Western (and especially US) foreign policy makes absolutely no sense – whether from a moral perspective or from the perspective of what benefits Western citizens.
This point is illustrated by a recent video of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss being quizzed by Labour MP Chris Bryant. The video begins with Truss describing the Gulf states as “partners of the United Kingdom”, though she clarifies that not “every country we work with is exactly in line with United Kingdom policy on everything”.
Bryant then asks her about Jamal Khashoggi (the journalist who was brutally murdered on the orders of the Saudi Crown Prince). Rather than condemning the murder, Truss skirts around the issue, explaining that Saudi Arabia “is an important partner of the United Kingdom”.
Bryant proceeds to ask Truss for a single example of where she held the Gulf states to account on human rights issues, but she is unable to name one.
Truss’s brazen realpolitik on Saudi Arabia contrasts with her zealous moralising on Russia. Back in February, she actually encouraged Brits to go and fight as mercenaries in Ukraine – something that’s not only illegal under international law, but possibly under British law too. Truss’s suggestion had to be quickly rolled back by her colleagues.
For Truss, who will most likely be our next Prime Minister, Russia is an authoritarian regime that must be condemned. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is “an important partner of the United Kingdom”. Does this make any sense at all?
Saudi Arabia is a more authoritarian state. And like Russia, it has a record of bombing civilians in neighbouring countries. According to the Yemen Data Project, almost 9,000 Yemenis have been killed in Saudi air strikes since 2015. There’s also the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Yemen, for which Saudi Arabia is partly responsible.
The reason we pander to Saudi Arabia is obvious: they have oil. (Another reason is that the country serves as a regional counterweight to Iran, Israel’s main geopolitical rival. And I guess the enemy of the enemy of my friend is my friend.)
Now, pandering to the Saudis because they have oil is actually not a bad reason. After all, the West needs a lot of oil, and we don’t produce nearly enough to satisfy our demands. (Canada, Norway and Denmark are the only net exporters.) However, it’s obviously not a moral reason.
In fact, if our policy towards Saudi Arabia was based on moral considerations, it would look rather different. For example, we might refuse to buy their oil.
Which raises the question: why are we refusing to buy Russian oil? It can’t be the moral reason that we won’t do business with authoritarian regimes that bomb their neighbours, since we are doing business with Saudi Arabia, our “important partner”.
So is it a strategic reason?
I can’t see how. If Western sanctions had turned the rouble to “rubble”, as Joe Biden promised, the war might have been over quickly, with Russia significantly weakened. But they’ve had no such effect. And it’s unclear how paying vastly more for energy is in the strategic interest of Europeans.
As Richard Hanania argues, Western foreign policy is best understood as the outcome of various interest groups (like defence contractors and foreign governments) jostling for influence. It isn’t based on any moral or strategic principles.