The Ethics of Alliances

| July 2016
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For the first time since the immediate post-World War II elections, the subject of America’s alliances is again emerging as a topic for debate. What sort of commitments the United States should make, how long they are binding, and under what conditions the United States can and should exit those obligations–whether of a security or an economic nature–are all issues now part of the election process. Two bi-partisan open letters released in recent days–one drafted by Ali Wyne, a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and the second written by former senior civilian and military leaders serving in both Republican and Democratic administrations–focus attention on the risks the United States and the liberal world order more generally will suffer if precipitous action damages America’s existing alliance structure.

Alongside the security and policy considerations, there are also ethical concerns at work. The worth of promises, the obligation to keep oaths, the requirement to share burdens, the consideration of not misusing or abusing relationships–all of these factor into the current debate over alliances.

George Washington famously warned against entering into what he termed “entangling alliances” in 1796, and two years later, the Adams administration unilaterally abrogated the alliance with France. Certainly, there is precedent for American withdrawal from treaties and treaty commitments if they are deemed to have outlived their usefulness, carry greater cost than benefit, or risk national security. On the other hand, the interwar experience tended to confirm that an unwillingness to enter into or support commitments could create chaotic conditions that ultimately required a far higher price to be paid to restore some semblance of global order and security.

The debate we are seeing unfold also revolves around different conceptions of what alliance entails. One view is that an alliance represents a merger of assets and resources among states who face a common threat and who, by pooling together their efforts, can contain and overcome that threat at a lower cost and with less risk than if each country attempted to do so on its own. The ethics of this type of alliance rest on the obligation to share burdens and risks in the face of that common threat, and to not allow that threat to peel off allies one from the other but to stand firm. It also requires a sense of compromise among the allies in terms of determining when the threat has been sufficiently dealt with and under what conditions, meaning that all alliance members may not realize a maximalist agenda.

A different conception of alliance revolves around the idea of allies forming a larger community of states (bound together by shared values, interests, or some mix of the two) where the existence of the community is a net benefit to all, even if not all members share equally in its benefits. Crucial to any community-building project is the requirement to be prepared to make sacrifices even if one’s own immediate interests are not threatened or affected, for the benefit of holding that community together.

Over time, an alliance may evolve from dealing with a shared danger to become the basis for a shared community. At other times, the disappearance of the shared danger may weaken the rationale or support for continued burden-sharing and sacrifice among alliance members. What can become problematic, however, is when the voters of a democracy who have supported the creation of an alliance based on dealing with a shared danger are not asked whether to sustain that alliance under different or changed conditions.

Of critical importance is the relationship between sacrifice and benefit. Does the ally expect a proportionate balance between investment into the alliance and the benefits received, or does the ally accept that there will be a disproportionate relationship and accepts this either because it sees this as part of maintaining community, or because the alternative–having the alliance collapse altogether–creates an even less inviting and beneficial regional or global reality? (For instance, a state may choose to sustain a commitment to maintain the independence and territorial integrity of a “keystone state” because of its role in sustaining a peaceful and prosperous region that ultimately benefits the patron, even if, in the short run, the alliance is a net loss for the sponsoring state.)

What is clear is that the disappearance of U.S. alliances with European and Asian partners would probably be a net negative for those states. What remains up for debate is whether a worsened state for others would translate into a net negative or positive for the United States. What set of ethical considerations should guide those calculations?

America’s partners around the world are taking note that the autopilot that has characterized U.S. alliance policy for the last several decades cannot be taken for granted. Will the emphasis be, then, on showcasing a shared threat that requires renewal of those alliances, or appealing to the community that has emerged as a result of and from the protection of those alliances? We are sure to see this become a factor in the upcoming debates.

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