Several recurring debates animate foreign policy. The most basic is how much foreign policy to have, or how to strike the right balance between addressing domestic issues and problems abroad – in extreme form a debate between isolationism and internationalism. Then there are debates over tools (diplomacy versus sanctions or military force) and means (unilateralism versus multilateralism). In some countries, there are also debates over how foreign policy should be made and carried out; in the United States, for example, this debate involves the role and powers of Congress versus those of the president and the executive branch.
For democracies, though, there is an additional debate over goals. To what extent should foreign policy seek to shape other countries’ internal characteristics, namely by promoting the spread of democracy and human rights, rather than focusing on influencing other countries’ external behavior in an effort to promote hard interests such as security and trade. Call this the debate between idealism and realism.
This is an eternal debate for US leaders and policymakers. Take the case of Saudi Arabia. Relations between the two countries had for three-quarters of a century been mostly cooperative, above all on oil-related matters: In exchange for the Saudis pumping copious amounts (thereby reducing price pressures), the US provided the advanced arms and intelligence the Saudis required for their security.
The two countries also collaborated against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, most notably in Afghanistan. Such common interests more often than not offset persistent differences over the Saudi government’s poor human rights record and the Kingdom’s hostility toward Israel.
President Joe Biden’s administration came into office a year and a half ago determined to alter this pattern and treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah.” The US had concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (widely known as MBS), the country’s de facto ruler and heir apparent to the throne, ordered the 2018 murder in Istanbul of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent journalist and Saudi dissident who was a US permanent resident.
The Biden administration was also deeply opposed to Saudi participation in Yemen’s civil war, a conflict responsible for enormous human suffering. With oil prices low and supplies plentiful (in no small part because of much-expanded US output), and Biden determined to reduce the US footprint in the Middle East and focus on Asia, values appeared to take precedence over economic and security interests for the first time since US-Saudi relations developed in the 1940s.
Now, however, the Biden administration is reportedly considering a change of course, with Biden planning to visit the Kingdom and meet with MBS this summer. It is not difficult to figure out why. Energy prices have skyrocketed, owing to high demand associated with the post-pandemic economic recovery and the sanctions now in place against Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, all of which limit supply.
Higher energy prices are fueling inflation, which has emerged as the greatest economic and political challenge facing the Biden administration. Suddenly, Saudi Arabia, the rare oil producer with the ability to increase output relatively quickly, is a much-needed partner again.
Other factors are at work as well. Several Arab countries in recent years, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have made peace with Israel. Bringing Saudi Arabia, host to the holiest sites in the Muslim world, into the peace camp would have great symbolic and political value. Also paving the way to a presidential visit is Saudi Arabia’s embrace of a cease-fire in Yemen.
What could ultimately prove to be the most important reason, though, is Iran. The US and Saudi Arabia find themselves sharing mounting concern over Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, as well as its support for violent groups in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. It is a classic case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Close cooperation between the Kingdom and the US will be essential if, as seems increasingly likely, diplomatic efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear pact with Iran fail – or fail to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear breakout with little or no notice.
Despite these new considerations, the Biden administration is treading carefully, as it is sure to be attacked for changing its stance. The good news is that there is no reason for the US to abandon its commitment to human rights. The Saudis need US support to stand up to Iran, and as a result can be pushed to improve their treatment of government critics, women, and religious minorities. The result will not be perfect, but the emergence of a more open society is achievable.
There is a larger lesson here. A successful foreign policy for a global power such as the US cannot choose values over interests. A pure, values-centered approach to Saudi Arabia – or toward China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea, for that matter – is unsustainable. The principal measure of a foreign policy is that it prioritizes the country’s security over its preferences. Realism must prevail over idealism. History suggests the ability of a country, even one as powerful as the US, to bring about political reform in other countries is limited.
But this does not mean that the US should ignore democracy and human rights. Foreign policy must reflect the country’s values if it is to enjoy public support and lead over time toward a more democratic world, which is more likely to be peaceful and prosperous and open to cooperation. It is always a matter of degree and of balance. What the Biden administration is contemplating in Saudi Arabia appears to be righting the balance.
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