A leading figure in the Biden administration has backed a recovery programme for Ukraine in the style of the Marshall plan, which helped rebuild Europe after the second world war.
Pete Buttigieg, the US transportation secretary, said there was plenty of political will at home and internationally towards cooperating in long-term reconstruction efforts including to buttress existing infrastructure in Ukraine.
“With the memory of the Marshall plan in mind, what we’re talking about is not only about how we fund immediate needs and support their ability to maintain the war effort, but how we support the ability of Ukraine to be economically viable and generate a sustainable future for themselves, even as they’re under attack,” the former presidential candidate said in an interview with the Guardian.
Buttigieg admitted that while “the destruction of Ukrainian homes and infrastructure is still under way”, to talk about reconstruction might feel premature “and yet in my encounters with Ukrainian leaders, and particularly my counterpart [Oleksandr Kubrakov], who I speak to regularly, they are already thinking about reconstruction even as they’re thinking about defending their homeland and it’s inspiring to see and it deserves strong and unified support from us.”
He said a “major topic of conversation” among transport ministers at the world meeting in Leipzig this week for the International Transport Forum was how they could help to get grain and other produce out of Ukraine, which is stuck because of blocked and destroyed ports and railway lines and is threatening to create a global food shortage.
“This is not only something that concerns us, as friends to Ukraine, but also concerns us because the world needs that production, especially on the agricultural side,” he said.
“Without access to the Black Sea, it’s always going to be a major disadvantage. We’re committed to helping there in any way we can.
“But I really admire in my Ukrainian counterparts that they’re thinking about the short and the long term at the same time – how to shore up infrastructure in the immediate term – the heroic work by the railway workers to restore connections so that goods can be moved from west to east and people from east to west.
“But they’re also thinking about very long-term questions and recognising that what they rebuild towards will not simply be a reconstruction of the Soviet-era infrastructure that this generation of Ukrainians has inherited.”
Buttigieg was speaking on the sidelines of an event hosted by the German Marshall Fund NGO in Berlin to mark the 75th anniversary of the Marshall plan, a multibillion-dollar recovery programme initiated by the US in 1947 that provided humanitarian and economic assistance to millions of Europeans to ease their recovery after the second world war.
The plan was named after George Marshall, the man who was then US secretary of state.
Buttigieg, who is in charge of implementing and overseeing a large swathe of projects in the US enabled under the $1tn (£800bn) infrastructure bill that passed six months ago, stressed the relevance to the US as well as Ukraine of Marshall’s insistence about the need to create a “virtuous circle” between the economic security of a nation and its political stability based on its capacity to deliver.
He said that decades of disinvestment in the US had turned the virtuous cycle into a vicious one, with political institutions that lacked the resources to deliver well losing their legitimacy, leading to an erosion of trust, “which has given credence to those who would undermine those institutions, further diminishing their capacity to deliver”, he said.
The infrastructure fund was intended to break that cycle, he added. “If we can deliver as we’re setting out to do … then citizens will see what it means for them. We’ve got all kinds of things that have scrambled up our political and social life right now, including the information environment, the forms of extremism … and shocks like the pandemic, and economic reverberations from the war in Europe. It’s all the more reason for us to focus on delivering for people.”
He said that the stakes included not just comfort and convenience, but “perhaps also the credibility of governance itself”.
“In the 1930s, another season when democracy was in doubt, and when it had become fashionable in some circles in Washington to point approvingly to the rise in dictators, some would say by way of praise for fascism that Mussolini makes the trains run on time.
“This turns out to not be particularly true, by the way … but how revealing it is that this excuse for autocrats comes on the basis of their supposed prowess in providing transportation.”
Regarding Ukraine, Buttigieg said he was interested in President Volodymr Zelenskiy’s calls for reconstruction on a cities and regional level, under a plan apparently gaining traction, by which cities and communities across the world would adopt similar communities in Ukraine to their own ones.
“Understanding the needs and different capacities of different parts of the country is going to be very important,” Buttigieg said.
Asked if his government’s legitimacy over helping to rebuild a country was to be trusted after its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Buttigieg, who served in the country as an officer in the US Navy Reserve, said:
“Part of what we were up against in Afghanistan is just how fundamentally different the society, the values, the governance culture and the economics of that country are … it’s very different in Ukraine … one of the things that unites us to Ukraine are some of those core values around democracy.
“It’s so early to know what will be at the end of this upheaval. What we know is that the kind of united approach we have that reflects shared values among our partners and with Ukrainians is a very powerful one and will be an important basis of the relationship.
“Not just in getting us through this war, whatever the endgame looks like, but in a reconstruction that really does hold the promise of leading to new and innovative things.”
He praised the leadership he said Germany had shown since the start of the invasion, contrasting with the criticism the government of Olaf Scholz has received.
“I think it’s understood in Washington that the new steps that Germany has taken are major steps in security and energy policy … none of us knows what lies on the other side of this Zeitenwende,” he said, adopting the phrase used by Scholz meaning “turning point”, “but all of us should recognise that the only way for it to lead to a good place is for us to find our way to it together.”
Earlier on Thursday, Buttigieg took a tour of Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof or central station, a symbol of German unification, and met a group of Germans and US citizens of Ukrainian origin working as volunteers to receive refugees, about 2,000 of whom are arriving on trains from Ukraine each day.
“Just make sure you help us by keeping the narrative alive back home,” one of the volunteers, Natalia, from Minnesota and of Ukrainian descent, told him as Buttigieg thanked the women for their work.
Buttigieg, who ran for the US presidency in 2020 but withdrew in favour of supporting Joe Biden, would not be drawn on whether he had plans to run again in 2024.
“Right now my ambitions are to be the best secretary of transportation that I can,” he said. “I think there’s never been a better time to have this job.”
• This article was amended on 23 May 2022. It is the 75th anniversary of the Marshall plan’s initiation, not the 50th as stated in an earlier version. The headline to this article was amended on 24 May 2022 to better reflect that Pete Buttigieg had called for a new Marshall plan for Ukraine, rather than this being decided US policy as an earlier version may have implied.