Biden’s Build Back Better World: Making Multilateralism Great Again?

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The diplomatic overtures by US President Joe Biden on his debut turn on the global stage indicate that his administration is pushing a democratic values-driven foreign-policy strategy that it hopes can make multilateralism work again. But, argues Alejandro Reyes of the Asia Global Institute, emphasizing values as a dividing line and asserting that Beijing does not share them could hamper any efforts to tackle effectively global problems that require Chinese participation and contribution to address.

Biden’s Build Back Better World: Making Multilateralism Great Again?

Bump elbows if you share our democratic values: US President Biden and NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg meet in Brussels (Credit: NATO)

This June, US President Joe Biden went on his first diplomatic tour to attend the two biggest West-centric summits based on transatlantic alliances – the G7, this year hosted by the UK, and the meeting of the leaders of the 30 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Before he departed, in an opinion piece published by The Washington Posthe set out the two objectives of his trip: “In this moment of global uncertainty, as the world still grapples with a once-in-a-century pandemic, this trip is about realizing America’s renewed commitment to our allies and partners, and demonstrating the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age.”

By most accounts, Biden’s message of mateship went down well with his counterparts. Even at the tougher bilaterals such as the president’s meeting in Brussels with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, there were jaunty elbow bumps, thumbs up and smiles all around. After four years of a disruptive, unpredictable and often gauche American leader, Washington’s allies and partners are breathing more easily. Faced with the geopolitical challenge of the moment – how to address a more assertive China, they had found themselves as much vexed by Donald Trump’s transactional approach and volatility and the reluctance of the US to exercise global leadership.

If America is back, as Biden has been claiming, the question is: Is multilateralism back, too? It would seem so, judging simply by a bureaucrat’s metric: the length of the G7 communiqué – one page of spare language in 2019, the last time a summit was held (in Biarritz, France), compared to this year’s 25 pages that covered a range of topics from climate change to China. But the page numbers hardly reveal the full story: It is one thing to rebuild friendships strained because you went AWOL or behaved badly; it is another matter altogether to recoup trust and turn renewed alliances and partnerships into effective ways to manage the international system.

The post-World War II rules-based international order – the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and what became the World Trade Organization – is still at best ineffective, gridlocked and out of date, and at worst impotent, broken and obsolete. Biden’s diplomatic debut suggests only that the US and Europe are working together again after the trauma of Trump, particularly on the top global challenges of Covid-19 (notably on vaccine distribution to medium- and low-income countries), climate change and China.

But therein lie the obstacles to making multilateralism great again. If the “three Cs” are indeed among the most pressing issues of the times, the framing of solutions in terms of values – the “capacity of democracies”, to use Biden’s words – may render this last-ditch effort to revive multilateralism a non-starter. In a landmark move, NATO leaders had China in their sights (though the alliance remained focused on Russian aggression as its key concern). “China's stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security,” they declared in a June 14 summit-closing statement.

This came a week after NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking in Washington, had said that “we need to engage with China on issues like arms control and climate change, and therefore China is not an adversary.” But, he asserted, given the behavior of Beijing when it comes to human rights and the freedom of navigation, “they don’t share our values.”

The theme of like-minded democracies delivering effective multilateralism in competition with the presumably value-less consortium of the autocracies has become a key part of the Biden post-Trump, post-pandemic playbook: “As America’s economic recovery helps to propel the global economy, we will be stronger and more capable when we are flanked by nations that share our values and our vision for the future – by other democracies.” It is inherently linked to his concept of a “foreign policy for the middle class”.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden pledged to convene a global Summit for Democracy early in his term. The goal: “to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world”. But the insurrection on Capitol Hill on January 6 and the volatile politics in the US cast some doubt on those plans, though the administration appears committed to hold the event.

Tea for two, but do tell us about Xi: When Biden met Britain's Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle, she asked him about China's leader (Credit: WPA)

Tea for two, but do tell us about Xi: When Biden met Britain's Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle, she asked him about China's leader (Credit: WPA)

In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to pick up the democracy narrative as G7 chair when initially he planned to turn the Cornwall summit into a D10, or Democracy 10, a meeting of the seven leaders with the heads of government of South Korea, India and Australia invited to join. That rebranding effort lost steam, but the three countries and South Africa did join the latter part of the G7 event. The heavy emphasis on presenting the G7 as a group of democracies rather than as industrialized nations ignored its past as the G8 when Russia was part of the club from 1997 to 2014.

But what exactly are the values that are meant to bind the democracies together to solve the world’s problems? In a speech at the US State Department on February 4, just two weeks after his inauguration, Biden told foreign-service officers that the US could not handle the biggest global challenges alone and “must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity”. Critics of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) usually cite transparency as another important value of an open society. (Contrast these attributes with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration in his June 11 interview with NBC News of the US that “predictability and stability” are the “the most important value in international affairs”.)

The Biden/Stoltenberg argument is that China does not share any of these values. Whether this is true is certainly an appropriate and important debate to have, especially given the economic, social and even political progress that China has made in the last four decades. Key wedge issues today are freedoms and human rights (Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang at the forefront), the treatment of Taiwan, respect for international law particularly in maritime disputes, technological innovation and cyber security.

Yet, the fact is that when it comes to all those accelerating global challenges, as Biden has put it, “from the pandemic to climate change to nuclear proliferation”, the solutions must involve China. The Biden administration certainly acknowledges this. It has laid out a schema for relations with Beijing that would accommodate that inconvenient truth. In his first speech as US secretary of state on March 3, Antony Blinken said that “China is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system”. Washington’s approach to China, he explained, would be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be”.

That described well what has become the working framework for most countries – the US and other Western nations, but even some perceived to be in Beijing’s thrall – to deal with China. There are three lanes in the relationship – collaboration, competition and confrontation. An issue such as climate change would fall in the collaborative lane, while matters for confrontation (rhetorical, not necessarily military) would surely include Xinjiang, human rights and freedom of navigation. Technology is a tough one because, say, artificial intelligence, 5G and cyber security could go into both the competition and confrontation lanes, possibly even the collaborative one if conditions were right.

If multilateralism is to work for the middle class and those who might feel that globalization left them behind, then the collaboration lane with China has to become the widest of the three. But a values-based multilateralist agenda, as pursued by Washington and those supporting a liberal order, would preclude this. Take the initial steps of the revived and rapidly upgraded Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad. The priorities outlined by the leaders of members Australia, India, Japan and the US at their virtual summit in May were the pandemic and vaccine distribution to developing countries, climate change, cyber security, infrastructure and supply-chain resilience – the first three issues that arguably cannot be resolved without Chinese participation or contribution.

The G7 has cobbled together the Build Back Better World (B3W) plan that the US has cast as an answer to China’s BRI. It will be “values driven”. As the White House described it, the focus will be “infrastructure development carried out in a transparent and sustainable manner – financially, environmentally, and socially – will lead to a better outcome for recipient countries and communities. We will offer countries a positive vision and a sustainable, transparent source of financing to meet their infrastructure needs.”

B3W, which is meant to be propelled mainly by the private sector, appears to be an amalgam of various infrastructure development assistance programs that each G7 member has already been pursuing. Japan, for example, has its Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (PQI). The B3W would fall into the competitive lane. While that might spur improvements in infrastructure development in developing economies (because of a race to higher standards, particularly in transparency), it may do little to make the values case against the BRI. But why not consider it for the collaborative lane?

Given the apparent lack of zeal for any grand global gathering to redesign the mechanisms of multilateralism, if there is to be a “new” rules-based international order (RBIO) that will make globalization work better for the middle classes, such a world operating system (OS) is likely to emerge only through whatever reforms might be able to be made in the existing organizations and the creation of new “applications” to get specific things done.

China in action at a UN Security Council session on Yemen, June 15, 2021 (Credit: Evan Schneider/UN)

China in action at a UN Security Council session on Yemen, June 15, 2021 (Credit: Evan Schneider/UN)

The word “order” has never been a satisfactory term to describe the geopolitical world – it implies one coherent set of rules and that there would be “disorder” (the “G-Zero” world) if there were bottlenecks or breakdowns that caused any violations. There has never really been one rules-based international order – or more precisely, countries have never abided by one set of rules of the road. For the leading powers in particular, selective multilateralism – picking and choosing when and what norms and rules to follow – has been more the practice.

Consider how the UN Security Council (UNSC) operates: The existence of the permanent five (P5) members is essentially a reflection of selective multilateralism. So, while all UN members affirmed the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) as a global norm in 2005, it was a lack of consensus within the UNSC that ultimately undermined the practical viability of the concept after its first-and-only invocation for the 2011 international intervention in Libya.

More useful might be to think of the way international relations work as more of a global OS, with various applications and patches employed to keep things going despite corruptions that could impair the system. China has often been accused of subverting the prevailing RBIO, of being something of a virus attacking the OS. The BRI has even been portrayed as China’s attempt to create a new OS with Beijing at the core.

The launch of the China-conceived Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2016 led to speculation that Beijing wanted to create an alternative to the World Bank and IMF and to regional financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Despite some shifts driven by the G20 after the 2008 global financial crisis, the weighted voting systems at the World Bank and IMF do not match current global economic power, while so far, the US has had a lock on the leadership of the former and Europe on the top spot at the latter. At the Manila-based ADB, the president has always been a senior Japanese bureaucrat. The AIIB (starting capital: US$100 billion, two-thirds that of the ADB and about half the World Bank’s) is headquartered in Beijing and headed by a former Chinese senior finance official who was an ADB vice president for five years.

The reality of course is not so clear cut. China has arguably been an ever more active participant in existing multilateralist institutions, notably the UN system – UN Peacekeeping and the World Health Organization (WHO), in particular – the IMF and World Bank Group, and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Four of the UN’s 15 specialized agencies are headed by Chinese nationals. This reflects how China has been increasing its funding contributions. Beijing has been the least of the P5 spoilers: As of December 16, 2020, Russia (including the Soviet Union before it) has used its veto 143 times, while the US has done so 83 times, the UK 32, France 18, and China just 13 since Beijing took control of the UN seat in 1971.

The BRI and the AIIB might better be regarded as China-coded apps that work on the existing global operating system to get specific things done, in this case, to address the significant lack of adequate infrastructure around the world. It is a pragmatic approach that, like them or not, widens the collaborative lane. And when projects are framed and executed well and deliver social and economic benefits, multilateralism works better, if not optimally. Maybe that can happen in a detached values-first world? Yet if effectively addressing the world’s most pressing problems requires the participation or contribution of China – the bogeyman of the geopolitical virtue signalers – that would be highly unlikely.

In this uncertain world, what is most important is getting results. The US and its Western allies and partners can lead with their values even if they may mask national interests. But this would make it hard to translate them into action and turbocharge multilateralism to do the transformational things needed to achieve that post-pandemic “build back better world”. How they reconcile themselves to China will matter. And that could take a very long time.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Alejandro Reyes

Alejandro Reyes

Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong

Alejandro Reyes is director of knowledge dissemination and adjunct professor at the Asia Global Institute of The University of Hong Kong. He is a fellow of the Canadian International Council for 2020-22. From 2017 to 2019, he served as senior policy adviser to the assistant deputy minister (Asia Pacific) and co-convenor of the Asia Pacific Policy Hub at Global Affairs Canada, the Canadian foreign ministry. Early in his professional career, he was a journalist with Asiaweek magazine, where his last position was senior correspondent for regional affairs.

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