This article originally appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog on June 22, 2018.
Can an enduring and effective trans-Atlantic relationship be constructed and maintained without reference to commonly-shared values, in other words, can there be a "values-free" partnership? This was a question that continued to emerge during two days of discussion at the fourth iteration of the Loisach Group, a German-American dialogue convened by the Marshall Center and the Munich Security Conference. Certainly, there are a set of common economic and security interests that define the Euro-Atlantic community, but must there be a concurrent commitment to values such as the rule of law and respect for democratic procedures? Is the perception of shared values important in order to generate the solidarity, not only among governments, but more importantly, their publics, that is necessary for different nations to balance raw national interests with the compromises necessary to sustain this partnership?
I raise this point because we have seen a tendency, particularly when it comes to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and discussions about trade and economic policy within the European Union and between the EU and the United States, to want to focus, particularly at this point when both left- and right-wing populist movements are gaining greater currency in the domestic politics of Western nations at the expense of the "traditional" political parties, on technical matters: improving the infrastructure of NATO to allow for more rapid movement of forces, examining defense budgets to meet NATO force planning targets, and so on. But technical details, important as they are, cannot substitute as answers for the ultimate purpose of the Euro-Atlantic community. Being able to move forces from Germany to Latvia more quickly does not answer the question as to why this matters. That comes from the perception of being members of a shared community, and one of the ways in which shared community is manifested is through reference to common values.
A shift to more transactional modes of doing business, a "values-free" approach, is more risky as a way to sustain support for existing policies and institutions. The Euro-Atlantic balance sheet, if assessed in purely transactional terms, does not work out. It makes no sense for Portugal or Estonia to support each other’s defense concerns since, in purely transactional terms, that which threaten one doesn’t threaten the other. If there is no community, then "Germany First" or "America First" approaches make more political sense as strategies to pursue. It also becomes harder to sustain the political will necessary for long-haul investments which pay no immediate short-term political dividends.
One point repeatedly raised during the meetings is that U.S. involvement in European security has been based not only on narrow American national interest but also on shared values. If that component disappears, transactional considerations alone will not generate the level of solidarity necessary to maintain the alliance.