Should America behave like its allies and partners in foreign policy?

Associated Press
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS, talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in this 2018 file photo.

America’s allies long have sought U.S. protection or support against states they consider to be most threatening to them. Yet, while America’s allies all seek American support against potentially threatening adversaries, not all of America’s allies support the U.S. against states that Washington considers threatening to itself and to some of its other allies.

For example, the U.S. cooperates with India bilaterally and through “the Quad” (America, Japan, Australia and India) to deal with what all perceive as a common threat from China. India, however, not only has refused to join American-led sanctions against Russia for its war in Ukraine but also has seized upon the opportunity to buy large quantities of oil at discounted prices Russia now offers because of Western sanctions.

Similarly, America provides military support in various ways to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to deal with the perceived common threat from an aggressive Iran.  All three states, though, also refused to join the sanctions efforts against Russia. Israeli leaders argued that the Jewish state cannot do this for fear of damaging the Russian-Israeli deconfliction agreement whereby Moscow turns a blind eye to Israeli forces striking Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for their part, have denied the Biden administration’s requests that they increase oil production to temper higher prices that occurred following the American-led campaign to prevent Russia from exporting oil. Saudi and Emirati officials have even cited their need to maintain cooperation with Russia in OPEC+ as a reason for not increasing their own oil production.

By not joining American-led economic sanctions against Russia and by cooperating with Moscow, these allies and U.S. partners are taking actions that support Russia in its war against Ukraine. Of course, they could point out that Russia is not their adversary, and that some of America’s European allies who do see Russia as an adversary are still buying Russian natural gas. In other words, some allies simultaneously receive American support against Russia while their gas purchases help Russian President Vladimir Putin continue his war against Ukraine.  European governments argue that they are working to reduce their gas purchases from Russia, but cannot halt them altogether right now because it would result in economic and political instability in their countries.

So, it appears that some of America’s allies and partners are less concerned with Russia than with other threats, and even some allies that are mainly concerned about Russia insist that the U.S. must respect their interest in cooperating with Russia to some extent, despite its invasion of Ukraine and many other hostile actions.

While the willingness of America’s allies and partners to cooperate with Russia might not be admirable, it is rational. They are pursuing their national interests, which are different from America’s. They have calculated accurately (so far, at least) that although America might not like their cooperation with Russia, America’s interests in cooperating with them will continue on the basis of other, converging interests.

Indeed, this approach to foreign policy is so rational that America itself might do well to adopt it.  In dealing with China, for example, America might consider dropping the economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration but enforcing secondary sanctions on Chinese firms trading with Russia in order to maximize Chinese incentives for trading more with America and less with Russia. 

Similarly, if Saudi Arabia and the UAE — the two OPEC swing producers with the greatest ability to increase oil production — are unwilling to do so partly to protect their good relations with Russia, then perhaps the U.S. should drop sanctions limiting Iranian oil exports, whether or not Washington and Tehran can come to terms on renewing an Iranian nuclear accord, as President Biden wishes, in order to reign in gas prices in the U.S. Indeed, just threatening to adopt such a course of action might go far in persuading some oil-producing Arab partners that it would be better for the West to buy more oil from them than from Iran.

An explanation and justification for this type of foreign policy was made in 1848 by Lord Palmerston, the British foreign minister, in a speech to Parliament in which he stated, “It is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

Several of America’s allies and partners have adopted such a foreign policy approach when it comes to Russia. They may see Russia as less threatening to them than China or Iran, or they may regard America’s security commitment to be so strong that they can safely import Russian petroleum despite the fact that this serves to strengthen Russia. While several of them would howl loudly if America ever considered doing anything like this, they would not be in a position to complain if the U.S. adopted a Palmerstonian foreign policy approach similar to their own.  

This is not to say that the U.S. should cooperate with our allies’ main adversaries just because they are cooperating with one of America’s adversaries, much less deliberately retaliate against them for doing so. But if and when the U.S. finds it expedient to increase cooperation with, or just relent on some of its sanctions against, some of its adversaries to better deal with a more immediate threat, Washington should not let its allies dissuade it from adopting an approach that they themselves pursue despite American misgivings.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Tags Biden Russian sanctions Russian war in Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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