Such efforts will not go unnoticed by the Saudi royal family. Building a rapport with Islamist reformers in particular has drawn the ire of the regime in the past; for example, when the Saudis insisted that a U.S. ambassador be withdrawn in the late 1980s for having met with a senior Muslim cleric, and when they reprimanded the United States in 1993 after American diplomats met with the leader of a fundamentalist movement that was agitating for greater rights.
As for its traditional diplomacy with the Saudi regime, while maintaining an alliance with Saudi Arabia may advance some U.S. policy goals in the Middle East, the United States should exercise leverage over the regime whenever feasible to extract human-rights concessions. This aspect of state-to-state diplomacy will serve not only to boost Saudi civil society’s development, but also signal to the country’s few bold reformists that the United States does not condone the Saudi royal family’s crackdown on dissent, especially during a succession.
THE CASES of China and Saudi Arabia do reveal the problem of societal diplomacy clashing with traditional goals of state-to-state diplomacy. Simply put, authentically and energetically engaging with civil society will be perceived as subversive, which may harm U.S. bilateral relationships. It could cause tensions with China as a nascent adversary and Saudi Arabia as an ostensible ally. There would be marked short-term trade-offs, at the expense of eliciting Chinese cooperation on UN Security Council votes, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, trade disputes or currency valuation, or Saudi cooperation in dealing with terrorists, Syria, Iran and energy access.
Realpolitik suggests that there are no permanent allies, only permanent interests. Traditional state-to-state diplomacy toward illiberal governments like China and Saudi Arabia, influenced by realpolitik, has been conducted as if those governments were permanent—in the name of stability. It has focused on short-term stability to the detriment of long-term stability.
Yet political contexts change. A long-term U.S. conception of stability would anticipate and indeed facilitate evolution toward more liberal governance. The United States cannot infallibly predict the timing and nature of political change. One need look no farther than Iran under the shah, the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, South Africa under F. W. de Klerk, Libya under Muammar el-Qaddafi, or Egypt under Hosni Mubarak and then Mohamed Morsi. An enlightened sense of the national interest is dynamic in nature. It prepares for and engages currents of change, such as in China or Saudi Arabia. A more nimble—and indeed, more realistic—foreign-policy strategy requires diplomacy with civil society. At best, it will contribute constructively to political change brought about by domestic actors, serving more liberal rule and U.S. interests. At the very least, it will help the United States diversify its portfolio of interlocutors for those moments when unpredictable political change emerges. Even, perhaps especially, in the hardest cases, a dynamic understanding of interests requires a dynamic approach to diplomacy. The time for doctrinal musing about “engagement” with civil society has passed. It is time for concerted implementation.
Mark P. Lagon is president of Freedom House and former U.S. ambassador-at-large to combat trafficking in persons. Sarah Grebowski is a William V. O’Brien fellow in international law in the Master of Science in Foreign Service Program at Georgetown University.
Image: Flickr/Shrieking Tree/CC by-nc-sa 2.0