The West Needs a More Transactional Foreign Policy
The relentless virtue signaling and insults from the West about the World Cup in Qatar is symptomatic of outdated thinking about foreign policy in the region. The West is trapped in a storm of its own perceived self-righteousness.
There is a power vacuum in the Middle East, with the U.S. having surrendered its position of power and influence, and foreign policy is becoming increasingly transactional. Gone are the days of lecturing these nations on their political systems and values. Many are beginning to put political differences aside to strengthen bilateral trading partnerships and countries which don’t demand reform as a condition for trade will increasingly benefit.
The UK must adapt to this new world if it is to continue to be a global trading power. One of the purported benefits of Brexit was the ability to forge closer ties with nations outside of Europe. If we want to achieve these objectives, then we must stop our moral grandstanding. Start treating these nations with respect, and focus on trading with them, not lecturing them.
Transactional vs ideological foreign policy
Born out of a Cold War mentality, an ideological foreign policy is defined by big power rivalry and ideological contests between democracy and authoritarianism. This worked to a certain extent during the Cold War, as nations aligned one way or the other hoping to enjoy the economic fruits of backing a major power. Particularly so in the Middle East. The problem is, very little that goes on in the region now can be explained by great power interests.
Rather than react to this, and adapt to a new world order, if anything the West has become more ideological and sanctimonious. Whilst the U.S. and other Western nations regard gender rights and acceptance of sexual freedom as cornerstones of ‘human rights,’ in Qatar or Saudi Arabia these values are immoral. They are not regarded as ‘rights’ and the insistence that they should be universally adopted is viewed as arrogantly pharisaic.
The West looks at the social reforms being enacted by these regimes and belittles them as too slow and too limited. But the leaders of these nations believe it is the West that is moving the goalposts.
For example, attempts by the West to use arms sales, historically a strong area of trade, to pressure countries in the region to adhere to common ideological principles has only pushed them towards diversifying their procurement and developing their own industries.
Rise of China in the region
As the West, most notably the U.S., loses its grip on the region, China is filling the vacuum left behind. One-third of China’s energy imports are from the Gulf Cooperation Council and Chinese companies buy one-sixth of GCC oil exports. China has become the region’s largest trading partner and foreign investor.
They have largely done this through a brand of self-interested realpolitik, ensuring that relations are nakedly transactional, which has resonated with the region. China does not insist their trading partners align with their political system and values, nor does it punish and insult them for not doing so. It has been calculated in its desire to keep out of the region’s many political disputes, instead focusing its policies on trade and investment. This has not only resonated with the nations in the region but has also allowed it to maintain healthy relations with all the major players.
This approach was in evidence during Xi Jinping’s consequential recent visit to the region to attend the GCC and Arab League summits, where he declined to be drawn into the Jamal Khashoggi affair on the grounds of sovereign immunity. This was a major win for Mohammed bin Salman, and it is a move likely to push Saudi Arabia further from the West as that continues to be a sticking point in the relationship.
Medium-sized powers are being presented with an option that doesn’t revolve around great power struggles. They no longer must sugar-coat their internal politics to an American audience to trade in a globalised economy.
How can the West exert greater influence in the region to change the dynamic of power relationships, which is rapidly heading east? One way would be to re-engage and help provide further impetus to the Abraham Accords.
Iran has been gripped by protests in recent weeks and the authority of the Iranian regime has been increasingly called into question. But few informed observers believe its future is in genuine danger and anyone placing a bet on regime change is likely to lose their money.
The sentiment from Doha is that talks are currently stalling. Stepping in to get them back on track could be a smart bet, cementing closer ties in the region. For all their flaws, they remain the only serious game in town.
Our trading future
Whilst in the past we have been able to use our sway to influence nations to a point where they are palatable to trade with, this luxury is gone. The rise of China has empowered nations who were previously our natural allies. But we can no longer take their support for granted.
We need to get comfortable trading with nations which do not necessarily share our worldview. This insistence on imposing our ideological values on other nations is holding us back from gaining influence and growing our export economy.
The UK is looking to reaffirm its place on the world stage and there can no better opportunity than in the Middle East; with the U.S. in retreat, China will become the defining force in the region if the UK does not step in to fill the void.
With its long history in the region, the UK has relationships which could give it an advantage over the European Union and other trading blocs, but only if they are deployed judiciously.