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Bureaucracy, the Marshall Plan, and the National Interest

Bureaucracy, the Marshall Plan, and the National Interest

by Hadley Arkes

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The Marshall Plan has been widely regarded as a realistic yet generous policy, and a wise construction of the national interest. But how was the blend of interest and generosity in the minds of its initiators transformed in the process of bureaucratic administration? Hadley Arkes studies the Marshall Plan as an example of the process by which a national interest in


The Marshall Plan has been widely regarded as a realistic yet generous policy, and a wise construction of the national interest. But how was the blend of interest and generosity in the minds of its initiators transformed in the process of bureaucratic administration? Hadley Arkes studies the Marshall Plan as an example of the process by which a national interest in foreign policy is defined and implemented.

The author's analysis of the efforts to design the Economic Cooperation Agency demonstrates how the definition of the national interest is fundamentally linked to the character of the political regime. His account of the discussions in the executive branch of the government, the bureaucratic infighting, and the deliberations in Congressional hearings and floor debates also shows how, in the process of making decisions on administration and procedure, the bureaucracy itself affected the aims of the Plan.

Originally published in 1973.

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Bureaucracy, the Marshall Plan, and the National Interest

By Hadley Arkes


Copyright © 1972 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-04607-5



The Marshall Plan had its brief but celebrated moment, and in a rather anomalous way it passed into history with the warm regard of liberals and conservatives alike. Everyone may have reservations about the current foreign aid program, but no one finds anything objectionable in the Marshall Plan, and with good reason. For liberals, the Marshall Plan avoided the tone of strident anti-Communism. The telling phrase was in Marshall's commencement address at Harvard in 1947, when the Secretary of State declared that "our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos." The program was addressed to Europe as a whole, and in principle it was perfectly capable of accommodating the Soviet Union. The only conditions called for closer cooperation in aligning national economic policies, improving the international monetary system, and breaking down the barriers to trade. On their face they seemed to be reasonable conditions, clearly related to the ends of the program. They could present a formidable threat, though, to countries that were too fearful of opening their economies to the influence of outside forces. But whether the dangers of integration were serious enough to offset the advantages of Marshall aid was something that the Soviet leaders would have to decide for themselves. For liberal opinion in the United States it was important that the Marshall Plan did nothing to aggravate the inchoate division in Europe. Its everlasting credit was that it held the door open.

Despite the heavy emphasis in grant aid, the program had its attractions for conservatives as well. It was a temporary measure that was directed, for the most part, to countries that were already in an advanced state of industrialization. It was not a development program, but a restorative action. The interlocking wheels in a complicated economy had come unmeshed. The task was to connect them again, and that could be accomplished mainly by supplying large quantities of food, fuel, and raw materials. It did not require a sophisticated theory for redistributing wealth, and it did not demand American intervention for the sake of engineering social change. One could be satisfied instead with a very minimal amount of American interference. Aid could be allotted on the basis of the relatively simple measures contained in the balance of payments analysis. A deficit with the dollar area meant a lower foreign exchange reserve in dollars, and dwindling reserves made it that much more difficult to finance the imports that were required in feeding the production process at home. Larger and smaller deficits could provide a rough but helpful indication of the magnitude of outside assistance that might be needed. Thus, the accent was placed on raising production and achieving some overall balance in the international accounts. There was very little here to disturb the good conservative. There was nothing unorthodox in the methods of the program, and certainly nothing revolutionary in its aims.

On the strength of a remarkably wide consensus, then, the Marshall Plan stands out to us today as a significant program, a successful policy, and a wise construction of the "national interest." It did not over-promise; the scale of expenditure was large, but the goals were modest, and the means were realistically measured. Altruism was tempered with a sober regard for self-interest, but the selfish ingredients were never so unreasonable as to obscure the enlightened and generous nature of what was done. Few policies, therefore, would seem to offer as many advantages for an inquiry into the theory of national interest in foreign policy, a problem that has become even more urgent for us recently as a result of our involvement in Vietnam. Since the Marshall Plan was bound to affect a host of substantial interests, both at home and abroad, it promised to reveal the fuller range of considerations that could enter the scheme of a national interest in foreign policy.

I would not pretend to have found some formula we could use to define the national interest in Vietnam and thus dissolve all our problems. But I do think we could use a study of the Marshall Plan to clear away some of the most important confusions that have plagued the issue of national interest in the past. My own dissatisfaction would center on two areas of distortion. First, there is the practice of employing "the national interest" as a wholly descriptive term. In this view, the national interest refers to a set of hard empirical conditions that remains, in the words of one author, "relatively permanent" through time and space. The fallacy lies in the failure to recognize the quality of "the national interest" as a moral or prescriptive term. That is, like other moral terms, "the national interest" acquires an empirical content as it is used to describe or articulate the standards of what is "good." But it is in the nature of moral terms, also, that their meaning can never be exhausted by the terms that fill out their descriptive content from time to time. For in addition to their descriptive function, moral terms have a prescriptive or commendatory function: They can be used to commend new practices or policies, including things that have not been accepted yet as good or desirable. In short, it is part of the meaning of moral terms that they can be detached from current conventions — including the current standards of "the national interest" — and they can be used to generate a change in values.

Secondly, the analysis of national interest has been warped by the fashion of conceiving the problem as a tension between "ideals" and "self-interest." This second muddle, though, is largely an outgrowth of the first. Both are affected by the same positivist outlook, and they both suffer from the same reliance on the fact-value distinction: "Ideals" are equated with values — subjective, imprecise, unverifiable — while on the other hand, "interests" are supposed to refer to the more concrete and factual measures of physical "security." It is assumed that the imperatives of security are, indeed, unambiguous and empirical, and that anything beyond these very circumscribed requirements are beyond the hard core of the national interest. It is admitted, of course, that interests can be misconceived, but the interests themselves are regarded as objective. The misconceptions are thought to arise from the faults of individuals, and not because there may be anything problematic about the nature of the national interest.

Apparently there is no room for the understanding that began with the classics, that the discipline of politics involves the application of general rules to individual cases, and that individual cases may call the rules themselves into question. Rather than ignoring the difference between a world of abstract ideals and a world of empirical reality, this older view was founded on the distinction between theory and practice. But at the same time, it was no part of this understanding that ideals were less real or more nebulous than what have come to be called "interests."

The aim of this study, then, is to use the signal case of the Marshall Plan in making another approach to the theory of national interest — to examine the kinds of interests that may be considered in the design of a major foreign policy program; to estimate the significance of "power" interests against interests that are supposedly less concrete and definable; and to determine whether ideals can enter the definition of national interest in any more meaningful role than that of ideology or rationalization.

The question of national interest will remain as the central concern of this book. But we shall view that question in a somewhat different way, as it was seen through the problem of administration: in the efforts to design an agency that could accomplish the ends of the program, and through the operations of that agency over the course of the Marshall Plan. Facing the problem of administration lent a certain concreteness to the question of national interest that was otherwise lacking when the matter was viewed entirely in the abstract; and whether the arguments over administration took place in the Executive, in the legislative drafting and the sparring of the agencies, or whether they occurred in the Congressional hearings and floor debates, the process seemed to move in the same direction: The question of how to accomplish the ends of the program led back to the question of what those ends were. The question of what powers were appropriate for a Marshall Plan agency gave way to the question of what ends were appropriate for the Marshall Plan itself.

As Congress tried to reconcile the jurisdiction and procedures of the Economic Cooperation Administration (ECA) with the authority of other agencies, it was forced to confront the reasons behind the established procedures and the interests that supported the previous assignment of jurisdictions. For one could not simply declare the existence of a new agency; it had to be connected to an elaborate Executive structure, and its purposes had to be meshed with an existing body of law. Establishing an agency for the Marshall Plan was quite the same thing, in effect, as attaching a new cluster of ends to the total complex of "the laws." And the commitments of the standing law were so thoroughly bound up with the relations and interests of our basic political institutions, that the task of giving proportion to the Marshall Plan became, at its highest level, a task of assimilating the Marshall Plan to the American regime.

Accordingly, I would go on to argue in that vein that the definition of the national interest cannot take its prime reference to the "territorial integrity" of the state, or to any of the other metaphors of physical security. It must start instead from some essential core of values that defines the nature of the thing one would try to preserve. In the case of a society, that would mean the character of the community or its "way of life." In classical theory, the character of the community was known most importantly through the values it held up as authoritative, i.e., the values that were embodied in its laws and political institutions. In a word, the society was known through its political regime.

If we follow David Easton and identify politics in general with the "authoritative allocation of values" or the process of making binding decisions for a society, the "regime" would be one step lower in the scale of generality. Instead of referring to the general features that all political systems have in common, the regime would refer to the character of particular systems — the particular structure of authority and the peculiar pattern of values that distinguish one political system from another. In this respect, the understanding of a regime dates from Aristotle's Politics and the classic discussion of "constitutions": The famous schema of constitutions was organized along the same two axes we have followed here, i.e., the distribution of power in the polis (whether concentrated or dispersed), and the substantive ends to which power was directed (to the private interests of the rulers or to the good of the whole). That is, the initial focus was on the "organization of a polis, in respect of its offices," and very clearly, the formal structure of government was basic to the definition of "constitution." But very patently, also, it was insufficient. After the legal institutions were set in place, the critical distinction in the schema turned on the difference between decent and "perverted" government, and that went beyond the question of forms to the question of practice. The difference between aristocracy and oligarchy was not, in that case, a difference in the distribution of power. It was a difference, rather, in the way power was used and the ends it was made to serve. It involved the judging or evaluation of public policy, and according to the classic understanding, policy could be judged only by testing the substance of what was done in particular cases.

Thus, the meaning of constitution in the Politics could not be confined to the arrangement of legal offices, and for that reason, as well as others, a serious question has been raised on the appropriateness of rendering Aristotle's politeia as "constitution." Leo Strauss has argued on this point that the classics used politeia in contradistinction to "laws":

The politeia is more fundamental than any laws; it is the source of all laws. The politeia is rather the factual distribution of power within the community than what constitutional law stipulates in regard to political power. ... No law, and hence no constitution, can be the fundamental political fact, because all laws depend on human beings. ... Politeia means the way of life of a society rather than its constitution. ... When speaking of the politeia, the classics thought of the way of life of a community as essentially determined by its "form of government."

Strauss preferred, then, to translate politeia as "regime," "taking regime in the broad sense in which we sometimes take it when speaking, e.g., of the Ancien Regime of France." The regime marks some connection between the ethos of the community and its authoritative institutions, either because the institutions reflect the values of the community, or because they act upon the character of the community through the force of public law. Either way, the question of the regime is tied in to the corporate personality of the community and the questions we still tend to regard as the most important in political life: What are the ends of the community? What human qualities does it promote or discourage through the teaching of its public policies? What understanding of justice does it convey through the way in which it orders its internal life?

But the fact remains, there have been two views traditionally on the meaning of "regime," one that is restricted to "fundamental institutions," and another that moves beyond things like the separation of powers to take in the content of the laws and the way of life of the community. On the surface the difference may not seem that important, but there are times when it does raise some fundamental questions of political understanding. Two examples may illustrate. The case for the more restricted, legal definition of the regime could profitably be drawn from the problem of democracies in wartime. We know that under the conditions of war, democracies may resort to forms of compulsion that can be fully as effective as anything one is likely to encounter in authoritarian systems. The experience of the United States during the Second World War stands as a rather good example: dissenters were vigorously repressed under the sedition laws; members of an alien minority were moved to centers of detention; and the economy was subjected to a thoroughgoing system of controls that not only covered wages, prices, and rationing, but the freedom in certain instances to move from one job to another.

By a strict empirical standard one might have been tempted to argue that there was little difference any more between the United States and some of its adversaries. And yet, we know, there was a difference. But aside from what we know about the differences that were still visible in wartime, the more telling question is this: Was there anything in the nature of the system itself that made it that much more probable that a country like the United States would begin to withdraw controls and return the system to what it was once the war had ended? Did one have to go much beyond the fact that a population grown restive under rationing and other controls would be able to make ready use of elections to force the hand of the Administration? Certainly, we could have picked out many other things, though regardless of the line of reasoning we took, we would have to concede that our sense of the matter would not be based on anything we could see at the moment, but on the plainest things we understand about the Constitution and the nature of our legal institutions.

On the other side, the more expansive view of the "regime" can find some reflections on the current scene. One frequently hears it said, for example, that it will require some basic "institutional change" to set this country right. Yet it soon becomes apparent that the people who make this argument are not really about to change things like the independence of the judiciary or the restraints of the First Amendment; and it is even rare that they find the solution to our problems in a program of socialist ownership and state control. In most instances, the argument does not cut to the level of our legal institutions, but to the patterns of public spending or, as the saying goes, to the "priorities" of our public policy. One is inclined to say that the aim, more accurately, is not to change the system but the results. And yet, that would not be entirely fair, because the kind of change that is sought may really be more basic than that, and in some sense it may even be "institutional." It would not be institutional, of course, in the sense of describing legal bodies, but in something closer to the understanding of a recurring and fundamental practice. The drive to change the priorities of our public policy may be nothing less than a move to change the habits of our wanting: Commitments can be firmed up very quickly with new agencies and budgets and the creation of new clientele groups that can lend the weight of self-interest to a new order of things.


Excerpted from Bureaucracy, the Marshall Plan, and the National Interest by Hadley Arkes. Copyright © 1972 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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