One of the major dividing lines between “idealists” and “realists” in the foreign policy debate during the Cold War and its immediate aftermath was over the centrality of the promotion of human rights and democratic principles in the pursuit of American goals abroad.
That debate pitted Kissingerian realpolitik types arguing that geostrategic and geoeconomic interests should be the main considerations guiding American diplomacy against liberal internationalists on the Left and, more recently, neoconservatives on the Right, who countered that the United States should place the goal of spreading its values worldwide at the center of its foreign policy agenda.
In reality, when push came to shove—and in particular, over issues of war and peace—realism tended to win the day, even in the case of presidencies infused with idealism, like those of Democratic President Jimmy Carter and Republican President George W. Bush.
Those two presidents also demonstrated the way in which preoccupation with human rights and democracy promotion could harm U.S. core national interests.
Hence investing diplomatic efforts in pressing the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to improve his government’s human rights record, the Carter administration failed to pay attention to the deteriorating political situation in that country and failed to take action to prevent the fall of the pro-American regime in Tehran and the ensuing Islamist revolution in 1979, resulting in a devastating blow to U.S. status in the Middle East.
Similarly, President Bush the Second’s fixation with remaking the Middle East along democratic lines steered his administration to pressure the Israelis to allow the holding of free democratic elections in the Palestinian territories in 2006, leading to the victory of the Islamist and anti-Western Hamas movement that remains in power in the Gaza Strip today.
Another president who had entered the White House committed to an ambitious democracy-promotion and authoritarianism-fighting agenda but who gradually ended up readjusting his policies to the realities of international power politics has been Joe Biden.
Reflecting the bizarre outcome of dogmatic idealism, Biden invited to his Summit for Democracy in 2023 an Islamist and anti-American country like Pakistan because it, well, holds elections. But Singapore, a leading American strategic ally in the Pacific, was not invited because of its supposedly questionable commitment to democratic ideals.
Biden’s earlier pro-democracy campaign included also a vow to isolate and punish Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), bashing the Saudis as a “pariah” in response to the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
For a while, that approach seemed to be cost-free as far as U.S. strategic and economic interests were concerned. After all, it was a time when America was becoming a major energy producer and oil prices were falling, and that supposedly provided an opportunity to reassess Washington’s alliance with Riyadh.
Ending the alliance with Riyadh was a goal enunciated by members of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which also question the U.S. commitment to its alliance with Israel and its entire strategy of engagement in the Middle East.
And disregarding Saudi Arabia’s concern about the threat posed by its adversary Iran, one that it shared with Israel, Biden and his aides decided to move towards renewing the nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.
But then the war in Ukraine happened, and the Biden administration suddenly found itself operating in an international system dominated by a diplomatic and military conflict between great powers over territories and resources. Energy prices rose to the stratosphere, and whether MBS, the leader of the “pariah” Saudi Arabia, raised oil prices or flirted with the Russians and the Chinese mattered now much more than that country’s human rights record.
Obsessing with the Saudis’ commitment to liberal democratic values seems in retrospect to be a luxury that a great power like the U.S. could not afford, especially when other great powers—like China and Russia, certainly not concerned about their potential allies’ treatment of political dissidents or religious minorities—are waiting to fill any geostrategic vacuum left by the Americans.
From that perspective, pursuing the possibility of a NATO-level U.S.-Saudi mutual security pact—under which the United States would come to Saudi Arabia’s defense if it is attacked, and would involve Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel—makes a realpolitik sense, especially if it leads to progress on the Palestinian-Israeli front.
In the aftermath of the Abraham Accords and Israel’s normalization of relationships with several Arab states, a process of diplomatic detente and economic cooperation between two of the region’s leading powers and allies of the United States would be a major coup as far as American interests are concerned.
A pro-American Middle Eastern bloc powered by the energy resources of the Persian Gulf and Israel’s high-tech industries and scientific centers would be the most effective way to contain the aggression of Iran and its regional satellites.
Such an arrangement is certainly worth the costs in the form of providing the Saudis with the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile defense system, which would be helpful to the Saudis against Iran’s growing mid- and long-range missile arsenal, and helping them develop a civilian nuclear program.
There is no doubt that MBS will also demand some concessions from Israel on the Palestinian issues, including stopping the establishment of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank and a clear commitment to the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
If Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes such steps that would lead to the withdrawal of two extremist right-wing ministers—Itamar-Gvir, the head of the ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit, and Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionism Party—from the current coalition.
That would then leave Netanyahu no choice but to rely on the support of the centrist parties in the Knesset and make with them a deal to end the current crisis over the government’s controversial plan for judicial reform.
Dr. Leon Hadar, a contributing editor with The National Interest, is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia and a former research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. He has taught at American University in Washington, DC, and at the University of Maryland, College Park. A columnist and blogger with Haaretz (Israel) and Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore, he is a former United Nations bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post.