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Engaging with Saudi Arabia Isn’t the Problem

US diplomacy and engagement should not serve as a stamp of approval.

Words: Elizabeth Beavers
Pictures: Adam Schultz / White House

The Biden administration has just made two decisions that directly contradict one another. First, the administration declined to invite Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua to the Summit of the Americas, reasoning that those countries “are not exemplars” of “democratic governance.” Now the administration is reportedly planning a direct meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Known as MBS, he’s a leader that has never been held accountable for overseeing the brutal murder of US journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He is also presiding over a genocidal war in Yemen. And he runs a kingdom that not so long ago was dubbed a “pariah” state by none other than then-presidential candidate Joe Biden due to its human rights record. How do we reconcile this double standard?

The answer is that these developments expose what has always been true: US foreign policy is not and never has been centered on democracy and human rights. On the contrary, those values are invoked only when useful to justify policies that are primarily motivated by other US interests, such as economic or geopolitical maneuvers. So as Biden prepares to meet with MBS, it’s time to be more honest and perhaps even more consistent when it comes to what’s really underlying US foreign policy.


It’s far past time to do away with the premise that US diplomacy is a gift or stamp of approval and must be withheld from the most odious and repressive governments if and until they change their behavior. It’s an argument that opponents of peace and diplomacy have mostly used, and it’s a failed theory of change. For example, it was and remains a core thesis of those who oppose the Iran nuclear deal. It’s also one of the leading reasons why the United States should decline to engage in direct peace talks with North Korea. It’s the rationale for wide-ranging and devastating sanctions on Venezuela and beyond. The list goes on.

It’s far past time to do away with the premise that US diplomacy is a gift or stamp of approval and must be withheld from the most odious and repressive governments if and until they change their behavior.

This is a problematic framing because it promotes the idea that engagement from the US government implicitly grants another government special status. The idea also promotes the myth of American exceptionalism. Furthermore, it postures the US government as the international disciplinarian and the enforcer of human rights norms, which ignores the United States’ own atrocities and impunity. And, perhaps most importantly, it simply doesn’t work. No evidence suggests that isolation and coercion have induced human rights improvements in any context. On the contrary, actual human lives have been made worse by such policies.

There are many contexts in which we need the United States to engage directly with governments whose actions we find abhorrent in the interests of people and the planet. The looming climate catastrophe, the still-not-over COVID-19 pandemic, the desperate need to move away from fossil fuels, and the scourge of nuclear proliferation are not crises that can be solved by only talking to our friends. A better approach would be for the US government to stop taking an active role in helping other governments carry out abuses. After all, that brutal Saudi-led war in Yemen has been made possible courtesy of US weaponry and support for years, to the tune of billions of dollars in weapons sales, crucial refueling support for Saudi warplanes, and intelligence-sharing.

Our leaders must engage in some humility. It has long been difficult to square the United States’ efforts to freeze out and punish other governments because of their human rights performances, even as the United States maintains an offshore torture and indefinite prison camp, as just one example. And it was more than a little ironic to see the Biden administration commenting derisively on other countries’ governance in the same week that the Jan. 6 hearings begin in our own country.

We should also be honest about our foreign policy goals and if and how direct diplomacy might help achieve those goals. It isn’t really the mere existence of the relationship itself that’s problematic when it comes to Saudi Arabia or any other repressive regime. We should be questioning the nature of the relationship, particularly the fundamental arrangement of a military partnership in exchange for a continued fossil fuel addiction. To be clear, this particular visit with MBS indeed seems to be a terrible idea. Still, it’s less sp because Biden shouldn’t meet with him on principle and more so because there has not been a clear and justifiable diplomatic strategy advanced to explain exactly what it is that Biden is asking for when it comes to oil production. More importantly, it’s not clear what Biden is willing to give to the Saudis in exchange.

To be sure, this meeting is also a jarring about-face from the Biden administration’s prior rhetoric. But if our diplomatic efforts should, in all cases, be led by a clear-eyed focus on solutions to global challenges that often involve sitting at the table with ostensible foes, maybe an overall about-face is due. As such, this latest instance of mixed messaging from the Biden administration is an opportunity not to double down on hawkish tropes about which countries deserve engagement from the US government but instead to press the administration to do away with such pretense altogether.

Elizabeth Beavers is a national security legal scholar and an independent consultant for peace and security advocacy.

Elizabeth Beavers

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