Guns and butter

War on Terrorism needs a Marshall Plan

Illustration By Dack Thompson

Both men work for the Worldwatch Institute ( Dick Bell is vice president for communications and Michael Renner is a senior researcher.

What do you think of this advice from a senior U.S. military officer and statesman about how the people of the United States should deal with a part of the world torn by war, poverty, disease and hunger:

“[I]t is of vast importance that our people reach some general understanding of what the complications really are, rather than react from a passion or a prejudice or an emotion of the moment … It is virtually impossible at this distance merely by reading, or listening or even seeing photographs or motion pictures to grasp at all the real significance of the situation. And yet the whole world of the future hangs on a proper judgment.”

The speaker was General George C. Marshall, outlining the Marshall Plan in an address at Harvard University on June 5, 1947. Surveying the wrecked economies of Europe, Marshall noted the “possibilities of disturbances arising as a result of the desperation of the people concerned.” He said that there could be “no political stability and no assured peace” without economic security, and that U.S. policy was “directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.”

As President Bush and his advisers review the results of the initial bombing campaign, they might also consider the relevance of Marshall’s strategy to the moral and political problems America now confronts. Of course, we should find the people responsible for the deaths of September 11 and bring them to justice, and work with other nations to root out other terrorist networks. But we must do so in a way that does not result in the deaths of even more innocent people, deaths that would only deepen the cycle of anger and rage that led to September 11.

What is largely missing from the administration’s rhetoric is recognition of the scale of the underlying problems that have to be addressed, regardless of how successful we may be in tracking down the perpetrators of the terrorist assaults. As Marshall’s words so plainly suggest, finding the terrorists should be part of a much more ambitious campaign, one in which the rich countries approach the appalling inequities of the world with the same boldness and determination that the United States brought to bear in Europe under the Marshall Plan.

We don’t really need to spend another dime on “intelligence” to recognize the conditions that leave whole countries in a state of despair and misery. Some 1.2 billion people worldwide struggle to survive on $1 a day or less. Over 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and 2.9 billion have inadequate access to sanitation. About 150 million children are malnourished, and more than 10 million children under 5 will die in 2001 alone. At least 150 million people are unemployed and 900 million are “under-employed,” contending with inadequate incomes despite long hours of backbreaking work.

Globalization has raised expectations, even as modern communications make the rising inequality between a rich, powerful and imposing West and the rest of the world visible to all. Poverty and deprivation do not automatically translate into hatred. But people whose hopes have worn thin, whose aspirations have been thwarted and whose discontent is rising, are far more likely to succumb to the siren song of extremism. This is particularly true for the swelling ranks of young people whose prospects for the future are bleak. Some 34 percent of the developing world’s population is under 15 years of age.

The United States and the other industrial nations should launch a global “Marshall Plan” to provide everyone on Earth with a decent standard of living. We can already hear the cries of people claiming that such a global plan would “cost too much.” But let’s look at the numbers. The cost of our initial response has soared into the tens of billions of dollars, on top of an already large proposed defense budget of $342.7 billion.

For the sake of comparison, let’s assume that the United States will spend an additional $100 billion on military actions in the next 12 months. What could we buy if we matched this $100 billion military expenditure dollar-for-dollar with spending on programs to alleviate human suffering?

A 1998 report by the United Nations Development Programme estimated the annual cost to achieve universal access to a number of basic social services in all developing countries: $9 billion would provide water and sanitation for all; $12 billion would cover reproductive health for all women; $13 billion would give every person on Earth basic health and nutrition; and $6 billion would provide basic education for all.

These sums are substantial, but they are still only a fraction of the tens of billions of dollars we are already spending. And these social and health expenditures pale in comparison with what is being spent on the military by all nations—some $780 billion each year.

There is a sad irony in watching the Bush administration’s strenuous efforts to build an international coalition. There is no such muscular effort underway, in the United States, or in any of the other rich nations, to build a coalition to eradicate hunger, to immunize all children, to provide clean water, to eradicate infectious disease, to provide adequate jobs, to combat illiteracy or to build decent housing.

The cost of failing to advance human security and to eliminate the fertile ground upon which terrorism thrives is already escalating. Since September 11, we know that sophisticated weapons offer little protection against those who are out to seek vengeance, at any cost, for real and perceived wrongs. Unless our priorities change, the threat is certain to keep rising in coming years.

By choosing to mobilize adequate resources to address human suffering around the world, President Bush has a unique opportunity to seize the terrible moment of September 11 and earn a truly exalted place in human history. But first, we must all understand that in the end, weapons alone cannot buy us a lasting peace in a world of extreme inequality, injustice and deprivation for billions of our fellow human beings.