The Biggest Stake for Biden’s Saudi Visit

No one doubts that President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia signifies a moral climb down. It is no secret that Americans will not tolerate high gasoline prices, and very few will object if we turn a blind eye to the political repression epitomized in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.    

But our moral risk goes much further.  As diplomat Martin Indyk notes, energy price hikes reflect our sanctions on Russia for the invasion of Ukraine.  Must we coddle up to one dictator to support resistance to another?  Why can’t we absorb some of the pain, take measures to mitigate it by our own means – pumping more oil and gas, shipping more to Europe, supporting our poorer citizens – and thus show some mettle in our opposition to Vladimir Putin?

No one really knows what Putin’s goals were in his aggression.  We can see his interest in showing the West as morally weak, and perhaps in demonstrating that our expressions of value are trumped by exercises of power.  If values are proven to be delusions or sham in international affairs, his competitive position improves.  If we cannot keep up our support of Ukraine without kissing the ring of the Saudi Crown Prince, we make Putin’s case for him, even if he didn’t fully intend it himself.  And we do it over a few bucks a gallon for gasoline.

There are several things at stake in Ukraine, for which we do need to show integrity and resolve.  Much has been said about our liberal world order, about the security of Europe, about NATO’s political soundness.  Common language talks about democracy.  We should be clear: these stakes are actually of secondary importance, or not fully on the line in Ukraine.

One particular stake is paramount.  Putin brazenly violated a widely held norm of non-aggression.  He invaded Ukraine unilaterally and without armed provocation.  He nakedly used armed force simply to take what he wanted from another country.  Since 1945, there has been one other case of such naked armed aggression, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.  Of all the shooting wars that have been fought, every other case involves at least a credible claim of self-defense or imminent threat, of disputed borders, of interference in the invader’s country, of the invaded state’s illegitimacy.  Saddam’s invasion was rolled back by force of arms, under a U.S. led coalition.  

In a world with no norm that deems armed aggression illegitimate, might makes right.  Whatever the oversteps and selfish nearsightedness of U.S. policy, since 1945 the strongest nation in the world restrained its use of power to ensconce that norm.  Whoever deserves credit for it, this norm serves everyone’s interest – the rule of force is unpredictable and arbitrary and even the powerful live riskier lives if raw power goes unrestrained. The Realist may say that power is still the determinant of relations among nations.  But even if it’s an artificial convention, losing the principle of non-aggression would fully re-cast international relations as a state of nature. 

Acceding to the power of the pump to oppose Putin’s Ukraine aggression makes a double case against the principle of non-aggression.  Power forces the ostensibly principled to resort to power, and additionally to legitimate another ruler who accepts only power.  Either the world is truly the dog-eat-dog arena that the Putins say, or we lack the moral fiber to show otherwise.  We re-open the question whether right, as opposed to might, matters.

We should make clear that this norm of non-aggression is our overriding objective as we face Putin.  This principle is truly at stake, vital, and sufficient to call us not only to hit Putin but absorb his hits.  We need to concert our actions to that end, and not divert our efforts to other goals, or to peripheral considerations.  If we cite other motives, we cast doubt on our commitment to any of them.  If we name a purpose that we don’t maintain, we show the same weakness as in Biden’s call on the Saudis.  And, by the way, we don’t protect democracy in Ukraine.  Ukraine has been democratizing but is not a full democracy.  Taiwan, as a pregnant side note, is a free country in every sense of the term.  Our effort in Ukraine is not for an incomplete democracy.  It is to inflict punitive defeat on a blatant aggressor, clearly, for all the world to understand, for the norm of non-aggression.  Democracies will benefit immensely from that outcome, as will NATO, European security, and even, perhaps, a rules-based order.   The Saudi trip cannot be undone, so American policy needs to bear down all the harder in a coherent campaign to defeat Putin, for the principle of non-aggression, with moral integrity and resolve.  

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