Choosing Sides in the New Cold War

In his September 21 address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Biden said "We do not seek a Cold War. We do not ask any nation to choose between the United States or any other partner.”

It took a lot of courage to make that claim.

On October 5, OPEC+ announced that they were cutting oil production by two million barrels a day. That represents a 2% reduction of the daily global supply, larger than expected and the biggest cut in over two years.

That cut in oil production comes despite Biden’s plea to Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to offset rising prices caused by Russian sanctions and, crucially, boost the efficacy of sanctions on Russia. Biden offered Saudi Arabia an expanded "strategic partnership," a "commitment to supporting Saudi Arabia’s security and territorial defense," and a further commitment to uphold Saudi Arabia as the dominant power in the region.

Biden welcomed the pariah kingdom back into the world community in a trade for siding with the US by increasing oil production. He got rejected. And that is when the White House proved that they do ask nations to choose sides: “It’s clear that OPEC+ is aligning with Russia with today’s announcement,” announced White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

And there is a penalty for not being on America’s side. Several members of congress have called for the US to respond by putting an end to all US military aid to Saudi Arabia. Senator Bob Mendez, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, promised that, because of Saudi Arabia’s "decision to help underwrite Putin’s war," he "will not green-light any cooperation with Riyadh until the kingdom reassesses its position with respect to the war in Ukraine." Legislation has been introduced to remove US troops and missile systems from Saudi Arabia and to stop all arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The price that Saudi Arabia will pay is not for its decision’s effect on oil markets or anything other than choosing sides: the military relationship could be restarted if Saudi Arabia "reconsiders its embrace of Putin," said Senator Richard Blumental and Representative Ro Khanna, describing the legislation they have proposed.

The experience of Saudi Arabia is not an isolated example that refutes Biden’s claim that the US does not ask countries to choose sides. Loosing patience with Turkey’s refusal to join the US sanctions regime against Russia and with their plans even to increase economic cooperation with Russia, the US has launched an intensified pressure campaign to force Turkey to crack down on Russian evasion of economic sanctions and cease integration with Russia’s financial system.

India, too, can testify to the boldness of Biden’s claim that the US does not pressure countries to take sides. The US has repeatedly demanded that India "take a clear position" on the war in Ukraine and declared that "It’s now time [for India] to further distance itself from Russia." Those demands have also been accompanied by warnings.

Africa has also been warned. In early August, the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told African countries that “if a country decides to engage with Russia, where there are sanctions, then they are breaking those sanctions.” What happens if they break sanctions? “They stand the chance of having actions taken against them.”

The US pressure on countries to take sides continues as countries continue to decline to sign up for the US side either by supporting Russia diplomatically or economically or by insisting on their right to remain nonaligned.

The decision to cut oil production was not an exclusive OPEC decision. The decision was made by OPEC+, an organization of OPEC and non-OPEC oil producing countries that includes Russia. So, the Saudi decision is perceived by the White House as being coordinated with Russia and as evidence of Saudi Arabia overtly siding with Russia.

Saudi Arabia has more than doubled its imports of Russian oil. And they are not alone. Russian oil is flowing to China, India and Turkey. And exports into Russia also continue to flow.

Even unequivocal diplomatic support for the US at the UN has continued to be hard to find. In the Security Council, even support for condemning as bold a move as Russia’s decision to absorb territory in eastern Ukraine was disappointing for the US. Russia, of course, vetoed the resolution. But China, India, Brazil and Gabon all abstained. China, India, and Brazil represent not only a large percentage of the world’s population, but their votes demonstrate that the BRICS nations remain unbroken and undivided.

When the resolution died in the Security Council, it moved to the General Assembly. But, even here, where their votes were non-binding and the pressure from the US was intense, fifty-two nations would still not condemn Russia. Importantly, China and India continued to abstain, effectively resisting US pressure and supporting Russia. The nations of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization continued to stand with Russia as did most of Africa.

Medea Benjamin and Nicolas Davies have pointed out that, at the recent session of the UN General Assembly in September, sixty-six countries used their speeches as an opportunity to call for a diplomatic end to the war. In doing so, they swam against the US stream of refusing to push Ukraine and Russia to the negotiation table. Those sixty-six countries represent most of the people of the world. Noam Chomsky has recently said that "about 90% of the countries of the world are not going along with the U.S.-U.K. position on Ukraine, which is basically to continue the war to weaken Russia and no negotiations."

Outside the US, UK and Europe, the war in Ukraine looks more complicated than it does in the US. And many of those countries want to reserve the right to remain nonaligned and want to push for a diplomatic solution to the war. It is not true that the US does not ask those countries to choose sides, that it does "not ask any nation to choose between the United States or any other partner."

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.