“The great questions/problems of our time will not be decided by words or votes, but by violence.” Bismarck
Let’s hope that Bismarck is wrong. The absence of infrastructure from U.S. grand strategy is a fatal flaw. Without a strong foundation at home, and the productivity and opportunity that it creates, we simply cannot lead internationally. The emperor has no clothes – we won’t wield the resources, or even the concepts, required to be the leader in this historically challenging moment. We need to make that investment, so that we will no longer inevitably and all too consistently default to the hard power option (force), or – owing to an increasingly weak base – retreat in disarray from the world. Robust investment in U.S. strategic infrastructure is the right path, the only path, the commitment we have to make.
Global leadership makes sense from another perspective, as well. The US infrastructure market weighs in at a dramatically underperforming $270 billion (1.3% of GDP), while crying out for an equilibrium investment level well above $600 billion. The global infrastructure market, which China is winning, is at $2.7 trillion market, ten times larger than our domestic market.
If grand strategy is the organization of a country’s resources to secure its place in the world – and if that is what the Biden Administration intends to do – then we better quickly invest in the landmark infrastructure capabilities that are at our fingertips, strengthening our core resources, building alliances, transforming the strategic chessboard.
Three areas need to occupy the attention of our strategists – and the leaders deputized to carry out that strategy:
Rebuild the (Soft Power) Arsenal. With the erosion of our will to build, an enormous tension has emerged globally between what we say and what we can do. The capacities that we have in our mind’s eye – like an aging athlete – are simply, brutally, no longer matched by fact. This must change. Developing countries have a crying need for clean water, better connectivity, and reliable electricity – an explosive issue for their leaders – and while we respond with promises and platitudes, China takes a different approach: massive internal infrastructure investment (6-7% of GDP, a $2 trillion initiative focused on new infrastructure), the creation of a new development bank, and the launch of the transformative Belt & Road Initiative, financing and building infrastructure across Central Asia, Africa and Latin America.
We need to take a good look at where we are, and both build up our infrastructure arsenal, and the institutions that support market-based, people-focused, projects. We need to recognize the illness, and treat that disease. In a report that I authored for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2014, we showed that of the last 50 projects won in Latin America only one had been won by a U.S. firm. The story was the same in Africa, and Central Asia, and has only gotten worse in the last six year. The remedy is to bring our strengths – technology, private investment, a focus on people – to the game, along with best in class companies, like Xylem
The Strategic Objective is the Mind of Man. The tendency is to focus on confronting and containing China, but that is only a byproduct – albeit a happy one – of the right strategy. In global leadership – and in driving global prosperity – it’s much more powerful to think in terms of grabbing the attention of people, and the gratitude of their leaders. We have a big advantage. Fifty-seven percent of the world’s countries are democracies (and according to Pew an additional 28% are some combination of democracy and autocracy), so what we are offering – economic opportunity, and education and health offer – is not only what people around the world want, but it creates an opportunity to dramatically increase the number of democracies, and the quality of those democracies.
The late, great, World Bank president Jim Wolfensohn wanted to put a smile on the face of every child. If we limit ourselves to focusing on the adversary, then we remove aspiration and vision from strategy, making it that much harder to launch and sustain the concert of global leadership so critical at this moment.
It’s not just investment that matters, but reputation too. In a survey we conducted earlier this year 82% of global infrastructure executives saw infrastructure as a “weak or average” brand. Not only do we have to invest internally, but we to re-create the reputation of the enterprise – no shortcuts, our work is cut out for us, but perhaps the fun is proportional to the enormity of the challenge?
Build the Network, Stupid. The right Grand Strategy is going to create a network of successful projects in countries around the world. Building projects that people need – or refurbishing old projects to dramatically enhance their performance (a clean water plant, or an electric power project, both green, both necessary), or building – or ensuring, in the case of Georgia – access to high speed internet, or the results of AI research – creates more than goodwill and gratitude, it creates a virtuous platform in every country in which a project is built. These projects in turn create powerful networks of builders, technologists, financiers and users across market-based democracies.
This should not be cast as a U.S. business opportunity, although it is that, par excellence. It is a U.S. strategic leadership opportunity – creating a network of allies around the world, building and knitting together billions of dollars worth of projects, creating visible successes in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The right approach will create a perpetual motion machine of success, not unlike what was created after World War II, releasing a huge amount of creative and productive energy. This bigger than life alternative to the Chinese, and bending towards liberty, will arrive on the scene in the knick of time.
Action Items for the Biden Administration’s Grand Strategy. A reemergent U.S. global leadership role, built on infrastructure investment, and created with our allies to focus on allied democracies around the world, seems right. For some time, countries around the world have demanded increased infrastructure investment (including social infrastructure – schools and hospitals); these wants are now needs, critical to resourcing countries in their Covid recovery strategies.
Here are the four key action items that would deliver progress in the first 100 days of the Biden Administration:
First, focus on and ensure the creation of a robust domestic U.S. infrastructure initiative, spearheaded by the kind of technology investment in new infrastructure (from 5G to AI, and autonomous vehicles and smart city platforms) that is our strength. Success begins at home, period.
Second, create an I-20, an Infrastructure 20, of key countries around the world who are major infrastructure players, including developed countries like Australia and Japan, and also big infrastructure producers, like India, Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey, and include smaller allies like Vietnam and Colombia. Don’t make infrastructure an orphan.
Third, build a Benefits Index that identifies priority projects of the people in democracies, do they can guide and believe in their leadership. Create a mechanism so that people around the world have a voice, and be disciplined in a) listening to those voices closely, and delivering what they want – especially now.
Fourth, create a strategic infrastructure office in the White House, built around critical technologies and innovative ideas of private investment. This is an enormously complex issue, with technology advances that both enhance performance (the velocity of innovation is critical for infrastructure) and that require guidance (we need a national conversation on AI).
The resources that the U.S. requires for global leadership do not currently exist, because our ability to counter the Chinese in global infrastructure investment does not exist. We need a whole of government approach to quickly bring these resources up to the required level, just as we need to bring the world together to create the investment, productivity, sustainability and opportunity that will mark our success.
In a week that began with the roll-out of a new foreign policy team, and musings on how to use hard and soft power to reassert global leadership, let me close by highlighting two hard, cold, facts: this is a big moment, as big as the one that yielded the creation of the Bretton Woods accords – Covid, economic threats and technology transformation are disruptions of a magnitude equivalent to global war; and, a very different point, global leadership will sit well with us, not only because we are the only alternative the world has, but because the measurable successes of this effort – working with people around the world to build projects, and the health and mobility benefits of those projects – will provide us all with a wonderful modern portrait of who we are, and who we can be.
As Lincoln said, in a time at least as trying as our own: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”