Gen David Petraeus on priorities of U.S. security policy

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Editor’s Note: The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) and the Federal Academy for Security Policy (BAKS) in cooperation with Microsoft Germany hosted a discussion with General (ret.) David H. Petraeus on Friday, March 3. General Petraeus provided his perspective on priorities of U.S. security policy at the event and we talked to him about the importance of the Marshall Plan.

The international post-Cold War security order is under duress. Its underlying liberal values are challenged and the transatlantic alliance has come under scrutiny from the inside and out. As we near the 70th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, now is a time to reflect on the most concrete example to date of the scale of change made possible by bold thinking and international cooperation. The values that the Marshall Plan represents and that GMF is dedicated to promoting — democracy, rule of law, the protection of human rights — are as essential now in addressing these challenges as they were in 1947. The success of the Marshall Plan should give hope that we are able to address the today’s challenges together.

Q: What kind of bold thinking is essential today to contend with the various global political and economic security challenges?

General Petraeus: Well, I think you have to go back and look at the Marshall Plan and realize that this was not just an act of generosity; it was also an act of pragmatism. In other words, this was not just the right thing to do, it was also the smart thing to do. And if you reflect on that and then talk about how you keep your own national interests first, which I think is legitimate, you’ll actually still end up concluding that you engage in such activities by supporting partners and allies and, then, in turn, with them supporting us. International relations are not zero-sum, after all. More often than not, there are mutual benefits for all involved in a particular endeavor. And it makes sense you pursue those mutual interests and enjoy mutual benefits best in a rules-based global order, one that we worked very hard with our allies and partners to build in the wake of WWII — after 50 years that saw the worst economic depression in history and two horrible world wars. We created international financial institutions and multilateral organizations, and sought to establish norms and principals, and so forth. And when you look back at the result, I think that you conclude that the institutions, organizations, and norms have served the world pretty well. They’ve kept the world in pretty good stead. The United States has prospered in this rule-based system, to be sure; however, we’ve also accommodated the rise and decline, of other powers. And we need to certainly make adjustments that accommodate the legitimate aspirations of rising powers and future superpowers like China and India and some others. But those countries also need be convinced, I think, that this type of system can enable them to achieve what they seek as, indeed, it allows others also to achieve what they seek. Certainly there are areas that need to be addressed:  unfair trade practices need to be confronted; burden sharing among all in alliances like NATO needs to be emphasized and has been. But again, by and large, the contours of what has evolved over the period of time since the end of World War II, I think, generally, are ones that should be strengthened and augmented. And in some respects adjusted, and refined — but also preserved, as well.

Q: The transatlantic relationship has strengthened over the decade since the inception of the Marshall Plan due to shared values and interests — democracy, free enterprise, and universal respect. How do you view German-American relations and the transatlantic relationship as a whole for the 21st century?

General Petraeus: I firmly believe that the relationship between Germany and America has gotten stronger and stronger over the years. If you think about it, initially, in the wake of WWII, of course, we helped revive Germany, helped it rebuild, helped it re-establish its economy, helped it build its governmental institutions. It has subsequently developed in every respect in a truly extraordinary manner. It is now the number four economy in the world. It has achieved an extraordinary level of per capita income for its people. Its infrastructure is hugely impressive. Governance is highly professional.  Germany is even running fiscal surpluses, despite fairly extensive government social, education, and infrastructure investment programs. Really, again, all quite extraordinary. And it has done so in a very impressive manner. Certainly there can be quiet encouragement that Germany will spend more on defense, but my sense is that even awareness of the need for this is spreading in the population.

And throughout the decades the professionalism of the German military has also been very impressive, and I make that observation as the individual who was privileged to command the International Security Assistance force in Afghanistan when German troops conducted their first true combat operations in the wake of WWII, when they carried a masterful counterinsurgency campaign in Kunduz and Baghlan Provinces.

Q: What are your thoughts on the distribution of foreign aid today and can the Marshall Plan serve as a model in this regard?

General Petraeus: Well I think the Marshall Plan can serve as a model but it is also one that should be kept in perspective. In fact, at times, I think the Marshall Plan analogy is misplaced. If you really think about, what enabled success with the Plan was the extraordinary human capital that was still in Germany. So there was a pump that just needed to be primed. Yes, there was widespread destruction from the war; yes, there had to be massive reconstruction. But you had this extraordinarily pool of human capital that knew how to do business, how to make things, how to educate, how, over time, to establish new and representative government institutions. So the Marshall Plan was an enabling effort. I think we can misplace this analogy if we look at a country that needs a massive amount of aid, to be sure, but doesn’t have a pump to prime. And I think the idea that you’re just going to throw a lot of money at a particularly intractable problem doesn’t necessarily provide a solution. And you have to really analyze, I think, what the challenges are in a particular country–whether it is an Afghanistan or a Somalia or a Libya or whatever. You have to have a whole of government solution and realize that, in most, cases you’re not going to be able to do what we did here in Germany, which was to provide some period of administrative oversight and a reasonable amount of money to a country that could actually rise again on its own with the extraordinary talents of the German people — even in a country that was largely devastated by four or five years of war.


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