So this is what the rules-based world order looks like: US President Joe Biden sitting with a Saudi leader with blood on his hands.
US intelligence says Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. His body was reportedly cut into pieces and cremated.
How does Biden strike up a conversation after this?
Then there is the long-suspected Saudi involvement in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that targeted New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon, killing 3,000 people.
Osama bin Laden, who plotted the attacks, was a Saudi. Of the 19 terrorists who carried out the attacks, 15 were Saudi citizens. An FBI report linked a Saudi diplomat to the attackers.
Families of victims of the September 11 attacks have criticized Biden’s visit to the country.
Saudi Arabia is an abhorrent authoritarian state that locks people up without trial, carries out public executions and oppresses women, even though they are now allowed to drive cars.
On human rights, China ranks higher than Saudi Arabia, according to Freedom House.
Biden himself has said he wants to make Saudi Arabia a pariah state. Now, however, he says it’s in America’s interest to meet the man known as MBS. Biden knows there are few virtuous choices in the Middle East, just increasingly morally burdensome ones.
Biden moves cautiously in the Middle East
With rising inflation and rising oil prices, Biden needs Saudi Arabia to pump more oil.
He also needs Saudi Arabia to offset Iran’s influence in the region and counter the growing influence of China and Russia in the Middle East.
Biden wants to build on the closer clandestine ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has tacitly allowed the normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel, even as Riyadh itself halts short of Israel’s formal recognition.
It stems from a shared hostility and threat from Iran.
Biden treads cautiously in the Middle East, a region in turmoil that offers a glimpse of what has been called a “post-American world.”
It looks like a Hobbesian war of all against all. The end of the Ottoman Empire after the Second World War, the birth of a new Middle East was marked by weak or despotic governments; ethnic, tribal and sectarian rivalries.
Even periods of stability have not been periods of peace.
The United States contributed to the instability. Its 2003 invasion of Iraq made a bad situation worse. A ruthless dictator, Saddam Hussein, was overthrown, but upheaval and violence followed. The Islamic State has taken root.
As international affairs analyst F. Gregory Gause wrote in a recent edition of Foreign Affairs: “Iraq was a weak state when the United States invaded. But it became a failed state after the invasion.
Gause recounts a region in freefall.
When regional crises become global
The invasion of Iraq and the 2010 Arab Spring uprisings that toppled rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya sparked a contagion of chaos that spilled over into civil war in Syria and a war in power of attorney between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen which the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. crisis.
With so many states in conflict, says Gause, regional crises become global.
Russia seized it to strengthen its power. The flood of refugees fleeing the region to Europe has disrupted politics across the continent, giving rise to anti-immigration populism.
The United States, which has drained the blood and treasures of the region, may have sought to withdraw and end the war on terror, but, as a world leader, there is no no way out.
Now, says Gause, a sanitized America must trade its hopes for regional stability for vested interests.
So Biden must bet on another despot: Mohammed bin Salman. Not only is MBS implicated in the murder, but as terrorism and Middle East journalist Graeme Wood wrote in The Atlantic magazine, bin Salman has “created a climate of fear unprecedented in Saudi Arabian history. “.
Yet, improbably, this is what a reformer looks like. As Wood points out, Mohammed bin Salman opened up the country socially and culturally and “reduced the role of reactionary clergy and virtually abolished the religious police.”
Wood met bin Salman, who rarely speaks to the media. Asked about Jamal Khashoggi, Wood quotes the Saudi leader as saying that if he wanted to kill someone, “Khashoggi wouldn’t even be among the first 1,000 people on the list.”
MBS told Wood he wanted to strengthen ties with America and that Biden needed to think about what was in America’s best interests. If he doesn’t see Saudi Arabia’s potential, bin Salman warned, China will.
Everywhere Joe Biden turns, China looms
As the US president headed for the Middle East, America sought to woo Pacific island leaders away from Beijing.
Growing influence was at the center of this week’s Pacific Islands Forum. Australia and the United States now recognize that they must make up lost ground.
The Pacific is at the forefront of the struggle for global power in the 21st century.
Again we hear the mantra of respect for the rule-based order. But do we stop to think what it is?
Where does the rule-based order come from? Who writes the rules?
It is not a 20th century invention, but has its roots in post-Napoleonic Europe. Then the European states joined Russia in claiming victory over France and, as historian Glenda Sluga points out in her book, The Invention of the International Order, “They invented a new culture of international diplomacy”.
It was a Western idea and favorable to Christian states. The international order has always been about choosing who is in and who is out.
Since the 18th century, says Sluga, “the promise of modernity … has only raised its voice for some”.
Sluga says the invention of a European-dominated international order is “a story of forgetting…an Ottoman Empire with equal legal status”.
Rules were made – and broken
In the 20th century, a new order emerged from the two world wars. It was built first around the League of Nations and later the United Nations governed by covenants and treaties.
It is led by institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, the International Criminal Court.
It is based on the universal ideas of human rights, national sovereignty and respect for the rule of law.
But as historian Simon Reid-Henry points out, it is less universal than an “Atlantic-dominated order.”
It is often described as a rules-based liberal order but, as Reid-Henry puts it, it was “more about order than liberalism; it was about consolidating political authority in the name of freedom” .
Reid-Henry argues that architects of post-war order increasingly argued for the use of “political violence” to defend order.
Rules have been made and broken by the great powers. For centuries, the great powers have claimed exceptionalism; the United States, as a world leader, has, when it suited them, outlawed.
Corruption and hypocrisy are embedded in the order. What place for morality? Morality often loses to realpolitik and, as political scientist Joseph Nye has said, foreign policy always involves trade-offs and choices.
Nye says good moral reasoning requires “weighing and balancing the intentions, means, and consequences of decisions.”
From the Middle East to the Pacific, the world order is contested. Russia is waging war on Ukraine. There is the threat of war with China.
For Joe Biden, the price of maintaining a “rules-based world order” is shaking hands with killers and bullies.
Stan Grant is ABC’s international business analyst and presents China Tonight Monday at 9:35 p.m. on ABC TV and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on ABC News Channel, and co-anchor of Q+A Thursday at 8:30 p.m.