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Before we can rebuild Ukraine, we need a security plan for Europe

Talk of a “Marshall Plan” for Ukraine is getting louder and more concrete, after economists recently came together to offer a blueprint for the reconstruction of Ukraine. But these plans and promises of aid overlook the first necessary condition: security. You can only build on solid ground. Not only does Ukraine first need to win the war with Russia, the authors of a reconstruction plan for Ukraine will need a clear, credible vision for securing Ukraine — and this will require a bold new security plan for Europe. Call it a “European Responsibility Act.”

The original Marshall Plan, officially the European Recovery Act, was not only a monumentally generous aid program but also a keystone of U.S. containment strategy and Washington’s European integration project. The strategy envisioned Germany’s integration into a supranational Europe as the answer to centuries of conflict and war. At the same time, a united Western Europe would be a stronger partner for Washington to confront the Soviet threat. As a result, the generous aid was conditioned on Europeans working together and integrating their economies. 

This coerced cooperation and trust-building rested on the firm ground of the U.S. security guarantee for Western Europe — from the Soviets, but also from each other.

In this regard, too little has changed. The Marshall Plan did help Western Europe resist the Soviet threat. It launched the process of integration, which transformed bitter adversaries into partners and resulted in a European Union (EU) that supported the democratic transitions and integration of former Warsaw Pact countries. Competition between European powers is no longer a source of global conflict and instability. That’s quite a triumph. Yet the supranational continental power that policymakers in post-World War II Washington envisioned never emerged, and Europe remains unable to be the central provider of its own security or to deter aggression in its neighborhood. 

What is worse, neither Washington nor Brussels seems even close to a plan to change this, despite decades of near-unanimous choruses that the EU needs to be made “a stronger and more capable security provider” — as is again noted in the forward to the 2022 Strategic Compass, the EU’s strategic action plan.

The newly released Strategic Compass argues that the EU needs to “make a quantum leap forward” to face a more hostile environment and geopolitical shifts. But the action plan lays out, at most, a few solid steps. While it notes that more investment is needed — “and not in a fragmented, national manner” — it does not set out a plan to do so, nor are the capabilities outlined a large enough leap. As in 2014, Russia’s aggression in 2022 could risk being, in Josep Borell’s words, “yet another unheeded wake-up call.” A geopolitically slumbering EU cannot help Ukraine, even if it spends generously.

How can we assure that Europe wakes up this time? It will need a jolt stronger than Russia, it seems; perhaps again it requires push and protection from Washington. Yes, European capitals have been complacent, happy to save costs and take a free ride on U.S. capabilities. But fear is also at play. 

For too many EU capitals, the risk of losing the U.S. security guarantee has seemed higher than the potential of EU security sovereignty, and the Trump presidency only slightly changed the calculation. At a recent workshop in Berlin, held under Chatham House rule, one European official expressed this insecurity perfectly, asking a U.S. national security official: “We just want to know if you will leave if we invest [in more defense capabilities] or leave if we don’t.” The Biden administration needs to give a clear answer to this question.

Luckily, we can return to history for a blueprint and use the Marshall Plan model for Europe to create the conditions necessary to rebuild Ukraine. Washington must commit to stay on as a significant European security actor — which it also appears to want — while slowly transferring more and more of the burden in a jointly devised plan. In fact, as happened in 1947, the EU and the United Kingdom should be tasked to lead the planning. Then, they agreed on how to divvy up the spoils; now they will divvy up capabilities.

What should such a plan look like? Well, that will be up to the final drafters. But the framework is straightforward. To keep the United States engaged as a central, if no longer dominant, partner in European security, it must be a NATO plan and the European capabilities envisioned must be coordinated among EU and non-EU NATO member states, especially the U.K. The supposed conflict between EU and NATO capabilities has been a hollow excuse for years. 

Washington likely would commit to stay and help secure Europe — and help Europeans learn to depend on each other more — on the condition that European partners working together with the U.K. agree on 5-year, 10-year and 15-year plans to provide 30 percent, 40 percent and, finally, at least 60 percent, respectively, of the capabilities needed to secure Europe, including its eastern neighborhood, against an aggression from Russia and other potential threats. Regular mandatory benchmarks could lock in commitments. And from year one, these plans would need to include a credible vision for protecting and integrating Ukraine, in some manner, as well as rebuilding it.

This could work for the Biden administration, which knows that the United States needs to withdraw from the European theater but wants to protect the transatlantic relationship. A clear and measurable plan to shift the security burden to European pockets also would help the alliance survive if someone less amicable moves into the White House in 2024.

Obviously, some will consider this an outlandish idea. But outlandish ideas are what the EU and the transatlantic alliance were founded on.

Rachel Tausendfreund is editorial director at the German Marshall Fund Berlin office, overseeing research output and publication planning. She previously worked as editorial director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Follow her on Twitter @thousandfriend.

Tags European Union Marshall Plan NATO Russian invasion of Ukraine

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