For most of the past months, the Biden administration has struggled to find ways to ease oil prices, amid the trauma of the Russian war in Ukraine. And when OPEC+, a group of oil exporting countries, decided to cut oil production by two million barrels per day in early October, Washington’s reaction was harsh. White House Secretary Karen Jean-Pierre confirmed, “OPEC Plus is clearly biased towards Russia.”
The administration’s bilateral view aligns with its broader perspective on partners. Since the Biden administration came to power, the administration has frequently taken a binary view of the world order — “a competition between democracies and authoritarian regimes,” according to the administration’s 2022 National Security Strategy. And they tend to portray the decisions of their partners as a test of loyalty to the United States.
This is a vision that many of America’s partners do not share. It is not clear to most of them that categorically siding with Russia or China, or the United States, is the fruit of choice. Moscow and Beijing are not allies, but partners [business customers]. Meanwhile, America is going through a phase in which its international priorities fluctuate, which makes its partners less certain that Washington will continue to care tomorrow about what preoccupies it today, or that their support for the United States on a particular issue guarantees them reciprocal treatment by the United States on other issues. Accordingly, an increasing number of US partners seek to avoid taking sides entirely and to maintain relations with all the great powers simultaneously. This means that the United States needs to pursue a more explicit strategy. Faced with partners that are unlikely to satisfy all of Washington’s wishes, it must adopt a smarter, tougher approach to the international system, maximizing its influence in a multipolar world.
All of the above, not all or nothing
Most states view great-power competition as the greatest challenge to their interests, not the threat of one superpower to another. China is Saudi Arabia’s first economic partner, and it consumes about 20 percent of their exports. Meanwhile, the Saudis see the United States as their number one security partner. Having to put one relationship before the other – or to reduce one significantly – is costly. So it, like many other states, seeks instead to preserve both relations.
In the Middle East alone, some states are current or future dialogue partners with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It is a political, economic and security group centered on China, and is sometimes described, with a great deal of exaggeration, as the alternative to NATO. It is said that two Arab states have expressed interest in joining the “BRICS” organization, which is a group of emerging market countries, of which India and China are members despite the growing competition between them (“BRICS” combines the initials of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Turkey, the only state in the Middle East formally allied with the United States, has also shown interest in becoming a member of both organizations.
Some researchers, such as Paul Post of the University of Chicago, suggest that expanding BRICS and SCO membership is a precursor to the emergence of an “alternative international order”. However, states that seek to deepen their participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS do not distance themselves from the Group of Seven, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or the United Nations. Instead of building a competitive order, a growing number of states are rejecting the binary world order – or are seeking to escape its constraints and consequences – by keeping one foot in the US-led camp and the other in the multilateral institutions led by Russia and China. Many of these states were non-aligned during the Cold War and today are taking all sides together instead.
By adopting such an approach, some states seek to minimize the costs of great power competition and to enhance the benefits of competition. As great-power competition escalates, small and medium-sized states are increasingly vulnerable to competing demands—such as requiring China to support its policies toward Hong Kong and Taiwan, or requiring the United States to avoid investment in China’s 5G technology and infrastructure. It is likely that both sides consider a certain state as a reasonable partner, targeting a state with persuasion, not sanctions, and pacifying the interested superpower in return for relatively low costs and not provoking the other power.
Many states see benefits from this strategy. Siding with everyone instead of not being aligned means – in theory if not actually – influencing the decision-making process of the great powers, to enjoying the benefits of this bias. These advantages increase in the event that one of the great powers fears the loss of a partner in favor of another power. Siding with all is a hedge against the impossibility of predicting the behavior of great powers. This precaution is most evident in the Middle East, where the future of US and Chinese engagement is uncertain, and where even the US’s closest partners find their relations with Washington increasingly unstable due to US domestic politics.
There is no doubt that such hedging entails costs. Turkey’s purchase in 2017 of the Russian S-400 air defense system, in violation of Turkey’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, led to its expulsion from the F-35 fighter programme. Hungary’s refusal to participate in European sanctions against Russia may reinforce Brussels’ determination to withhold EU funds from Budapest over rule of law concerns. And Israel itself, which is one of the closest allies of the United States, is a witness to the solution of the problem of its relations with Russia and China, as the main subject of the dispute with Washington, in place of the dispute over Iran or the Palestinian issue.
The United States might be tempted to issue an ultimatum to its hedging partners — the ultimatum alerts partners that competition with Russia or China requires them to choose sides. If the partners continue to deal with these competitors, Washington may be forced to reduce its preferential relations with these states. But such an approach is not practical. On the one hand, many forms of cooperation between US partners and Russia or China – much of the trade is commodities – do not pose a significant threat to US interests, nor merit strong opposition. Moreover, in the case of China, reaping the fruit of the ultimatum may be impossible. This is because the economy of US partners is intertwined with that of Beijing – a major difference between the current stage of great-power competition and the previous one. Moreover, such a request is likely to lead to requests from US partners for stricter economic and security guarantees, which Washington may be reluctant to provide or may be unable to provide.
Less narcissism, more cooperation
Instead of seeking to categorically divide the world along the lines of the Cold War, US policymakers should accept that recurring great-power competition is not likely to lead to a binary distribution of states on every issue. Instead, U.S. officials should seek to increase the chances of siding with the United States and maximize the value of these alliances to partners, even if those partners simultaneously engage other great powers in different domains.
Instead of focusing on broad, multi-thematic forums, such as the G-20 or the Summit of Democracies, the United States should build narrow partnerships between states with more focused and advancing agendas, such as the Quadripartite Security Dialogue, the Abraham Accords, and the so-called “i2u2” grouping. It includes India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. Such alliances promote high-priority mutual interests, including investment in security and infrastructure, and set aside external issues that members find more contentious and may weaken cohesion. Such groups can balance Chinese influence without having to target Beijing directly, thereby reducing potential costs to partners. For example, the still young I2U2 initiative raises the prospect of increased Indian investment in the Middle East, offering a third option to regional states that do not wish to choose between the United States and China. The Abrahamic Accords have already increased investment flows between states in the region in a way that may reduce the need for outside support from a superpower.
On the other hand, the United States should establish common rules and regulations with existing allies, such as protection of data privacy and technology exports, and increase incentives for non-allied partners to respond to Washington’s priorities. It is more likely that the partners will pay attention to the American conditions and abandon the economic opportunities offered by Russia and China, if these conditions provide a stable transaction base, and are not just American political initiatives, and guarantee tangible benefits such as facilitating access to American and European markets or to the technology of these markets.
In addition, the United States should choose its battles when presenting its demands to partners. Washington’s policy planning often fails to account for partners’ understanding of their own interests. For the most part, American policymakers assume that partners see issues as the United States does, or that they automatically understand the implications of solidarity with American interests—an unfortunate fallacy that former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and others call “strategic narcissism.”
Putting oneself at the center of things may lead to two types of political failures. First, the United States did not adequately appreciate its partners’ commitment to one approach over another. For example, Washington did not realize that Riyadh had historically resisted US requests that entail influence in oil decisions, so the Biden administration was surprised by the “OPEC Plus” decision in October 2022. As for the second type of error resulting from strategic narcissism, it is overestimating The commitment of the United States is a certain priority in terms of policies, and it has been shown that Washington may not take the initiative, when a partner rejects a request, to punish it. In 2015, the administration of US President Barack Obama asked all of its partners, around the world, not to deal with the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and its closest allies, including the United Kingdom and Australia, refused the request. In the end, the Obama administration did little in response. US policymakers should appeal to partners if they expect a realistic possibility that they will join it, and Washington is willing to impose a price on them if they do not. A request that fails to respect these two conditions contributes to the feeling that US influence is diminishing.
The US policy
Finally, the United States should pursue stable and sustainable partnerships, albeit with partners that are difficult to deal with and undemocratic. Then, it should prioritize core concerns, such as countering Russian and Chinese influence, and settle for slow progress on other issues, within the context of a constructive working relationship. US officials, including Colin Kahl, the deputy secretary of defense for policy, recently accused China of seeking to “weave relationships based solely on its own narrow, interactive, trade and geopolitical interests.” The truth is that in the Middle East, and in other regions, most of the United States’ partners prevail, the conclusion of which is that Washington also pays attention only to its mutual self-interest, especially when its attention and resources shift to Asia.
It is expected, in a reciprocal relationship, that the benefits and costs will coincide. In an alliance relationship, on the other hand, an ally might be required, rationally, to bear some costs today in exchange for benefits in the future. If the United States wishes to nurture such long-term relations, it must prove the reality of the promised advantages and the preponderance of its fortunes. There is weak confidence in the capitals of the Middle East in the possibility that responding to American requests will lead to avoiding a crisis in bilateral relations when a subsequent dispute arises, or in the possibility of hearing its opinion in Washington. This is a dilemma that challenges the United States in areas of diminishing American interest, such as the Middle East. And when the United States shifts its priorities away from a region, US policymakers reduce their interest in it and divert it to key partnerships. And this is exactly the time when such relationships matter most — that is, when the United States must protect interests that must be protected in roundabout ways.
Despite the Biden administration’s vision of a world divided delicately and sharply, it is increasingly clear that the final stage of great power competition is not marked by a categorical division based on all or nothing. Small and medium-sized countries avoid siding with one power as much as they avoid non-alignment. It is choosing an alternative to going all-in: participation in multilateral institutions led by the United States and those led by its competitors. The United States, instead of imposing its preferred and simple division on the complex global reality, should adapt and provide more numerous and specific opportunities for rich cooperation with Washington. Partners should not be asked whether they are with or against the United States. Rather, they should be asked which side they will be on — and which side they will be on — when a more serious issue is raised.