  

But today, we are breaking that cycle with a generational investment in our infrastructure. Knowing that the stakes include not just comfort and convenience of our transportation systems, but perhaps the credibility of our system of government itself. President Biden has often spoken to the need to demonstrate, through wise investment, the capacity of a democratic government like our own to deliver.  

In the context of the U.S. competition with China, he described our moment as “a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.”  

And the relationship between values and results has always mattered. In the 1930s, another season when democracy was in doubt and when it had become fashionable in some circles in Washington to point approvingly to the rise of dictators, some would say by way of praise for fascism that Mussolini “makes the trains run on time.” This turns out not to be particularly true, by the way, but I won’t digress. But think how revealing it is that this famous example of an excuse made for autocrats comes on the basis of their supposed prowess in providing transportation. 

So, we understand that delivering services and public goods effectively is both necessary for free institutions and is one of the main reasons it is so important to preserve them. That’s why the Biden-Harris administration is investing, to the largest degree since the Eisenhower presidency, in our country’s roads and bridges, trains and transit, ports and airports, as well as major investments in Internet access for all, water upgrades, and other vital infrastructure. Knowing that the resulting features of high-quality infrastructure can stand not just as pillars of transportation but as cathedrals of democracy. 

So, I’m dwelling on this example because it is closest to my own work, but of course it is just one reflection of the rhymes between the concerns before us today and those that were central to policymakers in the 1940s. War in Europe, dramatic changes in the character of industrial production, new and destabilizing technologies for mass communication, mutual suspicion between liberal democracies like ours on the one hand and autocratic regimes on the other, leading to new contours of great power and competition. All of these things connect us of course very closely to that period.  

But then there are some very important differences. 

Futurist depictions of the era in which we now live, whether they were fashioned in the 1940s or the 70s, would certainly say a lot about the future of transportation, automation, and communication.  

But few, if any of them, anticipated thinks like how dramatically the climate would change and threaten lives and livelihoods on earth.  

And even fewer, if any at all, imagined how the function of something as familiar as the printed word, or at least the typed word, would go through such changes in the era of social media, with our most influential politicians and journalists and citizens deeply absorbed in a gamified sociopolitical discourse in which everyone is a reporter and no one is an editor.  

And if anyone could have pictured the full extent of our universal communication, the ability to freely and instantly communicate with one person, or millions of people, by writing a sentence on a pocket supercomputer doubling as a telephone, including instant and relatively workable machine translation, surely they would have supposed that this would only help with the development of mutual understanding. Wouldn’t it add up to a universal and credible shared picture of the realities around us? 

But of course, something very different happened: we have access to more information than ever and yet less access than before to a shared reality. In autocratic countries, censorship and propaganda serve to distort citizens’ perceptions of reality. But in the West, certainly in the United States, we have our own disturbing fragmentation of reality for very different reasons. For us, the problem is less one of censorship—certainly not one of censorship by overzealous state editors—it’s the fact that in digital media the editorial function itself, the function of deciding which commentary to feature and put forward and promote, has been replaced by an algorithmic function that presents us with the items that our brains are predicted to absorb with the most energy, regardless of how true they are, let alone how constructive. 

And so a technology with the theoretical possibility of uniting people across boundaries instead seems to be making even next-door neighbors less likely to participate in the same world. 

Humanity is very new at contending with this, with no easy answers, but some insights are emerging. (And parenthetically I would offer the possibility that Germany, with its experience of political, economic, social and media partition, followed by unification, may well have some special insights that a place like GMF may be uniquely positioned to explore.) 

So, in contending with the challenges of our time, we have important and powerful tools. Some have always been helpful: like robust investment in public infrastructure and spaces where we inhabit the same, offline 3D realities. The use of travel to bring people together. 

But other tools were not available to us 75 years ago, and those tool, those institutions, those frameworks—are a major advantage in rising to the challenges of today. Yes, those challenges have a different face, but they have a level of urgency that I think very much unites us with our forebearers. Thanks to the efforts of the last seven or eight decades, we have powerful instruments of cooperation among those who share the same values, the same fundamental commitments, including our bilateral alliances, instruments of cooperation like the European Union and NATO, and most certainly civil society institutions like the German Marshall Fund itself. The more is changing in this moment, the more our commitments to liberal democracy and collective security are under threat, the more important it will be to shore up, and yes, where necessary, adapt any and all organizations that reflect those shared commitments and values.  

None of us know exactly what lies on the other side of this Zeitenwende. 

But all of us should recognize that the only way for it to lead to a good place is for us to find our way there, together. 

Thank you again for the chance to join.