Recent weeks have seen major commentators and political scientists from across the spectrum raising the question over Western policies towards dictators around the Middle East and in Venezuela are out of data, and are superseded by our desire to maintain global solidarity against the world order shattering actions in Ukraine.
The discourse on this belies three major points that have not been made clear enough by the Biden administration, missed even by the foreign policy experts themselves.
The first is that the unity against Putin is not the result of the military actions themselves, however egregious Putin’s crimes against humanity may have been. The rhetorical buildup and resulting sanctions were instead about challenging the notion that in the modern era, a state can break up the fundamental rules based world order by using force to erase a fellow nation-state off of the map, and yet still benefit from the order through trade, the international finance system, and participation in the same organizations whose purposes it so clearly violates.
The arguments that the world is being split between populists and liberal states, autocracies and democracies, or even polar East-West or Russian-American orbit are myopic in that they miss the fundamental precedence shattering meaning behind Putin’s actions. The spectrum is between those who argue that using force to redraw border lines in 2022 is illegitimate, or those who refuse to take a moral stance. That includes major world democracies, like Israel, India, Brazil, and South Africa. What is worth noting, though, is that the majority of the nominal democracies who have tolerated Putin’s actions are either themselves nuclear armed, or they represent the dominant regional powers in their respective spheres. In other words, they themselves do not fear that the precedent of “might makes right” will threaten their sovereign borders any time soon.
This cynical reasoning is why Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, as consolidated militarized autocracies, care little about maintaining the world order. Excusing their excesses by tacitly endorsing the bloodletting of those regimes is unlikely to change that, nor is it necessary to preserve America’s fuel prices, which just like the stock market is manipulated by feelings and not supply shortages. They will never whole heartedly join a coalition of states in support of a set of values they care little for.
Moreover, on the largest issue of importance to those Sunni Middle Eastern states, those same talking heads suggest that the US unilaterally reimplement the JCPOA nuclear arrangement, even though this deal, unlike mere harsh language, represents the largest substantive geopolitical gap between the US and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and even Israel.
The Saudi regime cares significantly more about a nuclearized Iran fomenting Shia insurgencies in their vicinity than they do about mean words, and yet dealing with that issue is the last item on the agenda for those suggesting detente, imagining that the Saudis will accept mere symbolic reconciliation without concessions on the Iran deal.
Notwithstanding any of this, the fact remains that the United States produces more oil than it consumes, although it imports millions of barrels a day because the grades drilled in the US do not exactly match American refining capacities. Still, the notion that America must, once again, put human rights and democracy a step below oil prices is a falsehood, perpetrated by the same naive neoliberal order that claimed that China’s rise would end in democracy, and that sanctions would bring North Korea to the negotiating table and prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons. Oil prices increasingly have little basis in the supplies imported to the US, and the US has a surplus of supply in any case, making this argument irrelevant.
Even if Saudi Arabia did somehow accede to Western demands and increased oil output for the benefit of the West, the promises of an autocrat are as fickle as the prices themselves. There, of course, is no guarantee that a supply glut would even decrease prices, nor is there a promise that once new dependencies are established between the West and its new suppliers, that those regimes wouldn’t simply change political course. This would leave the West newly dependent on a different set of autocracies, who in their own ways also disrespect the world order.
The US, if it is to preserve the basis of its shift towards a focus on democratization and human rights, to combat the authoritarian slide over the past several years, it must not cynically waver on its most valued principles based on a whim that such an abasement might mildly affect consumer prices.
Such suggestions are not only short sighted, they are myopic towards the wider geopolitical trends which suggest that the overall increase in first the tolerance and then practice of authoritarianism over the past few years has been in large part due to these neoliberal delusions.
The Soviet Union was not defeated through concessions, nor through war, it was through a global coalition that strangled the ability of an expansionist totalitarian power to thrive, and the strong willed resistance of a hegemon that, while imperfect, broadly constituted the values that it projected.
If America loses that and becomes a slave to its own worst impulses, sacrificing global stability and its outward commitment to human freedom, all for the promises of a couple of two-bit dictators to increase commodity supplies, it begs the question of whether American hegemony is worth defending any longer.