Realism and Idealism: US Policy toward Saudi Arabia, from the Cold War to Today

By Bowman, Bradley L. | Parameters, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Realism and Idealism: US Policy toward Saudi Arabia, from the Cold War to Today


Bowman, Bradley L., Parameters


In his 2005 inaugural address, President George W. Bush said, "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one .... So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." (1) This ambitious pronouncement represents the keystone of the Bush Administration's foreign policy. US foreign policy around the world-and especially in the Middle East--rests increasingly on this belief that a more democratic world not only coincides with American values but is consistent with America's interests as well. This belief directly contradicts US policy in the Middle East during the Cold War. For almost five decades, US policy in the Middle East operated on the assumption that democracy there would jeopardize US political and economic interests. Indeed, during a November 2003 visit to England, President Bush declared, "We must shake off decades of failed policy in the Middle East. Your nation and mine, in the past, have been willing to make a bargain, to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability. Longstanding ties often led us to overlook the faults of local elites. Yet this bargain did not bring stability or make us safe. It merely bought time, while problems festered and ideologies of violence took hold." (2)

If the Bush Administration sincerely believes that freedom and democracy in the United States depends on freedom and democracy abroad, then sooner or later the path of reform must go through the House of Saud, The attacks of 9/11 brought to light the central ideological and financial role of the Saudis in international terrorism. The road to reform in Saudi Arabia, however, will likely traverse treacherous ground that could endanger US political and economic interests. Therefore, US policy toward Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East should cautiously balance American idealist values and realist interests, patiently and prudently applying the lessons of recent history. Before analyzing US policy toward Saudi Arabia during the Cold War and developing a strategy for the future, it is important to gain a better understanding of these realist interests and idealist values.

Dueling Ideologies: Realism and Idealism

When President Bush speaks of "vital interests," he is expressing a notion grounded in the realist worldview of international relations. This school of thought finds its roots almost two and a half millennia ago in Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War and was formalized as international relations theory in the 20th century by prominent political scientists such as Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz. An important uniting concept in many realist theories is the notion that the domestic political character of nation-states matters little in determining their international behavior. Rather, in an international system without a dominant ruler, states attempt to increase their security by maximizing military and political power and the economic prosperity on which they are based. Generally, realists suggest that human nature or the structure of the international system determines state behavior, not whether the state is democratic or authoritarian. (3)

On the other hand, President Bush's reference to America's "deepest beliefs" is firmly rooted in the liberal or idealist school of thought. This worldview is based on the idea that governments derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed, and that these governments should respect the human rights and basic freedoms of their citizens. For most of American history, US leaders focused primarily on the implementation of these values at home, saying the United States should be the "standard of freedom and independence," but the "champion and vindicator only of her own." (4) However, in the wake of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson attempted to ultimately banish war by creating a comprehensive international system of collective security and economic interdependence among constitutional democracies.

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