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INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

U.S., Europe Poised to Go Their Own Ways

June 03, 1997|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — On Thursday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is supposed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan with a speech at Harvard University's commencement--the same setting where then-Secretary of State George C. Marshall unveiled the U.S. plan to provide aid to a war-ravaged Europe.

What will Albright say about today's relationship between America and Europe? What she probably won't admit (and perhaps shouldn't, because despite Albright's reputation for straight talk, she's still restrained by the dictates of diplomacy) are these simple truths:

* The United States will pay less attention to Europe in the future than it did for the last 50 years.

* Despite America's current embrace of NATO expansion, our ties to Europe are gradually eroding.

* U.S. foreign policy will be devoting ever more energy elsewhere, certainly to Asia and perhaps to Latin America.

The last couple weeks of celebration of the Marshall Plan have been long on self-congratulation and short on visions of the future. There was, however, one awkward, revealing moment during President Clinton's visit to Europe last week.

Clinton spoke grandly about the importance of having America and Europe "complete the noble journey that Marshall's generation began."

But when Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok talked about the possibility of massive new assistance for Central Europe, in the range of $100 billion, Clinton suddenly came down to Earth. He made clear that any such money would have to come from private investment. It won't come from U.S. taxpayers, as did the funds for the Marshall Plan.

America, Clinton was saying, doesn't have the sort of predominant economic power today that it had when it worked to rebuild Western Europe after World War II.

Economics is only one part of the story of how the U.S. relationship with Europe has changed. The other factors are demographic and military.

One way to look at the Marshall Plan is to see it as an outgrowth of the massive wave of European immigration to America at the beginning of the 20th century. In the following decades, European immigrants integrated themselves into American life; they became a strong public constituency for the United States to overcome its traditional isolationism and to take an active role in the affairs of Europe.

Now, of course, the pattern of U.S. immigration has shifted. During the last three decades, the large flow of immigrants from Europe has ebbed, replaced by waves of immigrants from Asia and Latin America. In the long run, as an outgrowth of this trend, America's attention to and involvement with Asia and Latin America will continue to grow--and, in the process, the attention to Europe likely will decrease.

That doesn't mean there will be any future U.S. program for these continents akin to the Marshall Plan. Actually, during the last half-century, Asia already has been the beneficiary of a U.S. policy that was less concerted and more indirect than the Marshall Plan, but no less effective--that is, the commitment to give Asian nations access to America's markets.

"The opening of America's domestic market to Japan and its neighbors in East Asia had a much greater economic effect than the Marshall Plan," observes Chalmers Johnson, the veteran Asia scholar at the Japan Policy Research Institute. "That is what opened the way to the enrichment of East Asia."

The other factor that will cause a growing distance between the United States and Europe is that, in military and security terms, the Europeans need America much less than they used to.

In a collection of essays commemorating the anniversary of the Marshall Plan in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, the one downbeat note of realism was sounded by former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

"Today, Germany no longer lives under the Soviet threat, and Russia will not in the future occupy as important a place in German strategic thought," Schmidt wrote. "Naturally, NATO and the alliance with the United States no longer have the same influence on German grand strategy."

And so, Schmidt went on, America shouldn't expect that Germany will support it in international disputes to the same extent it did in the past. In particular, Germany will care more about deepening its ties with France, the most important of its European neighbors.

These are the long-range trends affecting U.S. foreign policy today. Whether it is policy toward Cuba or Iran, Lebanon or China, the United States and its leading European allies are adopting different and sometimes opposing policies.

The upbeat, nostalgia-filled anniversary celebrations for the Marshall Plan should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the world is changing, and so is U.S. foreign policy. Albright may be too polite to say so in her Harvard speech, but, compared with 50 years ago, America counts far less for Europe and Europe counts far less for America.

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every other week.

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