In July this year, President Joe Biden of the United States met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia in Jeddah. MBS is an autocrat best known in the West as the prime suspect in the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi; according to claims in a recent one economist Profile of Nicolas Pelham, his more mundane activities include detaining relatives, vandalizing offices in the wake of violent mood swings and hospitalizing his wife, Princess Sara, “at least once”. The crown prince and his expensive international lawyers deny these allegations.
Biden’s meeting with MBS was widely followed in Western media. The US President had promised journalists in his own country not to shake the hand of Khashoggi’s killer. (Jamal Khashoggi was US-based and published by a US newspaper, rarely extending obligations to his ghost to other Saudi citizens disappearing into MBS’s surveillance-heavy police state.) In the end, the two leaders were photographed in an awkward fist bump .
As Shadi Hamid of the Brookings’ Institute wrote at the time, the message to the world was that in the new Middle East, “alleged allies are free to disregard, embarrass, and undermine the United States at will.” Within 24 hours of Biden’s visit, Saudi Arabia’s neighbors in the United Arab Emirates had sentenced Asim Ghafoor, Khashoggi’s attorney and US citizen, to three years in prison. Within 48 hours, Biden and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir publicly disputed the words both allegedly exchanged between the two leaders on the Khashoggi issue. What leverage could this debacle possibly give the US, observers wondered? If there was statecraft and grand strategy here, it was not revealed to us mere mortals.
What did Biden want to achieve in Saudi Arabia this summer? What does it have to do with Britain, in a week when far more pressing issues beset our lives? The pound fell to record lows against the dollar this week; On Wednesday, the Bank of England intervened in bond markets to stave off a series of planned pension fund bankruptcies. As we block our mortgage phone lines, few of us have the bandwidth to look beyond the domestic at times like these into the details of foreign policy and its diplomatic tangles.
However, the underlying problem among both is energy. What Biden was doing in Saudi Arabia was a hopeless attempt to ask for an increase in OPEC oil production; What we are witnessing in the UK this week is a crash course in the consequences of ignoring foreign conflicts and the rise of global energy blackmail for decades.
The direct trigger of our economic crisis is, of course, the idiosyncratic experiment of the Truss-Kwarteng mini-budget. But the long-term picture is not purely national. After an interview Thursday morning with BBCBristol Liz Truss, Radio’s James Hanson, was much ridiculed for repeating a written response in defense of her business management. “We have a very, very difficult global economic situation because of the war that Vladimir Putin waged in Ukraine,” she said.
As Hanson countered, none of the pre-existing conditions made Truss and Kwarteng’s high-stakes play the obvious answer; almost no other politician would have done the same, no matter how high the oil price was. But as far as I could go, Truss’s gnomish observation was correct. Amid all the rasping on Twitter, there has been less reflection on how Britain’s choices have become so limited or why so many other Western democracies are collapsing or giving in to the crackpots under the energy crisis.
As Truss spoke, Swedish authorities revealed evidence of a fourth leak in the NordStream pipeline, which supplies Germany and much of Europe with oil from Russia. Putin invaded Ukraine confident that Europe’s dependence on its oil would limit our ability to counter him; The cowardice of our politicians to support nuclear power made it easy for him. But he has also been emboldened by the failures of the West every time we have had a chance to counter his expansion in the past.
It’s easy to blame former President Trump for enabling the worst of Putinism. He also enjoyed the hospitality of the worst golf regime. Many of us spent the Trump years pining for the scholarly tones of his predecessor.
But it was President Barack Obama’s foreign policy that truly enabled Putin’s emergence as a global threat. It was Obama who promised the world that any use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians would provide a “red line” that would trigger a US and allied response; it was Obama who blinked in 2013 when that red line was crossed by Putin’s deputy Bashar al-Assad. And it was the British Parliament that enabled Obama’s hesitation as Labor frontbenchers and Tory backbenchers alike rejected David Cameron’s proposed airstrikes between the US and Britain.
Like his former boss, President Biden placated every moment he could have confronted. In June 2021 he met with Putin in Vienna; Within two months, he had pulled the last American troops out of Afghanistan in a retreat so chaotic that the US barely informed its allies. As I have written on these pages, Biden’s White House informed at the time that the withdrawal from Afghanistan was part of a broader agreement with Putin to accept a Russian sphere of influence, allowing the US to focus on confronting China. That worked out well.
In 2016, columnist Matthew d’Ancona wrote an article looking back at our failure in 2013 to punish Putin and Assad militarily. “Syria’s plight,” he wrote, “shows that inaction, no less than intervention, has consequences in this context.”
Inactivity abroad also affects your mortgage, your heating bills and the security of your online banking. For years we have failed to address our energy dependency on bad actors, just as we have failed to diversify supply chains into technology and agriculture. Blame Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng all you wish for the Tory party’s failure to meet today’s challenges. But when it comes to the global energy crisis we are all facing, the blame lies with anyone who has dismissed foreign problems in small, far-flung countries.