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Buzzword or grand strategy? What Biden's Build Back Better World policy is all about

The Build Back Better World (B3W) might be remembered as President Joe Biden’s signature foreign policy project. There are four reasons to believe this.

Firstly, the name reflects one of the most ambitious goals since George H Bush’s announcement of a ‘New World Order’ in 1991. Secondly, the B3W was launched during Biden’s first G7 as President, in Cornwall earlier this year, in front of leaders of the most advanced economies and wealthiest democracies. Thirdly, this policy deals with epochal global challenges, from technology to global health and climate change. Last but not least, this project goes beyond US foreign policy because its raison d’être is in its multinational character.

As world leaders come together in Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) 1-12 November, it is anticipated that Biden will focus on his B3W plans, perhaps providing more details about how this coalition plans to tackle the environmental crisis.

Yet, officially to date we only have limited information on what the Build Back Better World is really about, all that’s been seen is a fact sheet from the White House and the G7 communiqué.

One might legitimately wonder to what extent this is just another buzzword of a recently sworn in Administration rather than informed by grand strategic thinking. My answer is, as is often the case, in between. The vision behind it bears much strategic thinking and is very much in continuity with America grand strategy. On the other hand, the B3W remains nebulous and faces several uncertainties, from its reliance on private funding to the political resolve in a broad coalition.

The White House’s fact sheet emphasised that the B3W is “a values-driven, high-standard, and transparent infrastructure partnership led by major democracies to help narrow the $40+ trillion infrastructure need in the developing world, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic” and that its main areas of concern are “climate, health and health security, digital technology, and gender equity and equality”. Meanwhile, the Carbis Bay G7 Summit Communiqué was richer in details and commitments. If the document clearly aimed at gathering energies for re-building the economy, it is the how that one should focus the attention on. Indeed, values, standards, and the rules-based international order represent the backbone of the communiqué and the spirit of the G7.

Joe Biden

In this regard, the B3W could be seen as an operation of order (re-)engineering to overcome the crisis of the Liberal International Order (LIO) – and some have reflected on its relationship to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The LIO was promoted by the United States at the end of the WWII and it was designed to favour the economic interests of the US, which enjoyed the most competitive economy in the world. This allowed Washington to exert its hegemony across the international system of states while avoiding the imperial trap in which previous hegemons had fallen. The US, for decades, enjoyed command of the world economy without the need of occupying countries for the sake of it – although, there have been some exceptions.

The LIO however, has been eroded and with it US international influence. The rise of China through a state-led economy is seen by most as “one of the great dramas of the twenty-first century” and one of the principal challenges to the US-led LIO. In this context, the B3W is the Biden Administration’s attempt at creating a LIO 2.0; that is, a stricter layer of rules which is seeking to protect next-generation industries and profitable investments from the Chinese state-led capitalism by using standards that Beijing does not want to comply with.

De facto, B3W is a more exclusive club than the LIO which seeks to hinder China from accessing parts of the global economy. Similar operations have been described by the Henry Jackson Society as “positive decoupling”. This means that the US and some of its partners “may not be able to regenerate self-sufficiency across all strategic sectors” and should accept limited dependency on China in some strategic areas. However, with projects like the B3W they commit to “forcing breakthroughs in frontier technologies that China does not yet dominate, rather than chasing after China’s production of existing products”.

Biden’s B3W does not come out of the blue, however. It is only the latest American attempt at protecting the LIO from growing Chinese influence. Indeed, the Obama Administration tried this first with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which undermined Chinese state-owned enterprises. The Trump Administration pursued the same strategic objective with trade tariffs, a more confrontational and nationalism-informed policy tool. There has been much strategic continuity and tactical change between the foreign economic policies of the three presidents. The strategic objective was always the same, coercing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) into accepting more free-market discipline – that is, privatising. Yet, each president sought to achieve this with different tactics.

On China and the world economy, the B3W communiqué pointed out that the “largest” democracies must continue to “consult on collective approaches to challenging non-market policies and practices which undermine the fair and transparent operation of the global economy”. But here comes the major challenge to the B3W. While the BRI of China is backed by one, centralised government, the B3W will always have to pursue consensus within the coalition.

This is what the B3W seeks to do, with the US and some Western partners retreating to create a new sphere of influence or economic-technological line of defence. But this requires Washington to persuade its allies, among others. At the G7 however, to start with the communiqué confirmed that members “will cooperate to address the challenge posed by China” but only “where it is in our mutual interest”. Furthermore, it was reported that while the US was keen to make most of the G7 about China, Britain and other European countries were keen to make it more about rebuilding after Covid-19 and were sceptic about the US’ hawkish stance towards China. Others, like South Korea – invited as a guest – continue to apply “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to positioning between the US and China.

This scepticism has less to do with strategic culture and more with the fact that China has become such an important economic partner for the West. The challenge the US faces of creating a coalition behind the B3W banner is, de facto, a strategic success for Beijing. The success of the B3W depends on the ability of the US to leverage on its hegemonic network of alliances. Its eventual failure might represent a crucial junction in the crisis of US international leadership.

In this story

Zeno Leoni

Zeno Leoni

Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department

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