The Viscosity of Alliances
Balancing is hard to do
At its core, the realist view of security alliances is that they are more like flings than long-term relationships. The essence of balancing behavior is that as the distribution of power shifts, so do the alliance patterns of great powers and middle-range states. Alliances are therefore ephemeral. Through balancing against the greatest power, or the greatest threat, states attempt to ensure their own survival and, in some realist theories, reduce the likelihood of war.
Of course, this is not how all international relations scholars think about alliances. Liberals look at an alliance and see an institution — you know, like marriage. Security-seeking alliances surely exist, but sometimes an alliance is driven by other, more long-lasting impulses. Maybe it’s about regime type, in which birds of a feather stick together. Or maybe it’s about alliances permitting a greater division of labor. Or maybe some states choose alliances to enhance their autonomy rather than their security.
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Sometimes alliances are much stickier than realists predict — even alliances that seem pretty realpolitik from the outside.
Which brings me to the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Over the past few years it would be safe to say that the two states shifted their relationship status to “it’s complicated.” That’s understandable. KSA does not like the bipartisan U.S. intent to reduce its military footprint in the greater Middle East, or the occasional U.S. impulse to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. The United States dislike list is even longer: Washington is less than thrilled with how the Saudis prosecute the war in Yemen, export religious extremism, and dismember U.S. residents critical of the regime.
KSA got along pretty well with the Trump administration (remember the orb?), but Biden was different. In 2020 he campaigned on turning Saudi Arabia into a “pariah.” Instead, this summer Biden did the one thing politicians genuinely don’t like to do and broke a campaign promise. This was a serious, costly reversal for Biden: as NBC News reported at the time, “the Saudis demanded nothing short of personal presidential attention to make amends for Biden having maligned the deeply conservative kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), over the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.” Biden visited Saudi Arabia and even gave a fist bump to MbS.
The Biden White House paid a high political price but believed that the United States had secured an agreement from the Saudis to increase oil output, which would assist in preventing Russia from profiting from its geopolitical bad behavior. As it turns out, not so much. Instead, in October OPEC+ agreed to cut oil output by 2 million barrels a day.
President Biden vowed on Tuesday to impose “consequences” on Saudi Arabia for teaming up with Russia to cut oil production, signaling a rupture in the relationship between two longtime allies and a reversal of his own effort to cultivate the energy-rich kingdom.
Amid deep anger over last week’s decision by the Saudi-led OPEC Plus, Mr. Biden’s staff announced that he would re-evaluate the entire relationship with Saudi Arabia and expressed openness to retaliatory measures offered by congressional Democrats such as curbing arms sales or permitting legal action against the cartel.
“There’s going to be some consequences for what they’ve done with Russia,” Mr. Biden told CNN’s Jake Tapper in an interview broadcast on Tuesday night. The president would not specify his options or his timetable, leaving the details intentionally vague. “I’m not going to get into what I’d consider and what I have in mind. But there will be consequences.”
Later on in the story Baker quotes a welter of U.S. senators, including Dick Durbin and Bob Menendez, who were even more upset.
This all makes sense: the US-KSA alliance has a long history but rickety foundations. The more that the Saudis contravene core U.S. interests (and vice versa), the more it would seem like a classic realpolitik alliance would dissolve. There were both liberal and realist arguments for seeing this alliance weaken.
Baker also wrote that, “it was not clear how far Mr. Biden was willing to go, or whether he was using the public comments as a warning to Saudi Arabia or as an effort to quiet domestic critics who have faulted him for being soft on the kingdom.”
That leads to Karen DeYoung’s latest for the Washington Post on the current state of the alliance: “Biden’s ‘consequences’ for Saudi Arabia are reaping quiet results.”:
Despite its furious reaction to Saudi Arabia’s decision last month to cut oil production in the face of global shortages, and threats of retaliation, the Biden administration is looking for signs that the tight, decades-long security relationship between Washington and Riyadh can be salvaged….
The White House, as it considers how to make good on Biden’s “consequences” pledge and despite its ongoing anger, has become uneasy over the reaction its sharp response has provoked at home. Rather than moving quickly to respond, it is playing for time, looking for ways to bring the Saudis back in line while preserving strong bilateral security ties.
“Are we rupturing the relationship? No,” said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity about what has become a sensitive political and diplomatic situation. “We had a fundamental disagreement on the state of the oil market and the global economy, and we are reviewing what transpired.”
“But we have important interests at stake in this relationship,” the official said.
The rest of DeYoung’s story delineates the equities both sides have in the relationship: intelligence and defense cooperation, Saudi reliance on U.S. weapons systems, ensuring a common defense against Iran. There’s a lot of asset-specific investments by both sides that are costly to dislodge.
DeYoung’s story also suggests that the Saudis have made some moves to repair the breach:
In addition to a Saudi vote in favor of last month’s U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s illegal annexation of four regions of Ukraine, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, called President Volodymyr Zelensky to tell him Saudi Arabia would contribute $400 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, far more than its only previous donation of $10 million in April.
The Saudis have been actively supportive of a recent truce in Yemen that the Biden administration has championed. And after years of U.S. effort to persuade the Persian Gulf countries to adopt a regional missile defense system against Iran, long resisted by the Saudis, the administration believes it is finally making headway.
Two thoughts about all of this. The first is that MbS better be rolling out more policy accommodations over the next few months, because what’s listed above is weak beer compared to the OPEC+ decision.
The second thought, however, is just how sticky 21st century alliances seem to be. There are a lot of reasons why the United States and Saudi Arabia might want a political divorce, but it seems like that is not going to happen anytime soon. Just as the Trump administration failed to extricate itself from NATO and other alliances Trump disdained, so it is with Biden and Saudi Arabia.
Lots of observers, myself included, are concerned about the U.S. ability to credibly commit during this polarized, populist age. Maybe the ballast of U.S. alliances will prove to be more of a foreign policy constraint that previously thought.