President Joe Biden has faced fierce criticism for his visit to Saudi Arabia where met with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, often referred to as MBS. Biden, as is well known, had pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” nation because of MBS’s role in approving the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
As the media takes these simple potshots at Biden for an apparent lack of consistency in addressing nation’s human rights violations, they are missing the larger context in which Biden is operating, isolating this event from the difficult and multi-dimensional geopolitical situation he is seeking to address as tries to hold together a fragile coalition of democratic nations–one he has largely led–against a menacing surge of authoritarianism globally and here in the U.S.
We can’t really judge or evaluate Biden’s meeting with MBS without properly assessing the outright and serious threats to democracy and to overall global well-being and survival the world is now facing.
The global political terrain has altered dramatically and swiftly since Biden took office, due largely to Vladimir Putin’s genocidal assault on Ukraine, which has threatened the world’s energy and food supply.
Russia and Ukraine together, before Putin’s invasion, had supplied one third of the world’s wheat exports, and they are among the top five global exporters of corn. This supply has been disrupted, though, as Putin’s forces have blockaded Ukrainian ports, driving the global food crisis to famine levels, according to the United Nations.
The situation is dire, and Putin is well aware that he is using the world’s hunger as a nefarious bargaining chip in his genocidal campaign, indicating he will open Ukrainian ports and allow the wheat to be exported when nations lift their sanctions against Russia.
At a recent economic forum, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in chief of RT, the Russian state-controlled media outlet, explicitly—and with a kind of shameless joy—articulated this strategy: “All our hope is in the famine,” she said, encapsulating what she represented as the dominant chord coming from people in Moscow.
She elaborated, “Here is what it means. It means that the famine will start now and they will lift the sanctions and be friends with us, because they will realize that it’s necessary.”
And when it comes to energy, Putin is hoping to exert a similar stranglehold on nations, as Russian accounts for roughly 40% of gas exports to European Union nations and over 25% of their crude oil. Germany, for example, depends on Russia for nearly two thirds of its oil and natural gas supplies.
While last March the European Union announced plans to end Russian energy imports by 2030, that plan won’t help address Putin’s immediate threat.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen perhaps expressed the dilemma best when she said, “We must become independent from Russian oil, coal and gas. We simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us.”
So, this is the context Biden must negotiate. To hold disempower Putin, by in effect defunding him, Biden must assist the nations of the world in finding alternate resources to make sure their people are fed, warmed, and fueled so they can viably resist the authoritarian stranglehold Putin is trying to exert on them.
That’s why he’s talking to MBS and, perhaps in some respect, humbling himself to find a diplomatic modus vivendi with Saudi Arabia.
He is doing what he can to help the world resist Putin and preserve global democracy against a rapidly creeping authoritarianism.
This humbling diplomacy is not ideal—no doubt about it. Biden is choosing between a rock and a hard place, and in this difficult bind he is exercising a pragmatic political solution within the constraints he faces. But getting a nation like Saudi Arabia to help the world in its fight against authoritarianism by stepping to produce more oil is not in itself a bad thing.
To stubbornly stand on principle could mean watching the world’s populations go hungry and cold and fall victim to Putin’s inhumane stranglehold.
The mainstream corporate media, though, doesn’t seem to bother to connect these dots.
To be sure, coverage of Putin’s genocidal assault on Ukraine has greatly diminished in recent weeks, overshadowed by such events as the mass shooting in Uvalde and the January 6 hearings. And yet this situation is the primary engine of global affairs and local economies.
Indeed, while the media covers soaring inflation, particularly when it comes to energy and food prices, this context is not fully fleshed out. The dominant media narrative around inflation tends to be that it will hurt Democrats’ chances in the mid-term elections and that, even though there’s not much Biden can do about it, he’ll take the blame.
This narrative, as I’ve written about in PoliticusUSA risks pushing Americans to vote for authoritarianism, downplaying the work Biden has done on the international stage to fight an authoritarianism that threatens us here in the U.S. as well.
Indeed, the policies Biden has proposed and Democrats are pursuing, particularly those in the Build Back Better agenda, are geared toward lowering prices for Americans, making the economy function more democratically, and combating climate change by developing alternative energy solutions, which we should see as essential for preserving democracy, following the words of Ursula von der Leyen.
If we look closely at the global situation and understand the inter-relationships of the various stories the media covers, we will have clearer understanding of how Biden is negotiating this complexity to preserve democracy and basic well-being around the world.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.