Oct 28, 2021 - Politics & Policy

"Build Back Better" goes global

Photo of President Biden speaking in front of a large graphic of the words "Build Back Better"
Photo: Brendan Smialowski /AFP//Getty Images

President Biden's "Build Back Better" mantra is about to take the global stage at the G20 summit in Rome.

The big picture: The global debate awaiting Biden in Rome has a lot in common with the debate he's leaving behind in Washington: whether and how to undertake a major economic restructuring with climate change and social equity at the forefront.

Driving the news: Biden's set to leave Washington today as congressional Democrats push to reach an agreement to pass a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal and his bigger social-spending proposal. He's set to meet with Pope Francis before the summit.

  • The G20's top priorities echo Biden's domestic agenda. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who will host a landmark UN climate summit in Glasgow next week — also uses "Build Back Better" as his own government’s slogan.
  • It's the first time since the start of the pandemic that the U.S. president and other leaders from the world's largest economies will meet in-person, with four notable exceptions: The leaders of China, Russia, Japan and Mexico won't be attending.

What to watch: Rome will be the best chance for the G20 to send a strong political signal that developed economies need to step up on climate — especially with the absence of China's Xi Jinping and Russia's Vladimir Putin, who typically put up roadblocks in global forums.

  • With Xi and Putin not in attendance, the U.S. and Europe will be "energized," "united," and "driving the agenda," Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said this week.

Yes, but: That unity could be put to the test as Biden steps into a web of geopolitical tensions.

  • Biden will meet with French President Macron for the first time since a secret U.S.-U.K. submarine deal with Australia scuppered a multibillion-dollar submarine contract with France.
  • Macron and other EU leaders have also expressed resistance to Biden's push to build a global coalition to confront China, calling for "strategic autonomy" to pivot Europe away from a reliance on the U.S.

As Biden turns his focus to the Indo-Pacific, Russia has resumed its cyberattacks on U.S. companies, cut off all communications with NATO, and is threatening to use energy as a political weapon against Europe, which is experiencing fuel shortages.

  • The EU is facing its own existential crisis in a rule-of-law dispute with Poland, and could terminate its post-Brexit trade deal with the U.K. unless the two sides agree to a truce.
  • Angela Merkel, who has been Europe's crisis manager for 16 years, will be attending her final G20.
  • Turkey's President Erdogan threatened to expel 10 Western diplomats this weekend; Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman was accused of another assassination plot; and a Brazilian commission recommended criminal charges against President Bolsonaro for his COVID response.
  • Biden met with Erdogan at the NATO summit in June, but has avoided meeting with the latter two.

The bottom line: These countries, as many challenges as they face, represent about 75% of the global economy, 80% of carbon emissions and nearly all of the global vaccine supply.

  • The road to a green global recovery runs through the G20, but Biden will need all his diplomatic skills to produce any meaningful progress.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct that Biden met with Erdogan once before.

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