Why America Needs More of a “Swing State” Focus in its Foreign Policy
Mid-sized countries in crucial parts of the world are critical sites in the competition for international influence
Last week’s surprise announcement that China helped broker a deal to re-open diplomatic relations between Middle East rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia sparked a debate about America’s role in the world and whether China was overtaking it. It’s much too soon to tell whether this agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia proves meaningful—the test of that will come in whether this preliminary accord actually helps stabilize the Middle East.
But this episode just goes to show that the international system has become a lot more complicated. Gone is the so-called unipolar moment of the post-Cold War era, but the global order that’s now emerging defies easy definition. Today’s world has many more shades of gray, and accurately interpreting events like this new Iran-Saudi deal requires more nuance and attention to detail than America’s political and media environment permits.
That’s why it’s important to consider ways the United States can win friends and influence in global “swing states”—countries that play pivotal roles in their own regions and often seek to hedge their relationships with Washington, Beijing, and Moscow.
Competing frames to describe a world in transition
Call it “complex multipolarity” or pin a “G-Zero world” label on it if you want—the main point is that the world is currently in uncharted territory, as are the frameworks we all use to describe and analyze it.
2023 is not 1991. In 1991, the United States emerged victorious after decades of Cold War competition when the Soviet Union collapsed, and America rallied a broad international coalition to quickly win a war in the Middle East. The United States used the momentum from these victories to both marshal new diplomatic efforts to try and resolve conflicts in the Middle East and solidify the gains from a rising tide of freedom and democracy in regions like Eastern Europe. China, for its part, barely registered as a minor blip on the geopolitical radar screen. There were debates inside of America about what it should do in the world, but they weren’t heavily partisan and ideological.
Today, however, the world is in a state of disordered transition: Russia challenged democratic systems long before it invaded Ukraine for the second time in less than a decade in 2022. China continues to assert itself on the global stage at the same time it has adopted an increasingly aggressive approach in its immediate region of the world. Any notion that including China in the global trade system would lead to major changes in its autocratic communist political system no longer appears credible—if anything, the opposite has occurred as American, European, and other companies with exposure in China self-censored in order to ingratiate themselves with the Chinese Communist Party.
Add to this emerging world the transnational challenges like climate change and pandemics plus quite a bit of strategic confusion from a global information and political warfare landscape that intersects with America’s own internal political divisions, and what we have is a much more complicated international environment in which U.S. foreign policy operates today. American foreign policy experts have put forward a number of overarching frameworks over the past several years, from the notion of “great power competition” advanced by both the Biden and Trump administrations to the thin ideas of the “restraint” camp and even some residual liberal internationalist impulses like the Summit for Democracy.
But one aspect that’s generally absent in nearly all of these ways of thinking about global politics is the role of U.S. relations with so-called “swing states” or “middle powers.” This group of countries generally lacks the same global geopolitical and economic reach as the United States, European Union, China, and Russia. They nonetheless play a pivotal role in their respective regions and help shape the global landscape on key transnational issues like climate change. Saudi Arabia, a member of the G-20, is one of those swing states, and last week’s Beijing-brokered deal with Iran emphasized the strategic importance of this category of countries.
How about swing states and open relationships with “middle powers?”
In American politics, a “swing state” is one that could be won by a presidential candidate from either party because the partisan divide is narrow in that particular state—and that state or group of swing states could determine the outcome of the election itself. Sometimes also known as ‘battleground states,” they are the places where presidential candidates and campaigns spend more of their time and resources. This notion could also be applied in U.S. foreign policy and America’s approach to the world—in particular to other countries that have a diverse network of relationships with global powers such as the United States and China.
The conception of a “swing state” in U.S. foreign policy isn’t a new one – more than a decade ago, foreign policy analysts Daniel M. Kliman and Richard Fontaine published “Global Swing States: Brazil, India, Indonesia, Turkey, and the Future of International Order.” Written long before the more recent fraying of the international order, this paper made the case for America to pursue closer relations with four leading emerging democracies—or so they were seen at the time—as a means to bolster the international system.
The paper outlined a set of recommendations about how the United States could move more closely in alignment with those four specific countries on several fronts: trade, international finance, maritime order, non-proliferation, and human rights. The main argument was that the United States could build a stronger base of support for international order with these four countries because at the time they each had large, vibrant economies, a certain commitment to democracy, and a strategic geographic location in a region that made them matter more than others.
In the decade plus since that paper was published, the international system has shifted considerably, as have the conditions inside of each of those four countries—particularly with regard to their democratic credentials. But the basic idea that the United States should work more closely with what others have called “Middle Powers” remains sound. If anything, it’s become even more important for the United States and other like-minded nations to develop a network of force multipliers around the globe.
There are several challenges with this category of countries—first off, just what constitutes a “Middle Power” or swing state can be subjective. Most likely they would include the four countries mentioned already as well as Mexico, South Africa, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, among others. Second, the group of countries won’t necessarily fit into neat categories when it comes to economic or political models. Finally, these countries often feel pulled in different directions by global powers, so their decisions can seem vexing on particular issues. Like it or not, these frenemies or occasional friends with benefits may become more common in the international system that’s taking shape.
Furthermore, the fact that these swing states play important roles in their respective regions and oftentimes punch far above their weight on specific issues in the global arena means that it would help U.S foreign policy if more time and attention were devoted to these swing states.
Regionalization has mattered more than globalization during the past 40 years, as Shannon O’Neil reminds us in her latest book, The Globalization Myth:
Over half of the flows in international trade, investment, money, information, and people occur within regions.
The future of a healthier international order will likely depend on stronger regional orders. And working more effectively with swing states rather than retrenching away from them is more likely to get the results Americans want in the world.
Focusing on swing states isn’t a replacement for the broader efforts to compete with the likes of China and respond to the damage countries like Russia have done to the international order, but it can help the overall effort to advance stability in the world. Moreover, swing states can play important roles in their own regions to address pressing transnational issues such as climate change, migration, and economic development so the burden isn’t solely on the United States and other global powers.
U.S.-Saudi relations in this new, complicated world
All of this brings the story back to that one of the most fraught, troubled, and politicized of relations, U.S.-Saudi ties, what to make of the recent Saudi-Iran deal brokered by Beijing, and how the United States should respond.
If the U.S.-Saudi relationship were a marriage, it would be in deep need of couples therapy due to the mutual mistrust and recriminations that have simmered beneath the surface of historical cooperation on security, energy, and economics. One country is an open democracy, and the other is an absolute monarchy with a deeply concerning record of human rights abuses. Both countries have been changing in important ways over the past decade, with a mix of positive and negative trends inside of both countries. At times the political and social debates within each country have spilled over into bilateral ties—usually not in constructive ways.
The most recent episode came last fall when Saudi Arabia along with its OPEC+ partners decided to cut oil production, causing some in the Biden administration and many Democrats to accuse Saudi Arabia of interference in America’s internal politics a month before the mid-term elections. The price of oil and gasoline ended up going down, while Democrats ended up doing better than expected in the elections. But the intemperate finger pointing between the two countries still left a mark.
Last week’s deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia was met with mixed reaction in the United States. The Biden administration reacted mostly favorably and highlighted the possibility that it might reduce tensions in the region. The administration’s critics, however, took China’s role as a chance to bash the administration for “weakness” in letting China step into the spotlight. As with most Middle East policy questions these days, there was an oversupply of people paid to offer commentary on regional issues that creates an oversupply of analyses, few of them genuinely insightful.
Strip away the simplistic advocacy campaigns that have sought to politicize the U.S.-Saudi relationship over the past decade, however, and it’s easy to see that Saudi Arabia is a country that seeks to shape and influence its people, region, and world in ways quite different than it has in the past. We can lose sight of the risks and opportunities inherent in this transformation if we focus on just one or two aspects involved, whether positive or negative. But pretending that these issues can be solved by simply cutting off or downgrading ties amounts to a road to nowhere at best—and at worst leaves a swing state like Saudi Arabia liable to sidle up to American strategic competitors like China.
Indeed, opportunities almost always exist to advance U.S. interests and values in complicated places like Saudi Arabia—but only if we don’t take our ball and go home. Just hours after China announced the Iran-Saudi deal, Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest energy firm, announced record profits, adding to the already considerable resources the company and country have. Saudi Arabia has nominally committed to the global effort to reduce carbon emissions in the coming decades, and it is investing billions in new sources of energy. Rather than sniping back and forth about oil production decisions, the United States and Saudi Arabia could instead recognize the unique role both play as global energy superpowers and how coordination between the two countries could set the playbook for a global energy transition.
Saudi Arabia is also rising as a regional and global economic force, and this could create mutually beneficial gains for the United States and Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials let it slip that it was in talks with U.S. aerospace giant Boeing for a $35 billion deal for new airliners that could create thousands of jobs in America if it comes through. Finally, Saudi Arabia has expressed an interest in de-escalating tensions across the Middle East in other areas besides its relationship with Iran, and it could play a pivotal role in supporting steps towards a just and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A more effective and strategic approach to U.S.-Saudi ties would look for ways to broaden and diversify the bilateral relationship to include more issues than just oil production and arms sales, and that process is already underway. The discussion needs to be more forward-looking rather than stuck in the past or the current moment. As Peter Juul argued in the Liberal Patriot, “it’s far from clear that American values will be advanced by keeping our distance from Riyadh.”
Nor is it clear that American interests will be served via estrangement from Saudi Arabia or other swing states in the complicated international system that’s now emerging. Given our long history with Saudi Arabia, the United States ought to have an advantage over the likes of China and Russia when it comes to keeping Riyadh on our side geopolitically—and it certainly ought to be a less trying task than, say, convincing South Africa or India to act on principle rather than their own historical ties to Moscow.
First, though, we have to recognize that the world has changed in ways that give countries like Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and India much greater sway over global politics than they had in the post-Cold War era. It’s a geopolitical adjustment that needs to be made all around, to be sure—but one that America can and should lead.