Joe Biden made his first official foreign trips as vice president in July, when he travelled to Israel and Saudi Arabia. It’s common knowledge that the trip’s main objective was to convince Saudi Arabia to boost oil output in order to lessen the strain brought on by rising global energy prices.

It is important to recall that in 2019, when punishing Saudi Arabia for the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Biden called the country a “pariah,” and he said he had no intentions to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.

Biden's Dilemmas Punishing Saudi Arabia

Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that Biden was roundly criticised for not only failing to persuade Saudi Arabia to raise oil output but also for bumping fists with MBS. Some, however, contend that the criticism is unjustified.

After all, the entire Western world is to blame for Biden’s predicament.

Realists and moralists have both taken issue with Biden’s reorientation of Saudi policy.

To put it another way, when dealing with foreign events, political leaders are often forced to choose between protecting their country’s interests and acting morally.

Human rights activists/moralists stress the importance of drawing a clear line with dictators who have poor human rights records and not betraying the victims of said dictators for the sake of economic or geopolitical gains, while realists tend to emphasise that political leaders need to negotiate with dictators in order to protect the interests of their citizens.

To begin with, the Biden administration leaked a classified CIA report that blamed the Saudi crown prince for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

While the United States did impose sanctions on some individuals connected to the murders, MBS himself was not one of them. Realists and moralists alike voiced their disapproval of this response. Both moralists and realists agreed that the United States would be hypocritical if it did not take concrete punitive steps against MBS.

Some realists think that by visiting Saudi Arabia, Vice President Biden was embarrassing the United States, while others think that, despite the short-term embarrassment, the visit could strengthen US-Saudi ties in the long run.

Some people who care deeply about human rights perceive Biden’s meeting with MBS as a betrayal of his promises and an act of capitulation to a despot.

It is worth noting that Turkey played an important role in bringing Khashoggi’s murder into the public eye; nevertheless, it is hard to determine if their aim was wholly altruistic.

Recep Tayyip Erdoan, the president of Turkey, was under fire for human rights abuses at the time, and his country was sanctioned by the United States.

If the US decided to punish Saudi Arabia, it would suffer geopolitical losses, but if it tolerated Saudi Arabia’s actions, it would show the world that the US had a double standard in its response to human rights.

This suggests that the disclosure of Khashoggi’s murder may have been an attempt to embarrass the US.

Turkey’s ultimate goal in pursuing this issue was to depose Saudi Arabia as the dominant Muslim state in the Sunni community. However, considering the dramatic economic decline in Turkey over the past several months, it is imperative that the country improve relations with its neighbours.

In part because of this, Turkey welcomed MBS to Ankara in June and halted the murder trial against Khashoggi and handed over the case to Saudi Arabia in April. These are only a few instances where Turkey has compromised on justice for the sake of its political and economic interests.

Since the United States has not lifted its sanctions, Biden’s trip was slightly less dishonourable than Erdogan’s behaviour. However, given the United States’ self-proclaimed role as the world’s preeminent defender of human rights, Biden’s apparent capitulation has drawn heavy criticism.

It’s Not Just Biden’s Fault That We Have an Energy and Climate Emergency

Obviously, it’s not fair to pin the West’s present major issues squarely on the shoulders of the Biden administration. Before its invasion of Ukraine, Russia had already been persecuting dissident journalists and human rights activists, but neither Europe nor the United States enforced broad sanctions against them or sped up their efforts toward energy independence to lessen dependency on Russia.

Furthermore, no European state promised to boycott Saudi Arabian energy like the US did following Khashoggi’s murder. Thus, it is fair to say that Western leaders have not shown much resolve to lessen their reliance on the energy of authoritarian countries in recent years.

Using this criterion, it’s possible to argue that no Western political leader is more hypocritical than Biden.

Russia’s long history of “trading with devils” is to blame for the country’s current energy crisis brought on by Western sanctions. So, it’s fair that their leaders split the moral burden.

It should also be noted that human rights and interests are not the only things that motivate Western foreign policy. Despite Iran’s notorious record of executing dissidents over the past 35 years, both the United States and the European Union signed on to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the so-called “Iran Nuclear Deal”).

The original goal of the deal was to use the promise of a return to regular trade relations with Iran as a carrot to encourage the country to stop working on nuclear weapons and start paying more attention to domestic human rights issues.

The West made concessions in order to reach this agreement, but it was not based on the belief that human rights in Iran would suddenly and dramatically improve.

When Donald Trump took office, he immediately rescinded the United States’ participation in the Iran Nuclear Deal on the grounds that it had “loopholes” that would allow Iran to continue building nuclear weapons covertly.

Iran’s hardline conservatives at home have regained complete political authority in recent years, and the country has been busily refining the enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons.

There has been a lot of discussion about who is to blame for the Iranian threat: Obama’s easing of sanctions or Trump’s unilateral exit from the nuclear accord.

Not only does Trump’s proposal “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People” allow Israel to control much of the West Bank, but he also recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Trump’s Middle East policy will have an Impact on Biden’s Ability to Act.

On the campaign trail and in his first months in office, Biden made clear his goal to alter Trump’s approach to the Middle East. While Trump’s policies may have taken some time to take hold, the signs are promising.

Additionally, the geopolitical situation has undergone significant shifts. Because of this, Biden has a hard time doing whatever he wants, and even if he did, the outcomes would likely not be satisfying.

Some progressives have pointed the finger at excessive use of fossil fuels for the climate crisis. Thus, the Biden administration should use the current energy crisis to promote renewable energy and minimise global greenhouse gases emissions, despite the suffering it would cause people in the short term.

However, the US midterm elections are coming up, and asking voters to cut back on their energy consumption at this time would be a bad look for the Democratic Party, which is linked with Vice President Joe Biden. Therefore, it’s questionable whether or not such an approach would be wise.

Lastly, the notion that “The US would not face such a passive geopolitical scenario if Trump was re-elected as US President” is false. Despite his persistent severe position against Iran and his partiality to Israel and Saudi Arabia, Trump is notoriously unpredictable and capricious in handling US international affairs.

Given his track record, Trump could end up reversing course on Ukraine’s admittance to NATO, initially stating his support for the country’s membership but then joining the chorus of voices opposed to the alliance’s expansion.

Even worse for international stability, he could respond rashly to Russia’s military threats. Both Trump’s ardent followers and his detractors can, in the end, find evidence to back up their claims while ignoring inconvenient facts.