We cannot face Putin alone
Vladimir Putin has delivered a wake-up call to the United States and its European allies, reminding us collectively of a number of truths: hard power matters. Borders can be changed by force. Attempts to erase nations have not been relegated to the past. And conflict and competition will define the international landscape for the foreseeable future. If we want to deter the former and shape the latter, we need partners.
While Russia’s invasion and its atrocities have pushed back much of the Western world, many countries in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America remain on the sidelines. Moreover, Putin retains the support of China and countries like Iran, which have no interest in accepting the norms that the West says should guide international behavior.
Even as Putin continues his war against Ukraine, the United States must start thinking about forming coalitions for the post-war period. When Putin decides to conclude this war, we cannot go back to our usual activities.
Mobilizing the democracies of Europe and Asia is only the beginning. President Joe Biden often talks about being at an inflection point in the struggle between democracy and autocracy. But if we divide the world along these lines alone, we exclude many nations that we need to be part of any global coalition capable of countering the efforts of Russia and China to impose their rules on the international system. We cannot afford to forget those nations which may not be democracies but which are also not revisionist states. In the fight against these powers determined to create a new normal in which might does good, we must be able to join with those who add to our influence and assets.
Consider the Middle East. Because Biden understood the importance of depriving Putin of the ability to finance his war, he had to find alternatives to Russian oil, not only to meet the needs of Europeans, but also to try to minimize exploding energy costs. Efforts by the administration to get Saudi Arabia, the only country with significant spare production capacity, to pump more oil have failed. A number of factors may have caused the Saudis to say no, but as a senior Saudi official told me recently: “You in America are quick to ask us to respond when you want something and don’t respond. not when we call you. (He spoke on condition of anonymity, in order to offer a candid assessment of the situation.) He went on to say that in the past, the Saudis have tried to accommodate our demands because they considered the United States as “a reliable friend” when their safety was threatened. After being repeatedly hit by the Houthis and their Iranian supplied drones, cruise missiles and rockets, and seeing us wavering in the region and our responses, they no longer feel that.
From an American perspective, other factors have come into play here. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; Donald Trump’s willingness to give the Saudis a free pass for his murder; other human rights abuses and the way the Saudis continued their war in Yemen, all understandably generated bipartisan criticism of the kingdom and led to the Biden administration’s decision to ‘recalibrate’ US relations with Saudi Arabia. But Putin’s war has brought the reality of our needs back into focus. And the reality is that Saudi Arabia is strategically important in competing with Russia and China.
Saudi oil is needed now and for the next two decades as the world manages the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Saudi Arabia is one of those states in the Middle East that are trying to build modernizing and resilient societies, and face an Iran that seeks to perpetuate the region’s conflicts in order to exploit them. Tehran’s support for Russia is no accident. Iran is a revisionist power, seeking to dominate the Middle East, offering a path of imposed austerity in the name of a narrow and intolerant ideology of resistance. What Iranians call “the axis of resistance” is actually an axis of misery; Iran’s main exports are drones, missiles, militias and failed or failing states. (Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq testify to what awaits the states where Iran exerts its influence.)
Perpetuating a Middle East shaped by conflict may serve Russian and Iranian interests, but it does not serve ours. Fortunately, a growing coalition that includes Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians, Jordanians, Moroccans, Bahrainis and Israelis is already cooperating to counter Iranian plans for the region. U.S. Central Command provides both a mechanism to meet their security needs and an umbrella under which they can integrate their intelligence, counterterrorism, early warning, cyber, and missile defense activities. and drones, making them collectively safer than they would be alone. . The more we encourage the kind of economic and trade cooperation that Israel and the United Arab Emirates are currently establishing, the more we will create a solid basis for regional peace, and the more we will foster a solid coalition supporting the rules of the game that we seek internationally. .
Does this mean that we should let go of our concerns about human rights and move away from our values? No, but it means we will do what we have always done: weigh our priorities and try to balance values and interests. We must prevent Putin’s rules – whereby stronger states dictate to their weaker neighbors, and civilian populations are the prime target – from defining our collective international future. We must build a broad coalition of states that share this goal, a goal that reflects our values, not just our interests.