BY: ANDY LAUB
As the world’s leading 20 economies came together in Buenos Aires at the G20, many watched with a combination of humor and discomfort at the sight of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). The two, of course, have much in common as autocratic dictators, with no regard for international norms or laws. Both have been accused of ruthlessly murdering journalists who they don’t agree with and are known for ruling with an iron fist over their countries. Besides their tyrannical rule, these two men also have something else in common- to undermine the rules based international order and create more of a sphere-of-influence type of geopolitical order, while attempting to hold the world ransom for economic resources that more powerful countries rely on. Worse yet, they now have a partner in Washington in President Donald Trump, who has gone out of his way to undermine the world order himself and prefers so called “strong men” while feuding with typical democratic allies like Canada and Germany.
Mr. Trump does everything he can to cozy up to Mr. Putin, while denying MBS directed the recent tragic killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, despite his CIA Director Gina Haspel confirming it. With Trump’s support, these “strong men” have been emboldened to get away with increasingly bad behavior.
The term that has always baffled me is referring to such dictators as “strong man” when in fact they’re actually weak. They’re beleaguered with deep-seeded insecurity and paranoia so much so that they are hyper-focused on consolidating their power. Why else would Donald Trump be so afraid of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation if, as he says, he has nothing to hide? Both Russia and Saudi Arabia’s economies are relatively weak, with Russia’s economy according to the World Bank in 12thplace, smaller than Italy’s and South Korea’s for the biggest country in the world. Since 2013, Russia, according to Trading Economics, has faced an approximately 11% drop in its GDP, mostly due to western sanctions imposed for Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Saudi Arabia’s economy, on the other hand, lags further behind at 19 with a GDP of approximately 683 billion dollars and an economy the size of the Netherlands and Switzerland.
But the Saudi-Russian relationship and its geopolitical dynamics are nothing new. Earlier this year, both sides came to a deal that would help raise oil prices, which is good for both of their economies. Russia also sees Saudi Arabia as a proxy for themselves to gain more of a foothold in the Middle East to counter American influence and Saudi Arabia in return hope to be able to count on Russia in helping to counter Iran’s influence and their dominance in Middle East politics. Corruption runs deep when it comes to oil and geopolitical influence in the Russian-Saudi relationship. Just because MBS has brought Starbucks to Saudi Arabia does not make him a reformer.
Thus, when put to the test with actual facts, they don’t look so strong after all, which begs the question of their bad global behavior. Part of the reason is because when you don’t bring enough cards to the table, you disrupt the game. President Putin and the Crown Prince may feel strong being able to write the rules at home, but they are unable to do so for the world. The enduring strength of the roots of liberal international order created after the second World War are too strong to be overturned. U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a strong ally of MBS said on Tuesday December 4th remarked in Brussels: “International bodies must help facilitate cooperation that bolsters the security and values of the free world, or they must be reformed or eliminated.” When in fact he has it exactly wrong. If the United Nations wasn’t around today, we would have to build one so that the world had a forum of global cooperation. Of course, the UN is not perfect but it is a reflection of the world as it is today, which is also pretty far from perfect. We have institutions like the International Criminal Court, which the United States does not belong to, that has successfully prosecuted dictators such as Milosevic of Serbia and Charles Taylor of Liberia. The international order is also particularly helpful when it comes to greater economic integration, since the backdrop of the infamous greeting was the G20. Ultimately, those who write the rules benefit from the global economy as we have seen compared to the outliers.
Those committed to multilateralism and the liberal world order, which the United will rejoin under a new administration, must double down and work through institutions or alliances to hold leaders like Putin accountable for his continues illegal incursions into Ukraine and the failed poisonings of Sergei and Yulia Skripal with maximum pressure sanctions and efforts through NATO on both cyber and military deterrence. Similarly, in Saudi Arabia now that the whole world is aware of the Kingdom’s crimes, it is imperative to embargo further weapons sales and sanctions key individuals close to the Crown Prince involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Those on the side of the liberal order as opposed to the criminal order can deliver the best results for both themselves and their people. Those on the wrong side pretend to be strong only out of weakness.
Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and North Korea Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the International Chapters Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.
Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.