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Biden’s ‘build back better’ could build a better US foreign policy

In response to the economic collapse caused by COVID-19, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has proposed an ambitious sustainable infrastructure program called “Build Back Better.” While Biden’s proposal is domestic, this concept is equally powerful if applied globally. Indeed, a similar global initiative could help the U.S. regain the soft-power advantage it has ceded to China while repairing relations with U.S. allies in the fight against climate change. 

By applying the “Build Back Better” approach internationally, the U.S. could make up the ground it has lost to China in building relations with developing countries. In recent years, China has used overseas investments and aid as its primary foreign policy instrument to bolster its soft power. Since 2013, China has already invested an estimated $200 billion through its Belt and Road Initiative to construct infrastructure projects in 138 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. Meanwhile, under President Trump, U.S. foreign assistance has dropped dramatically to the administration’s low-priority areas such as climate change mitigation and adaptation and infrastructure.

A green foreign infrastructure program would get America back on the international playing field and would contrast sharply with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The U.S. could provide investments and assistance to low- and middle-income countries for green infrastructures, such as solar and wind technologies and climate resilience projects. This could be accomplished through traditional foreign assistance programs of USAID, loans from U.S.-supported international institutions such as the World Bank, and private-sector investment assistance from the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation. 

Many developing countries might consider such a program attractive after their experience with China’s recent infrastructure investments. While President Xi Jinping has given lip service to the idea of a “Green Belt and Road,” many more Chinese infrastructure projects have been brown and polluting rather than green and clean. A growing number of recipient countries have experienced buyer’s remorse after projects proved exploitative and unresponsive to social and environmental concerns. China pressed forward with Kenya’s Lamu coal-fired power plant without required environmental assessments, only to be ultimately blocked by Kenyan courts. The Hambantota port modernization project in Sri Lanka created such an enormous debt burden that the government could not afford it and transferred ownership to China

In the wake of these stumbles, China has quietly pared back its lending. Last year, overseas energy financing by China’s two policy banks was at its lowest level since 2008. China issued only three Belt and Road energy project loans for $3.2 billion in 2019, a 71 percent reduction in just a year. The program’s reputational damage and its pause in lending provides an opening for a U.S. program focused on market-based economic recovery and sustainability and run through reliable and transparent Western institutions. 

Such a global commitment by the U.S. could also improve relations with its traditional allies. Over the last four years, U.S. actions such as dropping out of the Paris Climate Treaty have strained dealings with Europe. The Build Back Better principles align closely with programs of U.S. allies, such as the European Union Green Deal and South Korean Green New Deal, which focus on reducing carbon emissions, building climate resilience and slowing biodiversity loss. Promoting green infrastructure and climate resilience as components of global economic recovery could help rebuild bonds with our longtime friends abroad.

A unified U.S.-Europe vision of a green recovery could also pressure China to emphasize green infrastructure lending and reduce fossil fuel dependence in its Belt and Road Initiative. President Xi’s previous commitment to a “new vision of green development…that is green, low-carbon, circular and sustainable” provides a face-saving blueprint for this course correction. The proper leadership could enable the U.S., Europe and China to join forces to advance a global green recovery that would lay the groundwork for meeting the Paris Agreement goals. 

A foreign policy framework that rebuilds U.S. soft power and alliances, while improving the environmental impact of China’s investment program, is a triple win. But to be successful, the U.S. must act while countries are developing their recovery plans and before China revives its overseas infrastructure investments. If Biden is elected, an administration laser-focused on the domestic economy should act quickly on the international front as well. Reasserting America leadership in the post-pandemic world may depend on it.

Elizabeth Losos is a senior fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and leads a research program on sustainable infrastructure.

Tags China–United States relations Donald Trump Donald Trump Green infrastructure Joe Biden U.S. International Development Finance Corporation United States Agency for International Development

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