The tension between realism and idealism, between the obligation to protect U.S. strategic and economic interests and the aspiration to promote democratic and liberal values, has always stood at the center of the American foreign-policy debate.
This tension has again been exposed following the revelations on the involvement of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, an avowed supporter of military and economic activity with Washington, in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In general, when U.S. presidents deem that homeland security is in danger, interests take preference over abstract values. Thus arose the collaboration with the dictator and mass murderer Josef Stalin to defeat the Nazis and the Japanese empire, which constituted an existential threat to the United States.
During the Cold War, the U.S. interest in containing communism necessitated collaboration with fascist regimes in Spain and Portugal, and later with the Chinese mass murderer Mao Zedong. Moreover, the need to protect oil reserves in the Gulf led to the 1945 Quincy Agreement. Franklin D. Roosevelt made a deal with King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, a dark Muslim theocracy that happened to sit on huge energy reserves.
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U.S. presidents have had to defend their policies, driven mainly by considerations of realpolitik that took precedence over Congress and American public opinion, which held that the United States should always fill the role of the good hero, the leader of the Sons of Light. One of the ways to market close relations with various Sons of Darkness was to say that collaboration with authoritarian regimes helps promote domestic political and economic reforms in those countries, and to strengthen the power of the leaders who adopt Western values.
Thus was born the fantasy that the goal of relations with the Chinese dictatorship, which was originally based on strategic considerations and later helped advance American business interests, was to lift up the Chinese middle class. That, in turn, would help create the basis for a transition to liberal democracy in the country, which would be integrated into the global economy. Definitely an attractive fantasy.
The Chinese believed that opening up their economy to international investment and trade, while encouraging the controlled growth of the private market, would let them advance China’s economic might and geopolitical standing, which would help the Communist Party retain power. Thus, instead of a liberal democracy serving as an economic and diplomatic ally of the United States, the Americans got a dictatorship with a mercantilist policy led by a nationalist seeking to weaken the global standing of the United States.
A series of fantasies was produced with the help of Americans in recent years in the Middle East as well. The idea was that it would be possible to preserve America’s hegemony in the region, protecting its interests, through the democratization and liberalization of the Arab world. Regime changes were supposed to transpire as a result of U.S. military pressure as in the case of Iraq, George W. Bush-style, or later, due to support of the Arab Spring, as preached by Barack Obama. These Arabian Nights stories ended badly in places like Iraq, Egypt and Syria.
Donald Trump announced he was abandoning the search for democratic leaders in the Middle East, and that his entire goal was to do business – for example with the young crown prince who rose to power in Saudi Arabia – and to protect U.S. interests.
The truth is that the prince, just like the communist bosses in China, never presented himself as a democrat. His reforms were meant to strengthen the Saudi economy and enable a gradual modernization, with relations with the Trump family part of the strategy to rein in Iran. Meanwhile, the Saudi power struggle was portrayed in the U.S. media and Congress as part of a liberalization led by the young, charismatic prince who has a lot of friends on Wall Street, feels at home in Silicon Valley and may even be able to help Trump reach an Israeli-Palestinian deal. After all, he let Saudi women drive and approved the opening of cinemas in Riyadh’s malls.
But as expectations rose, the disappointment did as well. The Americans discovered in 1989 that, reformists or not, the leaders in Beijing would do everything to retain their power, even at the cost of murdering hundreds of Chinese students.
Likewise, many politicians and journalists are surprised when the Saudi ruler acts in his country’s Istanbul consulate similar to the way he does when running the kingdom – most likely without even being aware of the role of hero the Americans had intended for him.
Leon Hadar is a senior analyst at a geostrategic consulting company.