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Elizabeth Shackelford: Partnering with autocrats is risky business

Elizabeth Shackelford

Elizabeth Shackelford

The decades-old partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia has just been put to the test. It failed with flying colors.

The partnership was always based on a simple trade-off. The United States would provide all the military hardware, support, intelligence and cover that Saudi Arabia sought in its dangerous neighborhood. In return, Saudi Arabia would be guarantor of energy security for the United States and its allies. For that, the United States turned a blind eye again and again to all the other ways in which Saudi Arabia’s behavior undermines our values and interests.

The whole deal felt futile, then, when Saudi Arabia slashed oil production last month, following many entreaties by the Biden administration that it do precisely the opposite. Not only had Saudi Arabia scoffed at America’s one request, but it had done so in direct collusion with Russia, undermining Ukraine’s defense by boosting Russia’s economic lifeline of gas and oil income.

This has renewed attention to an old debate: When should the United States partner with authoritarian governments? The obvious answer is when it’s in our national security interest to do so. But too often we take it at face value that it is.

The American people appear convinced. According to a 2022 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey of American perceptions of U.S. foreign policy, two-thirds of Americans agree that working with authoritarian governments is acceptable if they are crucial U.S. security partners.

This perspective parallels the realities of U.S. foreign policy in practice, since administration after administration has told the American people that working with bad guys is just a necessary evil in the name of national security.

The United States supports authoritarian states for many reasons, but the practice is founded on two basic assumptions: that strengthening partner countries will lead to increased stability in key regions, and that supporting partner countries will help us influence their behavior.

Saudi Arabia demonstrates how false these assumptions prove. A stronger Saudi Arabia has stoked instability in the neighborhood instead, and our influence is obviously lacking.

We should have seen it coming and changed course years ago, but inertia is a powerful driver of our foreign policy too. So we stayed the course supporting an absolute monarchy shaped by extremist religious law, which provides no space for public participation in the political process, no rights for women, and a laundry list of other offenses against human rights.

We kept our wager as Saudi Arabia waged its brutal war on Yemen, using U.S. weapons to slaughter civilians, further destabilizing the region and fueling enmity against the United States. Saudi Arabia’s successful efforts to fight the Iran nuclear deal tooth and nail were instrumental in tanking a vital nonproliferation agreement that was in the clear U.S. national security interest. The list goes on and on.

American support not only continued but grew. From the start of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen in 2015 to 2020, the United States agreed to sell Saudi Arabia over $64 billion in arms. During this time, Washington supplied Riyadh with more than 300 aircraft, Patriot air-defense systems, and tens of thousands of missiles and bombs.

This unsavory business did not sit well with Congress as reports emerged of U.S. bombs being used to commit war crimes, but the costs to the kingdom remained token at best. America feared a harsh reaction would undermine its influence without realizing it had no influence in the first place.

Fundamental to this miscalculation is that we dismissed the extent to which propping up an undemocratic and oppressive regime would undermine our national security interests in the long run.

In the end, we could not rely on a country like Saudi Arabia because it does not share our basic interests in the world and is not a reliable or predictable partner. No authoritarian state is. Europe has learned the same lesson this year with Russia.

Americans will be better served by our foreign policy if our policymakers learn and apply this lesson moving forward.

Undoubtedly, some circumstances will at times merit partnering with authoritarian states in the interest of U.S. national security. If an unsavory government owns something we need, we might need to buy it from them, as was long the case with Saudi Arabia and its oil. But history has shown us that turning untrustworthy suppliers into strategic partners doesn’t work well.

Such deals should be heavily scrutinized and regularly reevaluated. If we don’t fully consider the long-term costs of boosting bad actors, we might create our own national security risks in the end.

Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. diplomat. She wrote this for The Chicago Tribune.

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