Saudi Arabia, the Spring Revolutions, and Realpolitik

When attempting to understand a person or organization, it is often more important to identify what they don’t say than what they do. That being the case, perhaps the most important fact about President Obama’s May 19 middle east speech is that he said nothing about Saudi Arabia. The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria have largely centered around demands for greater political freedoms. President Ben Ali had been president of Tunisia since 1987. President Hosni Mubarak had ruled Egypt since 1981. King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa of Bahrain has been in power since 1999. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has been in power since 1969.

It is no revelation to say that Saudi Arabia is one of the least free nations in the world. The Royal Saud family has been in power since 1932, the year in which the Arab Peninsula became a unified nation-state. Considering Obama’s declaration that people of the middle east have “the right to choose [their] own leaders,” it would seem that Saudi Arabia might be next on the American radar. And this would align tidily with the stated foreign policy doctrines of almost every president since Woodrow Wilson. While there are nuances among the following quotes based on their respective circumstances, each is unmistakably resolute in their willingness to intervene in the interest of liberty:

“The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make.” Woodrow Wilson

“I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures.” Harry Truman

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” John F. Kennedy

“Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.” George W. Bush

Such quotes are typical of “Wilsonian idealism.”  Realism (or realpolitik), the belief that America should identify its critical national interests and cultivate flexible responses to secure those interests, arguably is the foreign policy doctrine most directly opposed to idealism. Proponents of realpolitik tend to be skeptical of the statements made above because they constrain America’s capacity for flexible policy responses and often require it to act in ways that are not in it’s chief interests. Further, by extension, they are skeptical of the international community’s, let alone America’s, ability to deliver on these grand aims. The following are examples of realist thought:

“America cannot—and will not—conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions, and undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world.” Richard Nixon

“We cannot, indeed, we should not, do everything or be everywhere. But where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so.” Bill Clinton

So what does it mean, then, when Barack Obama mentions Libya, Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Tunisia in his speech but not Saudi Arabia? Let’s be clear: a reliable supply of reliably cheap oil is arguably the most chief of America’s national interests. Assuming that to be true, the fact that Saudi Arabia is our third largest supplier of oil (more than a million barrels per day) means that America’s interest in the stability of Saudi Arabia outweighs it’s interest in the freedom of Saudi Arabia.

Ergo, Barack Obama is a realist.

My Take

I think America does itself a disservice by promoting it’s values ahead of it’s interests. Make no mistake, the United States has values and the promotion of those values is itself a national interest. Thus, I am not unaware of the shortcomings of a pure interests-values dichotomy.

But America’s values as a national interest, must compete with it’s other national interests, many of which outweigh America’s values and I see nothing wrong with making it explicitly clear to the world that this is the case. First, I too am skeptical of any sustainable attempt to forego America’s interests in favor of its values. America will abandon its attempts to democratize Saudi Arabia once oil prices reach 200 dollars a barrel, just as it abandoned Vietnam after 58,000 United States deaths. Eventually, the American public grows too weary to continue. Second, our inflexibility allows foreign actors to manipulate the declarations we impose on ourselves. Iran is given greater incentive to support Hezbollah in Lebanon and Pakistan is given greater incentive to support Al Qaeda in Pakistan because they can count on an unguided “whack-a-mole” foreign policy approach from the United States and because the United States will ultimately deem it easier to attack the agent than the principal.

Let me address what I think is a fair criticism of the realist approach. It essentially goes that the realist approach gives dictators additional incentive to sway America’s cost-benefit analysis in the dictators’ favor. For example, North Korea is immune from American intervention because of it’s enormous military, created at the expense of a starving populace. Pakistan is immune because of its nuclear program and its unstable population. China is immune because of its enormous military and its purchases of foreign treasury bonds.  In each case, it is fairly arguable that these undesirable circumstances are the result of a determination that America bases it’s decisions based on a realist paradigm.

This criticism assumes that America would faithfully adhere to an idealist approach. I think that has yet to be demonstrated.

Instead, America’s idealist rhetoric rightfully subjects itself to mistrust in the international community and therefore becomes a weapon for the fringe groups of the international community. America needs to be clear that it supports democratic change in the middle east, but that it needs to be equally clear that it will not do so at the cost of its economy. A collapsing American economy is a greater threat to the very nations it seeks to help than are the corrupt leaders of those nations. And greater consistency by America weakens many of the weapons that our enemies use against us.


5 thoughts on “Saudi Arabia, the Spring Revolutions, and Realpolitik

  1. You have misunderstood Realism in the context of American power. For instance, ” North Korea is immune from American intervention because of it’s enormous military, created at the expense of a starving populace” is entirely false. North Korea is extremely week compared to the United States. Wikipedia tells me it spends a measly $5 billion on it, the same amount John Paulson made last year and approximately 0.7% of Pentagon spending (about $700b). Is this supposed to be a joke?

    Also, Pakistan is the in the eye of the storm in the war against al Qaeda. The Pakistani government is lying to its people about opposition to US drone attacks, precisely because they have no choice but to comply with US demands for access. Historically, Pakistan has been an obedient client state of the US because it relies on US protection. US patronage has allowed it to compete militarily with India, which is much larger and more powerful.

    The US accounts for half of global military spending. Realism (realpolitik) is the idea that states interact according to balance of power principles. The implication is too obvious to spell out.

    You can read more about it here:

  2. You have taken possibly the most narrow view of realism possible. Having read “Diplomacy” by Kissinger, I understand realism to mean the paradigm in which states act according to their own national interests and of which balance of power is an important factor.

    If you construe realism more broadly, my proposition is not so off the mark.

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