As I can attest to from my Washington days, the art of alliance management is a tedious, dreary process. Much as is true of personal friendships, alliances between countries require both parties to see but overlook the flaws in one another, all in the cause that, on balance, the link is worth it. Or, to put it in realist terms, the only thing worse than having allies is not having allies.
Further, both personal friendships and alliances require patient, endless tending; like gardening, it is an endless process. Bursts of energy and attention are not enough to sustain an alliance. What is necessary is a patient, long-standing effort to look at the common interests between countries, looking for where they can work together, while at the same time minimizing interest-based differences so that the alliance does not turn toxic, becoming endangered. Worst of all, alliances cannot be taken for granted; if they are, the neglect inherent in this mindset will come back to bite the neglectful country.
When Joe Biden came to the White House, the necessary, unglamorous art of alliance management was exactly the sort of thing he was supposed to be good at. A foreign policy veteran, as a legislator he had long served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the select group overseeing America’s international relations. Doing the hard, grown-up heavy lifting inherent in alliance management seemed to suit the new president’s temperament and, more, his biography.
So, it has come as a shock that Biden’s frenzied efforts to craft a new energy policy in the wake of US energy sanctions levied against Russia have run into a brick wall, with allies the UAE and Saudi Arabia apparently shunning his entreaties of the need to pump more oil in an effort to lessen the looming global supply shock that is a consequence of the war in Ukraine. Practically, these two countries can uniquely quickly ramp up production, making up for the Russian exclusion. That they have yet to do so speaks karmic volumes — not about the merits of Biden’s “ask,” but about his diplomatic neglect of these two traditional bastions of America’s global alliance system.
In 2021, the US imported nearly 700,000 barrels a day of crude oil and liquefied petroleum products from Russia, about 8 percent of its total oil imports. While it is far less dependent on Russian energy than its European allies, this not insignificant total is sure to send US energy prices higher in the short run. This is particularly devastating for the White House in that inflation is already an alarming 7.9 percent, the highest rate in 40 years.
Biden’s economic team made a fundamental error in throwing too much public sector money at the COVID-19 crisis, even as the US economy bounced back stronger and more quickly than expected. As former Clinton era Treasury Secretary Larry Summers made brilliantly clear, you cannot increase federal spending by 14 to 15 percent of gross domestic product without triggering seriously higher rates of inflation. All this was happening even before the global energy supply shock that is a consequence of the Ukraine war. This is the context that sent a complacent Biden off to ask Saudi Arabia and the UAE for immediate and dramatic help in increasing global energy production to cushion the US from this foreseeable blow.
That the two countries have not been immediately receptive is reportedly a consequence of having been taken for granted throughout the Biden presidency — his neglect of alliance management has come home to roost. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been alarmed at the Biden White House’s headlong rush to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal with Iran. Their concerns have fallen on largely deaf ears, as the US moves close to reviving this disastrous deal.
Second, both the Saudis and the Emiratis were angered by the withdrawal of the US’ terrorist designation status from the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, who are fighting government forces backed by both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Further, the Saudis want more American support regarding the war as a whole. To put it mildly, this has not been forthcoming from the Biden White House, which seemingly cared as little about the core Saudi interest as it was passionate about the Iran deal.
Third, in trying to (somehow) sideline US relations with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Biden White House fundamentally misunderstands how the Saudi system works. In neglecting, ignoring and taking the Saudi and UAE alliances for granted, Biden is reaping what he sowed.
At last aware of the damage done, White House officials are scrambling to set up a visit by the president to Riyadh to try to calm the waters as he pushes for greater oil production. There are indications that the UAE is now open to such an increase. But, to put it mildly, it is a bad time to ask an estranged friend for help, after neglecting that very relationship in the first place. It is the price Biden pays for failing at alliance management.
This post was originally published in Arab News.