President Clinton's speeches during his European trip have been dripping with nostalgia for the "glory days" of the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO in the late 1940s.
Invoking images of that era is designed to make the case that the United States can promote security, stability and prosperity in Eastern Europe today just as it did in Western Europe a half-century ago.
Clinton's reasoning confirms that nostalgia is a poor basis for foreign policy.
There are tenacious but inaccurate myths about the Marshall Plan and America's overall role in Western Europe during the early years of the Cold War. According to the conventional wisdom, Western Europe might still be wallowing in poverty and despair had it not been for the Marshall Plan and other manifestations of U.S. "leadership."
George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen debunked such myths years ago, showing that no correlation existed between the amount of Marshall Plan aid specific nations received and their subsequent rates of economic growth. Their domestic economic policies were the decisive factor.
True, the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO prodded the Western Europeans to bury their differences and work together. But the presence of a powerful and aggressive adversary, the Soviet Union, was even more important in fostering unity.
It is wishful thinking to assume that a vaguely defined aid program and the enlargement of NATO can promote similar harmony and stability in Eastern Europe under vastly different conditions.
Even if one accepts the argument that U.S. leadership was crucial in pacifying Western Europe, there is little prospect of comparable success in Eastern Europe. Many of the sources of conflict in Western Europe had been ebbing long before the Marshall Plan and NATO.
The Anglo-French antagonism, the complicated dynastic rivalries and a host of other issues that once plagued the western portion of the continent had already receded into history. The principal remaining source of tension--the Franco-German territorial feud over Alsace-Lorraine --had also been decisively resolved with Germany's crushing defeat in World War II.
By contrast, Eastern Europe remains a cauldron of boundary disputes, ethnic and religious rivalries and fragile, unstable political and economic systems. The process of nation building in Eastern Europe today resembles that of Western Europe two or three centuries ago, with all the attendant turbulence.
Clinton's attempt to recreate Washington's Western European policy of the late '40s in a volatile Eastern Europe is dangerously misguided.
America is far more likely to become entangled in Eastern Europe's problems than it is to be the region's savior.