Americans are not enthusiastic about President Biden’s upcoming trip to the Middle East, his first since winning the White House. In a recent poll, just a quarter of those surveyed liked the idea of the visit; a third disliked it. (Presumably the other 40 percent or so don’t care one way or the other.) The main reason for the high negatives: His stop-off in Saudi Arabia.
During the 2020 election, Biden promised to regard Saudi as a “pariah” nation in stark contrast to President Trump, who treated the royal family as beloved relatives and waved away its assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, an American resident, as an irrelevancy in the face of lucrative arms purchases. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his first major speech, one month into Biden’s term, pledged that the administration’s foreign policy would be “centered on the defense of democracy and the protection of human rights.”
Yet Biden flies off to Riyadh this month, and, whatever nobler reasons have been conjured for the visit, the real one is to ask the Royals to open their oil spigots, in order to reduce gas prices (and thus reduce inflation) while allowing the West to maintain its ban on crude from Russia.
The situation is reminiscent of Biden’s relationship with China. Early in his term, the president said he would hold Beijing “accountable” for its gross human-rights violations. Yet last week, in a five-hour meeting, Blinken urged China’s foreign minister to join America’s side in defending Ukraine from Russia’s aggression.
The point here is not to play gotcha games. Nor is it to argue that the U.S. foreign policy should be based on lofty ideals or hard-headed interests but not both. However, Biden and Blinken erred in declaring that their foreign policy would be “centered” on democracy and human rights—a choice that was bound to make life more difficult as they inevitably sought cooperation with authoritarian regimes.
There are four reasons why indulging in that rhetoric was a mistake.
First, they must have known that, at some point, they would have to saddle up with disreputable leaders—if just to choose the lesser of two evils—and that, by doing so, they would be accused of hypocrisy.
There are often very good reasons for allying with bad people. During World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill formed a powerful alliance with Josef Stalin in order to beat Adolf Hitler; if they hadn’t, on the grounds that Stalin was also evil, then Nazi Germany would have conquered all of Europe.
In less extreme circumstances, world leaders have often contained rivals while cooperating with them where their interests converge. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in an arms race and proxy wars while also negotiating arms-control treaties, keeping nuclear weapons out of other countries’ hands, and jointly developing a smallpox vaccine, among other good deeds. Questions of democracy and anti-democracy had nothing to do with any of it.
Second, highlighting our differences with authoritarian countries, much less underlining those differences as the core of our foreign policy, may have made cooperation—when it’s possible and where it matters—harder to achieve. Would China’s Xi Jinping be more amenable to ditching Russia and helping Ukraine if he didn’t think that sticking by Vladimir Putin would hurt the U.S.? And would he be less keen on hurting the U.S. if Biden hadn’t declared the very nature of China’s government to be a threat? I don’t know the answers—but these seem like a reasonable questions.
Meanwhile, by denouncing Saudi Arabia as “pariah” state (however justifiably), has Biden made it harder for the royal family to supply more oil? Has he given the Saudis more leverage in demanding returns for the favor?
The third problem with declaring that human rights will be the centerpiece of your foreign policy is that, once we side with an authoritarian who violates them on some issue, our criticisms of some other violator won’t be taken seriously. And after that, much of what we say about foreign policy will be regarded with suspicion, if not cynicism. Biden has said he plans to talk sternly to his Saudi hosts about human rights. He will no doubt be sincere, but it’s unlikely that his hosts will take a word of it seriously.
Finally, centering our foreign policy—staking our global standing—on the triumph of democracy and human rights may not be a winning strategy these days. According to Freedom House, just 20 percent of the world’s population is living in a “free country.” Can we form an effective alliance against the other 80 percent?
Besides, the U.S. isn’t quite the beacon of democracy that it once was. Several times since entering office, Biden has declared that, in its competition with authoritarianism (especially China), the U.S. has to show that democratic governments can “do big things.” Yet Congress is so deadlocked, the Supreme Court is so at odds with public opinion, and politics and society are so out of alignment on so many issues that we’re on the verge of showing that we can’t do much after all. To the extent that democracy is still valued in the world, the United States is no longer widely seen as a model to emulate.
This is key. In 1994, on his 90th birthday, George Kennan, the architect of America’s Cold War containment policy, said in a speech looking back on his life and career, “It is primarily by example, never by precept, that a country such as ours exerts its most useful influence beyond its borders.” As if on cue, late last year, after Biden assembled a fairly useless Summit for Democracy, the editors of Politico asked 18 activists in endangered democracies, from Iraq to Poland to India, what Biden should do to help democracy in their countries. The majority replied, essentially: Don’t lecture us; clean up your own problems; become a role model again.
So, should Biden be traveling to Saudi Arabia? Trump made a huge mistake in dismissing Khashoggi’s murder as a trifle—not just as a moral matter but for reasons that any viewer of The Godfather would understand: No prince in a foreign family can be allowed to get away with killing one of our own. Trump should have turned on the pressure, cut off oil imports (when we were in a position to do so), stepped up intel ops against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (who, according to a U.S. intelligence report, personally approved the murder)—everything possible to make sure that everyone saw this as unacceptable.
Alas, it’s a bit late for that now. MBS is more deeply ensconced in Riyadh’s power structure, our leverage on energy supplies is diminished, and so is our leverage in the new Middle Eastern politics, where the Sunni nations—Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait—have formed a coalition with Israel, for the common containment of Iran, quite apart from any involvement, much less leadership, from Washington.
None of this should be read as a defense of ultra-Realpolitik thinking. Our interests mean little without the underlying strength of our values. Our foreign policy should focus, whenever possible, on making the world safer for democracy. It should stand with democratic countries in every forum and conflict. It should speak out on behalf of democratic causes around the world. However, it is impractical—in some instances, it has been and would be counterproductive—to place democratic values at the center of foreign policy, to make a country’s democratic practices the measure of whether we should side with that country on any issue.
Sometimes we don’t have the power to insist that a country follow our example. And sometimes, these days, our example doesn’t have the power to inspire anyone to follow us. That’s what we truly need to focus on.