For much of the past year, the Biden administration has struggled to find ways to ease the price of oil amid the shock of Russia’s war in Ukraine. So when OPEC+, the group of oil-exporting states, decided to cut oil production by two million barrels per day in early October, Washington’s reaction was unsparing. “It’s clear,” asserted White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, “that OPEC+ is aligning with Russia.” The blunt criticism was all the more striking given that it was aimed at Saudi Arabia, which in addition to being the cartel’s largest producer, is an important U.S. partner in the Middle East.

In a narrow sense, the White House’s accusation was correct. Saudi Arabia and Russia both belong to OPEC+, an organization bound by the common desire among oil producers to avoid competition that would lower their export revenues. Its members are aligned in this pursuit of self-interest. Yet the statement seemed to cut deeper: the Biden administration was asserting that, despite Riyadh’s longtime security ties to Washington, it was siding with Russia politically, in effect supporting Moscow’s war in Ukraine and undercutting Western efforts to impose costs on it.

The administration’s black-and-white view of Saudi motives is in line with its broader perspective on partners. Since coming to office, the Biden administration has frequently taken a binary view of the international order—a “competition of democracies and autocracies,” according to its 2022 National Security Strategy. Partly as a result, it has tended to treat decisions by its partners as a litmus test of loyalty to the United States.

But this is a vision that many U.S. partners do not share. It is not clear to most of them that durably aligning with Russia, China, or even the United States is an option. Moscow and Beijing have clients, not allies. The United States, meanwhile, is undergoing a period of flux in its international priorities, leaving its partners with scant assurance that the places or issues on which Washington focuses today will occupy its attention tomorrow, or that supporting the United States on a particular issue will earn U.S. reciprocity on others. As a result, a growing number of U.S. partners are seeking to avoid choosing sides altogether and to maintain relations with all the great powers at once. For the United States, this means that a more nuanced strategy is needed. Faced with partners that are unlikely to do all its bidding, Washington should adopt a nimbler, issue-specific approach to the international order, maximizing its influence in a multipolar world.

All of the Above, Not All or Nothing

Most countries view the rivalry between great powers, rather than the threat posed by any single power, as the greatest challenge to their interests. The Saudis, for example, count China as their top economic partner and the destination for about one-fifth of their exports. In December 2022, Saudi Arabia announced that Chinese President Xi Jinping would visit the kingdom—his third trip abroad since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the Saudis regard the United States as their top security partner. Having to choose one relationship over the other—or even to scale back either significantly—would be costly, so Saudi Arabia, like many other medium-sized countries, seeks instead to maintain both.

One way that the Saudis and other U.S. partners are doing this is by pursuing an “all of the above” approach to their international relationships. In the Middle East alone, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are current or prospective dialogue partners of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a China-centric political, economic, and security group that is sometimes (and far too generously) described as an alternative to NATO. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have reportedly expressed interest in joining the BRICS organization, a group of emerging-market countries, of which India and China are both members despite their deepening rivalry with one another (BRICS stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). And Turkey, the only country in the Middle East formally allied with the United States, has shown interest in being a member of both organizations.

Some scholars, such as the University of Chicago’s Paul Poast, have suggested that the expansion of BRICS and the SCO represents the emergence of an “alternative international order.” But those states seeking greater engagement with the SCO and BRICS are not distancing themselves from the G-7, NATO, or the UN. Rather than building a competing order, then, a growing number of states are simply rejecting—or at least seeking to escape the constraints and consequences of—a binary world order by keeping one foot in the U.S.-led camp while planting the other in the multilateral institutions led by Russia and China. Where many of these same states were nonaligned during the Cold War, today they are instead omni-aligned.

Moscow and Beijing have clients, not allies.

By adopting such an approach, states including Turkey and Saudi Arabia seek to minimize the costs and maximize the benefits of great-power competition. As rivalry between large powers has mounted, small and medium-sized states have increasingly found themselves subjected to competing demands—such as requests from China to support its policies toward Hong Kong and Taiwan, or from the United States to shun Chinese infrastructure investment and 5G technology. Being seen by both sides as a plausible partner makes it more likely that a given state will be the target of suasion rather than sanctions, allowing it to mollify one solicitous great power at a relatively low cost while not provoking the other.

For many of these states, the strategy carries other benefits as well. Being omni-aligned rather than nonaligned means—in theory, if not always in practice—influencing great powers’ decision-making, as well as enjoying the perks of alignment, which could increase if any of the great powers fears losing a partner to another. Omni-alignment also serves as a hedge against the unpredictability of great-power behavior. This hedging is most clearly seen in the Middle East, where the future of both U.S. and Chinese engagement in the region remains unclear, and where even the closest U.S. partners find their relationships with Washington increasingly unsettled by U.S. domestic politics.

To be sure, such hedging can have costs. Turkey’s 2017 purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system in contravention of its status as a NATO member resulted in its expulsion from the F-35 fighter jet program. The UAE’s reluctance to curtail its security and technological relationship with Beijing caused its own planned F-35 deal with the United States to falter. And Hungary’s blocking of European sanctions against Russia may strengthen the determination of Brussels to withhold EU funds from Budapest over rule-of-law concerns. Even Israel, one of the United States’ closest allies, has seen how its relations with Russia and China have increasingly supplanted Iran or the Palestinian issue as the primary points of friction with Washington.

The United States may be tempted to issue its hedge-happy partners an ultimatum—that in competition with Russia or China, they must choose sides. If they continue to do business with these rivals, Washington could say, it may be forced to curtail its own favorable relations with these states. But such an approach is not practical. For one thing, many forms of cooperation between U.S. partners and Russia or China—such as the bulk of their voluminous merchandise trade—pose little threat to U.S. interests and are unworthy of strenuous opposition. Moreover, in regard to China, making good on such an ultimatum may be impossible, given that U.S. partners’ economies are intertwined with Beijing’s—a key difference between today’s chapter of great-power competition and the last one. Furthermore, such a demand would likely prompt requests from U.S. partners for firmer economic and security guarantees, which Washington may be reluctant or unable to provide.

Less Narcissism, More Cooperation

Rather than striving for a tidy Cold War–style division of the world, U.S. policymakers should accept that the latest iteration of great-power competition is unlikely to result in a binary order of states on every issue. Instead, U.S. officials should seek to increase opportunities for prospective partners to align with the United States and should make those alliances more valuable to the partners, even if they are simultaneously engaged with the other great powers in various capacities.

Instead of focusing on broad, multi-issue forums, such as the G-20 or the Summit of Democracies, the United States should seek to build and enhance smaller partnerships of states with more focused agendas, such as the Quad, the Abraham Accords, and the so-called I2U2 grouping of India, Israel, the UAE, and the United States. Such coalitions can advance high-priority mutual interests, including security and infrastructure investment, while setting aside extraneous issues that members may find more contentious and that could muddy cohesion. Such groups can also serve as an effective counterweight to Chinese influence without having to explicitly target Beijing, thereby lowering the potential cost for partners to participate. For example, the still-nascent I2U2 initiative raises the prospect of greater Indian investment in the Middle East, presenting a third option to regional states reluctant to choose between the United States and China, and the Abraham Accords have already increased intraregional investment flows in a way that may reduce the need for external support from any great power.

At the same time, the United States should work with existing allies to entrench shared norms and regulations, such as data privacy and technology exports, to increase incentives for non-allied partners to conform to Washington’s preferences. Partners are more likely to heed American requests to forgo economic opportunities presented by Russia and China if the requests reflect a broadly established norm rather than merely a U.S. demarché, and if they provide tangible benefits in the form of increased access to U.S. and European markets or technology.

The United States should also pick its battles when making requests of partners. The policymaking process in Washington often fails to take into account how partners view their own interests. U.S. policymakers often assume partners see things as the United States does or that partners will have an automatic sense of solidarity with U.S. interests—a regrettable fallacy that former National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster and others have called “strategic narcissism.”

This self-absorption can lead to two varieties of policy failures. First, the United States underestimates its partners’ commitment to a particular policy approach. For example, Washington failed to appreciate that Riyadh has historically resisted American requests to influence its oil-production decisions, leading to the Biden administration’s surprise at the OPEC+ decision in October 2022. The second type of mistake caused by strategic narcissism is to overestimate the United States’ own commitment to a particular policy priority, only to find that Washington is unprepared to inflict consequences when a partner refuses a request. For example, in 2015 the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama asked all its partners worldwide to rebuff the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, only to be refused by even its closest allies, including the United Kingdom and Australia. But the administration ultimately did little in response. U.S. policymakers should make appeals only when there is a realistic prospect that U.S. partners will accede and Washington is prepared to impose costs if they do not. A request that does not do both will contribute to perceptions that the United States’ influence is waning.

With Us When It Matters

Finally, the United States should aim to cultivate stable, long-term partnerships even with difficult and nondemocratic partners. In doing so, it should prioritize core concerns such as countering Russian and Chinese influence and accept that progress on other issues will be slower—and more likely to occur within the context of a constructive working relationship. U.S. officials, including Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, have recently accused China of “pursu[ing] ties based solely on its narrow, transactional, commercial, and geopolitical interests.” But in the Middle East and elsewhere, the presumption among most U.S. partners is that Washington, too, is self-interested and transactional, especially as it shifts its attention and resources to Asia.

In a transactional relationship, benefits and costs are expected to be contemporaneous. In an alliance, on the other hand, a state might be reasonably asked to bear some costs in the present for benefits in the future. If the United States wishes to cultivate such long-term relationships, it must make clear that future perks are indeed in the offing. In capitals across the Middle East, however, there is little confidence that acceding to U.S. requests will either spare them a crisis in bilateral relations when the next issue arises or earn them a sympathetic ear in Washington. This reflects a conundrum for the United States in places, such as the Middle East, that receive diminishing American attention. When the United States shifts its priorities away from a region, U.S. policymakers pay less attention to handling key partnerships. Yet that is exactly when such relationships are most vital—when the United States has interests but must find indirect ways to safeguard them.

Despite the Biden administration’s vision of a world neatly divided between democracies and autocracies, it is increasingly evident that the latest era of great-power competition will not be characterized by any all-or-nothing division. Small and medium-sized states are eschewing both alignment with a single power and nonalignment, and instead choosing omni-alignment: participation in the multilateral institutions led by the United States and those spearheaded by its rivals. Rather than continuing to try to overlay its preferred, simple structure on the world’s more complex reality, the United States should adapt by creating more, and more tailored, opportunities for high-value cooperation with Washington. The question posed to partners should not be whether they are for or against the United States, but who they will be with—and who will be with them—when it matters most.

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  • MICHAEL SINGH is Managing Director and Lane-Swig Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as Senior Director for the Middle East at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.
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