Don't play the Saudi game
The United States shouldn't be offering security guarantees to one of the world's most repressive regimes.
The announcement of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran was treated as a sign of China’s emergence as a world power with global reach and influence.
The agreement was finalized and announced in China, with China being credited as the facilitator.
That’s one way, and the conventional way, of looking at it. Another, more instructive, way is this: The Saudis using China in a double game against the United States.
There are also discussions taking place about establishing formal diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, in this case superintended by the United States. In those negotiations, the Saudis are reportedly asking for security guarantees from the United States. In part, the Saudis are leveraging U.S. concerns about China to wrest concessions and benefits for themselves.
The United States shouldn’t play the Saudi game. We should be extracting ourselves from the Middle East. And decoupling from both China and Saudi Arabia.
The authoritarian alliance between China and Russia, resplendently on display this week in Moscow, has clarified the geopolitics of our time. The authoritarian alliance seeks three things: dislodge democratic governance as a norm for legitimacy; expand their ability to operate without constraint, particularly from the United States; and reduce the role of market capitalism as the basis of international trade.
Joe Biden has it mostly right when he describes today’s geopolitics as a competition between authoritarianism and democratic capitalism, although he probably wouldn’t use the latter term.
The implications of that for U.S. foreign policy and military posture are complicated and difficult to work out. However, one thing should be blindingly clear: It shouldn’t include giving security guarantees to one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
During the Cold War, the United States supported autocrats in various parts of the world in the effort to contain the spread of Soviet communism. Historians can debate its utility or necessity. However, there is little question that it undermines the credibility of the United States as the champion of the values of democratic capitalism in today’s geopolitical competition.
There is no need to compound that credibility problem this time around. I don’t think this needs to be a new Cold War. But in whatever it is, to a remarkable extent our values and our interests align.
The United States should be attempting to create prosperity and security zones for fellow democracies with market economies. To a certain extent, we are doing it in the security realm, with a reinvigorated NATO, the Quad in the Indo-Pacific, the potential thaw in relations between Japan and South Korea, and AUKUS, the military alliance with Britain and Australia.
In the economic realm, not so much. The goal should be an international free trade zone among democracies with market economies. Instead, the United States is shrinking into protectionism and industrial policy, as are other democratic capitalist countries.
Saudi Arabia has been wrongly regarded as an ally by the foreign policy experts in both parties. In reality, the Saudis have only ever been interested in two things: making money from selling oil and having the United States fight their battles for them.
Those days should be over. The House of Saud is too dependent on using oil revenues to pacify the Saudi populace to use oil as a weapon, as it did in the 1970s. Its battles aren’t our battles, and we shouldn’t be maneuvered into making them so.
In reality, Iran and Saudi Arabia were well on their way to restoring diplomatic relations before China stepped in. And it is telling that China wasn’t asked to do or contribute anything to cement the agreement, other than host the final negotiations and the announcement.
Similarly, Israel and Saudi Arabia have long had interactions outside formal diplomatic channels. They are entirely capable of negotiating the establishment of diplomatic relations without the involvement of the United States, and it is in the security interests of both countries to find a formula that works. Regardless, a U.S. security guarantee for Saudi Arabia should be off the table.
Demography and the limits of state capitalism under Xi will make China a slowly declining economy and power. Global decarbonization will make Saudi Arabia a rapidly declining economy and power over the next decade or two. We shouldn’t overreact, or react at all, to the Saudis playing the China card or China getting more involved in the snake pit of Middle East geopolitics.
Instead, our focus should be on creating and strengthening prosperity and security zones among the world’s democratic capitalist countries. And offering a potential destination and path for developing countries uncluttered and unsullied by our relations with pretend authoritarian allies.
Reach Robb at email@example.com.