Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.


Michael LeighSenior adviser at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

The European Union has placed “values” at the center of its nascent foreign and security policy. Member states agree, in principle, on the importance of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights, as well as the territorial integrity of states and the inviolability of frontiers. But in practice, each EU member state gives priority to its own “interests,” notably trade, contracts, and access to energy sources. Member states delegate values to the EU while they pursue classic state interests.

But the EU is ill equipped to deal with foreign leaders who palpably do not share European values. Confronted with former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, or Russian President Vladimir Putin—let alone religious fanatics, warlords, and assorted dictators—the EU can do little more than grant humanitarian assistance and implement limited sanctions.

Brussels-based institutions and member states must act together if the EU is to carry weight with regimes that play by their own rules. The post of EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy was created to bring coherence to EU external actions, bridging the values-interests gap. On August 30, EU leaders meet to select the next foreign policy chief. When they do so, faced with massive challenges to European values and interests around the Mediterranean and in Eastern Europe, they should set aside the usual politicking and nominate an experienced and credible candidate.


Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe

Every English schoolboy is brought up on Lord Palmerston’s famous dictum “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” In fact, that was not true when Lord Palmerston was British prime minister in the nineteenth century, and it is less true today.

For democracies, values lie at the heart of identity and a sense of worth. London has just hosted a major world conference on mutilating little girls’ genitals in the name of patriarchy or faith. There is some British interest here, as such mutilations inside the UK are costly to health services. But this about an assertion of values. Nondemocracies or not-quite democracies worry less about values, but they have stunted states, economies, and societies as a result.

The task of leadership is to align values and interests. European values were supported in 1999 when NATO’s bombing campaign put an end to Serbia’s slaughter and oppression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, but that suited European interests as it slowed the tsunami of asylum seekers from the former Yugoslavia.

Right now, interests and values are in competition over dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Interests are winning out—just. But the Kremlin and Putin appeasers in EU capitals would be foolish to think values can be ignored forever.


Alexander MattelaerActing academic director of the Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Interests consistently trump values in Europe. The division of labor between national capitals and EU institutions reveals this clearly. High-minded rhetoric dresses the shared aspirations of all European states, yet national selfishness lurks behind every corner. Talented press officers have a knack for covering up this implicit hierarchy. Only when interests and values clash on a matter of grave importance does this permanent conflict become painfully visible.

The downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 constitutes a case in point. For many years, member states have been closing deals with Russia without putting their money where their collective mouth is. Yet with over 200 EU citizens killed, business as usual becomes impossible.

While it is easy to lament this state of affairs, it may be more practical to simply get on with the job at hand. The priority of interests over values does not have to entail the triumph of cynicism. After all, European states do share a considerable number of interests. Maintaining the rule of law and democracy in Europe is one such interest. Drawing a line in the sand when confronted with brutality does not need to be inspired by values when it can be more strongly justified as a matter of self-preservation.


Roderick ParkesHead of the Europe Program at the Polish Institute for International Affairs

The EU’s goal in the world is to sustain its values, and the union derives its interests from that. So no, almost by definition, its interests can’t trump its values. If material concerns are nevertheless clouding the EU’s behavior, it’s for a different reason. Means are trumping ends: the EU’s aims in its Eastern neighborhood are as liberal as ever, but its pursuit of them via economic sanctions is hurting it and dimming its enthusiasm.

It’s the usual problem: liberals feel the need to achieve their high-minded ends by equally high-minded means, and it always ties them in knots. Repeated failures led liberals to develop realpolitik—the pursuit of high ends by realistic means. Now, there are calls for European liberals to reclaim realpolitik from the romantic nationalists (such as Russian President Vladimir Putin) who have appropriated its dirty means and painted liberal realists as hypocrites.

But that’s too hasty. If the EU wants to be more realistic about its means, it should start by being less defeatist. The EU has constructive channels of influence available to it besides sanctions. But the union has been scarred by setbacks in its Eastern and Southern neighborhoods. No surprises there. While romantic failures somehow count as heroic (Putin again), liberal failures are deemed delusional. The EU should have a little more confidence in itself.


András SimonyiManaging director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University

Forced to choose between its values and money, Europe instinctively chooses money. Europeans have become complacent. There is little understanding for the threats that the West’s liberal and democratic way of life faces from the outside.

Yet fundamental values must be defended: there is no long-term prosperity for all without freedom. There seems to be less and less empathy for and solidarity with others who still suffer from authoritarian rule and illiberal regimes in Europe’s neighborhood. Economic cooperation globally is welcome, but not at any price.

Europe has made itself dependent on Russian gas and has made itself vulnerable. Shortsighted business interests have prevented the right measure of actions against Russia. The halfhearted decision by EU foreign ministers on July 22 to impose further sanctions is telling, and France’s insistence on delivering its Mistral-class battleships to Russia is a case in point.

There was and is no desire in Europe to pay the price for a tough stance toward Russia. If such an approach had been taken early and courageously, it would have prevented the escalation of the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the arming of the pro-Russian insurgents, and the sad and senseless deaths of some 300 civilians aboard flight MH17. True leadership is about values, and it is time for Europe to realize this.


Ulrich SpeckVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

Fortunately, Europe’s long-term interests coincide with its values. Strengthening the liberal-democratic order and market economy is not just a lofty value. It’s a hard-core European interest, as this kind of order allows people to live more freely, more safely, and more prosperously than in other systems. And the more this kind of order is globally prevalent, the better for those interests and values.

The problem is how to get there. The road from autocracy or disorder to liberal democracy is usually a long and rocky one. New elites push old ones aside. New forms of legitimacy conflict with traditional ones. Sadly, this often involves violence. And it can take years, or even decades, not just to build institutions but also to change mentalities.

Because these transitions offer only long-term gains but short-term pain, Europe has a strong incentive to support short-term stability in its neighborhood at the expense of promoting long-term democratization. Even more so as autocrats are good at delivering on Europe’s short-term interests. They keep people and trouble away from Europe, they deliver commodities, and they buy high-tech and luxury goods.

And yet, there is a price to pay for neglecting long-term interests. Autocratic stability is fake, as it merely postpones conflict and makes it much more violent when it does occur—see Iraq or Syria today. Unfortunately, politicians are notoriously bad at taking longer-term costs into account. They need to be reminded about them as often as possible.


Richard YoungsSenior associate in Carnegie’s Democracy and Rule of Law Program

The debate over interests versus values is a long-running discussion that elicits some of the sharpest internal differences within EU foreign policy making. In fact, the question presents the policy challenge in an unduly simplistic fashion. The dichotomy between interests and values is not absolute. The more pertinent question is: What kind of defense of long-term international norms is necessary for the EU’s own strategic and economic self-interest?

In the current context, the issue is not simply one of the justifications for more critical responses to Russia and Israel—although these certainly exist. More important are the tensions between short-term and long-term interests.

The EU certainly has a vision of global order within which interests and values are said to converge. But in practice, that view tends to prioritize not long-term systemic goals but intermediate aims—retaining engagement and keeping a place at the diplomatic table. The weakness of policy habitually lies in the EU’s inability to map out how such intermediate steps feed into the longer-term goal of defending certain global liberal principles.

So, quite apart from any normative blindness involved, can those member states currently selling advanced military equipment to rule-flouting Russia or Israel demonstrate that this furthers—rather than compromises—Europe’s own security interests?

If the EU were able to rectify this weakness, it would be better able to specify the link between certain values and particular interests. This suggests the way forward needs to be more nuanced than simply debating whether or not the EU needs to “get tough” with the world’s recalcitrant stokers of conflict and instability—however justified the moral outrage at recent events in Gaza and eastern Ukraine.