Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Ironies abound in the current Ukraine crisis. And surely one of the cruelest is this: Even as President Joe Biden’s administration stands up for Ukraine in the face of Russia’s aggression and preaches the values of democracy and freedom, it is under increasing pressure to make nice and cut deals with authoritarians.
The spirit of democracy might be alive and well in the struggle to preserve Ukraine’s independence. But from Venezuela to Iran to the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration’s interests (oil and regional stability) are competing and perhaps clashing head on with its values. And by the looks of things, hard, cold interests may well win out.
Casting aside the values vacation of his predecessor, who gravitated toward courting authoritarian leaders, Biden sought to make the fight for democracy the central element of his foreign policy – a grand struggle with authoritarians for control in the 21st century.
What gave Biden’s battle for democracy argument real resonance and elevated it from presidential rhetoric to action, however, was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, Putin’s aggression made Biden seem prescient and energized American leadership, which had been badly undermined after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last August.
The Ukraine moment – symbolized by a valiant comedian-turned wartime leader and his military’s heroic resistance against the Russian invaders – seemed to confirm that Biden’s grand struggle in defense of democracies was not just an empty slogan but a serious threat and challenge.
But if the democratic moment was at hand, it was quickly sullied by the politics and economics of oil.
Putin’s invasion and the sanctions that followed triggered a global energy crisis that raised the price of crude, natural gas and the price of gas at the pump, only adding to the inflationary pressures already in play. And while the Ukraine crisis became a poster child for the need to break Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas in favor of a greater reliance on renewables, it also created an immediate demand/supply problem.
Putin’s invasion rallied the democracies of the world. But paradoxically for the Biden administration and others, it also deepened its dependence on three authoritarian petro-states (Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) and increased the urgency of getting to a nuclear agreement with a fourth, Iran.
Enter “crude” diplomacy. First up was Venezuela. Last week, a high-level US delegation met with President Nicolás Maduro, the highest contact in years with an agenda that focused not only on oil but freeing Americans held hostage by his regime. The visit might also have been a signal to Russia, that the US was looking to improve relations with Moscow’s most important Latin American ally.
Given the run-down state of Venezuelan oil infrastructure, it’s not clear how much relief it could provide. And the backlash in Congress against any softening of US policy made it hard to imagine any sustained outreach to the Maduro regime. But clearly, the Biden administration had made a start that would have been unlikely without the exigencies of the oil situation.
The administration has also sought to improve ties with Gulf oil producers, specifically Saudi Arabia and the UAE, perhaps the only two producers that have the kind of spare capacity that might increase production by meaningful amounts.
Last month, the President apparently tried to reach out by phone to both Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the UAE’s Mohammed bin Nayef. Both declined, even though each later accepted calls from Putin. And as if to add insult to injury, Saudi Arabia is inviting Chinese President Xi to visit, a clear sign that the once special relationship with Washington has frayed and been weakened as the Saudis hedge their bets by maintaining ties with both Russia and China.
Relations with both countries have been strained; but the real challenge for Biden is Saudi Arabia, whose human rights abuses, especially the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 prompted then-candidate Biden to describe Saudi Arabia as a pariah.
Indeed, as president, Biden adopted a policy of boycotting any personal contact with the prince. That Biden is now reaching out to him without any accounting or accountability for his role in the Khashoggi murder (confirmed by the US intelligence community, though denied by the Prince, is a testament to how oil is now informing the administration’s thinking.
And there’s even discussion among Biden’s advisers of a possible visit to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, it appears that Secretary of State Antony Blinken might be visiting Saudi Arabia as early as next week.
It seems clear that US policy toward Saudi Arabia is softening. Indeed, there has yet been no US condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s mass execution last week of 81 people.
US negotiations with Iran to restore the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by the Trump Administration had long pre-dated the Ukraine crisis. But it was surely intensified by Putin’s invasion. Preoccupied with a war in Europe, the administration rightly worried about a nuclear crisis in the Middle East.
The goal – now as then – was to constrain an Iranian nuclear program that, left uncontrolled, might have resulted in an Israeli strike leading to a regional war and US military intervention. A deal would also have the added benefit of bringing Iranian oil on line.
The price the US would have to pay was an agreement removing sanctions from an authoritarian regime and serial human rights abuser, in exchange for limits on its nuclear program that would fill its financial coffers from oil sales.
The agreement, however, would neither limit its ballistic missiles or contain its malign regional behavior. For these reasons, and because Iran is so close to Russia and China, should a deal be reached, Republicans and a good many Democrats in Congress will do everything they can to oppose it. Indeed, a deal would feed the notion that the administration is just placating another authoritarian actor.
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When asked what was the greatest challenge for a statesman, former UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan replied, “Events, dear boy, events.” It’s still early and the Ukraine crisis may provide real momentum for strengthening democracies and weakening authoritarian leaders.
One could always hope that the administration that led that fight would seek to hold to those values and not court authoritarians who had made common cause with Moscow and Beijing in the midst of a crisis. And maybe they will. But there’s a pretty good chance we’ll go back to business as usual. Biden’s promised reassessment of relations with Saudi Arabia won’t occur.
America’s interests will continue to take precedence over values. And for all the talk of a transformed world after Ukraine, some things just aren’t going to change.