Donald Trump meets with Mohammed bin Salman March 2017. Foreign Leader Visits, The White House from Washington, D.C. Wikimedia Commons.

President Donald Trump meets with Mohammed bin Salman, Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and members of his delegation, Tuesday, March 14, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

U.S. Foreign Policy and Saudi Arabia

The Trump Administration’s foreign policy goals regarding Saudi Arabia are crafted with an emphasis on economic security rather than any liberal values, which largely defined the Obama Administration’s attitude towards the Gulf state.

Introduction

U.S. foreign policy is a constantly evolving subject matter, but the shift from the Obama Administration to the Trump Administration in foreign policy terms was notably stark. Nowhere was this shift more evident than the U.S.-Saudi relationship under these two administrations. Foreign policy is a crucial part of statehood but only vaguely defined in the actual U.S. Constitution, caught by design in a perpetual tug-of-war between the legislative and executive branches of the government. As the executive branch has grown in power, especially regarding military action, distinctions in the foreign policy of consecutive administrations have grown. Foreign policy is now more often defined by whoever is in the White House than who sits in Congress. Because of this, when a new administration takes office, foreign policy goals and decisions can change quickly. This causes both frustration and opportunism on the global scale, where allies and enemies alike know all they have to do is wait it out until the next administration to push their agenda. This is clearly seen in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which has become increasingly friendly in the post-Obama era. This is in large part due to the Trump Administration’s vocal opposition to Western Liberalism, which was the paradigm through which many of President Obama’s foreign policy decisions were made. The Trump Administration has demonstrated a much greater willingness to ignore Saudi human rights violations, take a harder stance on Iran, and increase economic involvement. To analyze the shift in the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in the post-Obama era, this paper will first examine where foreign policy authority lies in the U.S. government and who within the country has an influence. Then this paper will examine the external influences on U.S. foreign policy, comparing the role that international relations (IR) theoretical paradigms have on the role of foreign actors on U.S. foreign policy. Finally, this paper will dive deeper into the U.S.-Saudi relationship, how it has changed between the current and previous administrations and why.

Internal Influences

Foreign policy powers as delineated in the U.S. Constitution lie somewhere between the Executive and Legislative branches of government. Congress has the “power of the purse,” meaning they control funding for any foreign policy decisions and control international commerce. Senate must also ratify any treaty made between the U.S. government and the government of a foreign state.[1] The U.S. president, however, has the ability to make Executive Agreements. These Executive Agreements are essentially the same as treaties, but do not require the support of Congress to enter into effect. The president also has the ability to appoint ambassadors, who represent the U.S. abroad. The president also serves as the Commander in Chief of the military. Since authority in foreign policy matters is so murky, the Supreme Court tends to avoid handing down decisions on whether any particular matter falls under the auspices of Congress or the White House. Because of this avoidance of discussions of constitutionality, the Executive Branch has increased its role in foreign policy decision making to spearhead many international agreements while Congress lags behind. Foreign policy in the post-Obama era has become a much more partisan issue than it has been. Historically the two major political parties do not disagree too much on U.S. foreign policy, keeping their disputes primarily in the domestic realm.[2] Bipolarity in the U.S. political sphere is rising in the post-Obama era, with the far-right movement bolstered by Trump’s grandstanding and the far-left (which, compared with previous leftist movements around the world, really falls somewhere closer to the center), responding.

Trump did not cause this shift in domestic politics, however. He was not a cause but an effect. As Valerie M. Hudson discusses in her work on factors that shape policy, “A nation’s leaders rise in part because they articulate a vision of the nation’s role in world affairs that corresponds to deep cultural beliefs about the nation.”[3] Trump represented a conservative vision of America as the biggest powerhouse in the world, a nation of people who can leverage other nations to achieve whatever goals, economically and within other regions of the world. This “tough” stance has somewhat backed the U.S. into a corner in the realm of foreign policy as other states within the system operate on their own agendas and call Trump’s bluff in certain challenging situations. Foreign policy has also been influenced internally by those Trump surrounds himself within the White House. Trump’s Cabinet has seen a high rate of turnover, with new National Security Advisers and Secretaries of Defense and State each providing new insights, biases, and goals for consideration in the foreign policy decision making process. Tillerson attempted to counter the president on many issues, including voicing support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and arguing against a travel ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries.[4] Individual domestic influences on the president are inconsistent, though, in large part due to the high turnover in these offices. Trump tends to replace his advisers rather than let himself be influenced away from his set goals. Because of this, at the international system level U.S. foreign policy has been inconsistent and often frustrating for foreign leaders. These leaders then seek to manipulate foreign policy through aggressive and conciliatory actions in turn. These external influences have shaped U.S. foreign policy as much if not more than domestic disputes within the U.S. 

External Influences

The largest influences on Trump’s foreign policy are globally significant autocrats who Trump respects for their strong leadership and cults of personality. Trump as a president is highly sensitive to the perception of him on a global level; he values being respected as a global leader more than any specific ideology or foreign policy goal. Other leaders, therefore, have great influence on him personally. Putin, specifically, has used Trump’s pride to warm up relations between the White House and the Kremlin by meeting with him alone at key summits and obtaining support for actions that previous administrations might have spoken against. As much as Trump might dislike international organizations and liberal entanglements, these do also heavily influence his administration’s foreign policy decision making. Organizations like the UN have been somewhat of a buffer between Trump’s foreign policy goals and the rest of the world. These international organizations have outlasted many U.S. presidents and serve to both limit the scope of Trump’s foreign policy decision making and goal setting process, and also allow U.S. resources to be put to use in a more consistent manner globally. Trump maintains the foreign policy goal of global leadership, so U.S. involvement in these organizations is all but assured indefinitely, which allows them to still have a strong influence on U.S. foreign policy despite Trump perceiving them primarily as hindrances.

Global social values have shifted, also, in sync with the domestic shift towards conservative nationalism. Far right movements around the world and governmental shifting towards isolationism coincide with Trump’s presidency and affect his policy not just towards those countries but to all. This administration’s response to protests over indigenous rights and climate security regarding the intentional burning of the Amazon rainforest by the Bolsonaro government has been lackluster, and Trump has been relatively silent on the widespread unrest in Hong Kong. States and the relationships between them as defined by “great power politics” is a much greater influence on Trump’s foreign policy decision making than what he views as internal domestic issues in other countries. This is a return to more conservative realist theoretical paradigm within foreign policy, which is a departure from the liberal interventionalist ideologies of the previous few administrations. Liberal interventionism, as well as neoconservative interventionism, has been the predominant IR theoretical paradigm through with U.S. foreign policy decisions are made and goals are set. In the post-Obama era, however, this has changed along with the rise of far right nationalism and xenophobic authoritarian political movements. While conservative realism is not inherently connected to autocracy and authoritarianism, the paradigm does fit better into a world with increasing authoritarian and isolations politics.

The U.S.-Saudi Relationship

The Trump Administration’s foreign policy goals regarding Saudi Arabia are crafted with an emphasis on economic security rather than any liberal values, which largely defined the Obama Administration’s attitude towards the Gulf state. President Obama “openly questioned Riyadh’s value as an ally,” accused the Saudis of promoting sectarian conflict in the region, and under his administration the Senate passed a bill allowing U.S. citizens to sue Saudi Arabia for the 9/11 attacks.[5] Saudi Arabia was angered by the negotiation of the JCPOA, Obama’s crowning foreign policy achievement during his second term as president. Saudi Arabia views Iran as its greatest regional opposition, the center of Shi’a Islam just as they are the center of the majority Sunni sect. That the Obama Administration would negotiate with Iran on nuclear development was insulting to the Saudi government and rocked U.S.-Saudi relations.[6] Saudi Arabia was also angry over the perceived abandonment by the U.S. of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a loyal ally in the eyes of the Saudi government, in the name of supporting the will of the people. President Trump abandoned the JCPOA[7] as quickly as possible, reinstating economic sanctions against Iran and deriding the rest of the P5+1 for not following suit.

Trump, in contrast to Obama, has demonstrated no qualms about placing the U.S.-Saudi relationship ahead of Western liberal ideology. This was seen clearly after the disappearance and presumed murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who lived in the U.S. for many years and a vocal critic of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). MBS became the crown prince of Saudi Arabia back in 2015, originally positioning himself as a more open-minded, economically progressive leader. It was determined by the U.S. intelligence community, however, that MBS directly ordered the murder of this dissident journalist.[8] The media within the U.S., already on shaky ground with the “fake news” president, were furious that a U.S. president would be so blasé about the murder of a journalist, especially one who had lived and worked in the United States. The media placed heavy pressure on Trump from within the U.S. to respond to this incident. The Trump Administration, rather than take a stance defending free speech as Obama might have done (to the detriment of U.S.-Saudi relations), gave MBS the benefit of the doubt and did not want to allow the incident to hamper economic cooperation or military support for the conflict in Yemen. As much as MBS surely appreciated this, the perceived passivity of the Trump Administration to violations of democratic liberal ideals caused something of an uproar domestically. Critics of Saudi Arabia railed against the Trump Administration for ignoring the conclusions of his own intelligence community in favor of a foreign nation (again). Congress pulled foreign policy goal setting further out of Trump’s hands by voting to reduce support for Saudi military involvement in Yemen. The House of Representatives passed a bill blocking any further aid to Saudi forces in Yemen, and President Trump was pressured by Congress to end American refueling of Saudi-led alliance bombers. Technically there is nothing stopping Trump from reversing that decision, though, and he has already begun fast-tracking arms shipments to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE.[9]

This is not to say that the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been without its own upsets. The Trump Administration angered Saudi Arabia with their more vocal support for Israel, especially the official recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. AIPAC and the “Israel Lobby” have a strong pull on this administration, however, especially through Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband. Saudi Arabia has not let Israel’s influence in Washington hinder the working U.S.-Saudi relationship, however, all but abandoning the Palestinian cause in favor of countering Iran and maintaining strong ties with the White House. Yemeni Americans and human rights advocacy groups are specifically protesting continued U.S. support of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen, specifically targeting Democratic lawmakers who sided with Republicans against the decision by the House of Representatives to end support for the war. Advocacy groups have a larger influence on foreign policy through Congress than the White House, since Congressional reelection funds are largely through PACs and financial support from advocacy groups who feel that their voices can be amplified through specific lawmakers, which will ultimately affect certain foreign policy goals and outcomes.

Increased partisan bipolarity has brought foreign policy into the spotlight as Trump’s far right supporters embrace nationalism, the other side of that coin being xenophobia; specifically Islamophobia, as was contested when Trump introduced the so-called “Muslim Travel Ban” which prevented citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from obtaining visas to enter the United States. Not Saudi citizens, interestingly enough, despite 15 of the 19 9/11 attackers being Saudi citizens, and Osama bin Laden himself being a prince of that royal family. Domestic influences on foreign policy regarding Saudi Arabia also include OPEC. The bedrock of the U.S.-Saudi relationship is U.S. reliance on Saudi oil production. Oil lobbies in the U.S., both for and against, are caught in a constant tug-of-war over U.S. involvement with Saudi Arabia. Foreign policy towards Iran is often influenced by oil interests as well. The most recent example of this: a major oil processing plant in Saudi Arabia was hit by a drone and missile strike. The Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility, but it has been determined by MBS and Trump that Iran is the primary responsible party. The likely motivation behind this attack is to prove that Iran can threaten global supplies easily. One of the key areas of cooperation between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia revolves around oil supply lines out of the Strait of Hormuz remaining uninterrupted.[10] This balancing of power against Iran is another cornerstone of the relationship. One of the stronger external factors impacting U.S.-Saudi partnership is the shared desire to counter Iran for regional and global influence. There are some competing external influences regarding that relationship, however. The rest of the P5+1 have not followed the U.S. in reinstituting economic sanctions against Iran, instead continuing to pivot towards Iranian nuclear containment through economic relief.

Conclusion

U.S. foreign policy in the post-Obama era has shifted more towards great power dynamics and conservative realist policies under President Trump. Congress has begun to exercise more of its constitutional authority over foreign policy matters where it disagrees with the actions taken by Trump, which is a departure from the trend of Congress handing more and more power to the executive branch. This tug-of-war between the two branches of government while the judicial branch watches on has created an interesting dynamic in the field of foreign policy analysis, where the somewhat overlapping – and thereby conflicting – constitutional delegations of authority on foreign policy issues are being reexamined to fit the needs of a changing world. President Trump’s foreign policy has been influenced in the domestic sphere strongly by the nationalist views of his base and the interests of economically powerful corporations, lobbies, and political figures. Externally, his greatest influences are those he perceives (or wants to perceive) as being on his level: authoritarian leaders of powerful states. In the specific case of Saudi Arabia, MBS has used Trump’s favorable opinion of him and the economic benefits of cooperation in the oil industry to attempt to weaken their ideological enemy, Iran. Trump’s more conservative realist foreign policy fits well with an aggressive balance against Iranian weapons and regional influence, which has undermined not only Obama’s legacy of negotiation with Iran but also those other countries (especially the P5+1) who still believe in sanctions relief and bringing Iran closer instead of pushing it away. The abandonment of liberal values for economic security and realist great power politics signals a shift away from a decades-long trend in U.S. foreign policy towards interventionism and the promotion of American democracy and ideals abroad.


Works Cited

[1] Louis Henkin, “Foreign Affairs and the Constitution,” Foreign Affairs 66, no. 2 (1987).

[2] Louis Henkin, “Foreign Affairs and the Constitution,” Foreign Affairs 66, no. 2 (1987).

[3] Valerie M. Hudson, Foreign Policy Analysis: Classic and Contemporary Theory (S.l.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

[4] Dan Jefferson B. Lopez, “International Law and U.S. Foreign Policy Under the Trump Administration,” Global Security Review, July 31, 2019.

[5] F. Gregory Gause III, “The Future of U.S.-Saudi Relations,” Foreign Affairs 95, no. 4 (2016).

[6] CFR.org Editors, “U.S.-Saudi Arabia Relations,” Council on Foreign Relations, December 7, 2018.

[7] Dan Jefferson B. Lopez, “International Law and U.S. Foreign Policy Under the Trump Administration,” Global Security Review, July 31, 2019.

[8] Ishaan Tharoor, “Trump Just Can’t Quit MBS,” The Washington Post, November 19, 2018.

[9] Akbar Shahid Ahmed, “Why 5 Freshman Democrats Sided With Trump And Saudi Arabia On A Key Yemen Vote,” HuffPost, July 25, 2019.

[10] Jeffrey Lewis, “An Iranian Missile Attack on Saudi Arabia?” Arms Control Wonk. September 18, 2019.

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