Build Back a Better World (B3W) is billed as “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.” Launched at this year’s G-7, the B3W enshrines an argument that has long been circulating amongst analysts first, and then governments: The world needs a (better) alternative to Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Even though the idea has been around for a long time, and gained steam as enthusiasm for the BRI turned into skepticism, the absence of initiative and support from the United States has left it unsubstantiated until now. The Trump administration and its disengagement from world affairs as well as growing hostilities with allies has kept a multistakeholder alternative to the BRI in the drawer. The fragile cooperative environment of the Trump years might have left the stage to a much more proactive and enthusiastic administration, but skeptics of the creation of an alternative to BRI highlight concerns that go well beyond inter-alliance frictions. The prime question is where the money will come from. According to official documentation: “Through B3W, the G7 and other like-minded partners will coordinate in mobilizing private-sector capital in four areas of focus—climate, health and health security, digital technology, and gender equity and equality—with catalytic investments from our respective development finance institutions.”
The economies involved might be advanced, but they have also been going through rough years, first, due to the Global Financial Crisis, from which some did not entirely recover, and the due to the COVID-19 pandemic. True, they have been able to set up programs to soften the impact of the latter on their economies, but that does not mean that they are now able to raise capital to help others. Notably, the U.K. had to cut its aid budget. But the issue goes deeper than economic crises or even general economic performance. The focus of both the BRI and the B3W is infrastructures. Yet the same countries that now are proposing to help raise private capital to build infrastructure in middle- and low-income countries themselves sought, and still seek, foreign, often Chinese, capital to upgrade their old infrastructural systems or to develop new infrastructures. Thus, it is at the very least legitimate to wonder how they will finance the projects within the B3W. Sure, the aim is raising private capital, but that too has been notably difficult for some of the countries involved. Perhaps the materialization of the B3W will be less grandiose than the wording of the launch suggests. However, that in itself creates a problem and one that the BRI has already faced and it is still facing.
Making a great announcement about grandiose developmental projects via infrastructure is what Xi did in 2013. At the time, the initiative was welcomed with great enthusiasm by the world. Nonetheless, afterwards, the narrative changed. The shift is not attributable solely to a changed geopolitical environment that has seen a growing contradictions between China and the U.S. in an increasing number of sectors and arenas, but also to the backlash that such great expectations created. It is on this latter point that this article would like to focus and build a sort of cautionary tale for actors who are now boosting their global narrative with grandiose slogans.
After the launch of the $1 trillion BRI, many countries, including developed and advanced economies, sought Chinese capital to invest in their infrastructure – whether officially as part of the BRI or just as an investment. The enthusiasm lasted about five years, which is a long time considering how slowly even flagship projects such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) were developing and how sparse and not-so connected the BRI was. Nonetheless, “judgement day” came and in places like eastern Europe, for example, enthusiasm left space for disappointment. Undeniably, a changed global geopolitical environment played a role in shaping the response of these countries to China beyond the BRI itself, but the largely disappointed expectations have been an important driver of the turn taken by such countries.
To understand the level of disappointment, one must understand how high expectations were. The BRI was launched in years when China was heavily investing abroad; however, in the second half of the 2010s, this changed and investments became more targeted, meaning that investments should have been made only where there was a strategic or economic interest. The result is that many countries did not see the investments they hoped for. Their hopes might have been excessive, but that is a risk you run into when launching grandiose projects such as the BRI and the B3W.
This is the first lesson the B3W can learn. It is definitely too late to suggest not making promises one cannot keep, but there is still time to ensure that, whatever pilot projects the B3W will embark on, they are successful. To avoid the trap into which the BRI fell, the B3W must ensure it does not disappoint expectations. Furthermore, because the B3W is the brainchild of the U.S. and G-7 – and undeniably linked to a sort of anti-China narrative – it will have much less room for maneuver than the BRI did. The BRI in 2013 was new, impressive initiative from a fast-growing country that was still seen positively and that on paper did not have the controversial “colonial” past that many of the G-7 countries have. Thus, the risk might be similar, but the space for the B3W to make mistakes is much tighter.
Disappointed expectations are not the only risk the B3W might run into. There are many other examples that can be taken from the history of the BRI that could function as cautionary tales for the B3W. However, when it comes to environmental attention, transparency, benefits, and the involvement of local communities and enterprises, the B3W appears to be set for a better start than the BRI as, at least on paper, it seems to pay great attention to these details. After all, it was conceived of as a better alternative to the BRI that did not share the same issues. Yet, even in these areas the level of scrutiny will be extremely high and the space for errors terribly narrow.
It is not difficult to understand why the Biden administration decided to launch such a project. Beyond infrastructure itself, the U.S. and China are engaged in a battle of narratives and Washington was late to propose its counternarrative to the BRI. The fact that it did so together with the other G-7 countries only speaks to the administration’s inclination to work together with likeminded partners. However, if from a narrative perspective, something like the B3W was hardly avoidable, from a practical point of view it has exposed the United States and, to a lesser extent, the other countries involved to criticism and enhanced scrutiny. Therefore, Washington and its partners need to learn from the BRI and avoid making the same mistakes. Only then can they make sure that the first projects within the Build Back Better World framework are successful, and deliver on the core six characteristics at the heart of the B3W.