The US needs to invest in education, roads, railways, ports and broadband if it wants to remain globally competitive against China and other adversaries and show the strength and resiliency of its democratic system, the nation’s top diplomat said on Monday.
The speech by Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the University of Maryland came as the administration makes an all-out effort to get Congress to pass a massive bipartisan infrastructure bill. The Senate version, which could pass this week, calls for US$550 billion in new spending and includes research into forced labour in
China and money for increased production of batteries, rare earth minerals and other critical goods.
“The Chinese and Russian governments, among others, are making the argument in public and private that the United States is in decline,” said Blinken. “Nothing would put to rest faster their specious argument about America’s best days being behind us than if the United States made serious investments in our domestic renewal right now.”
Thirty years ago, the United States was first in the world in spending on research and development relative to its economic size and China was eighth. Now the US has slipped to the ninth position and China is in second place, he said.
“We could be doing better. That is the hard truth. We’re falling behind,” he said. “It’s our job to pick up the baton and carry it forward for future generations.”
Even if the infrastructure bill passes in the Senate, it faces challenges in the House before it is signed into law.
Democrats hope to link the legislation to a companion US$3.5 trillion “social” infrastructure package that includes spending on child care, climate change, health care and other provisions.
US President Joe Biden has repeatedly framed foreign policy as an arm of domestic policy in a bid to bolster support and show the importance of global engagement after president Donald Trump’s “America First” focus.
Blinken’s speech argued that spending today would pay global dividends for decades to come in terms of American jobs, investment, diplomatic clout and trade.
“All distinctions between domestic and foreign policy have simply fallen away,” he said. “Our domestic renewal and our strength in the world are completely intertwined.”
Monday’s venue at a university with strong technical studies worked well, but Blinken could have made the national security case more overt, said Jonathan Hillman, a fellow with the Centre for International and Strategic Studies.
Over the past year, the US has seen an electric power grid collapse in Texas, a rail bridge collapse in Arizona and the closure of the primary gasoline pipeline for the eastern US. The case for greater resiliency in the interest of national security is pretty clear, added Hillman, an expert on China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Trump, a real estate developer who campaigned on building a wall along the southern border with Mexico, often talked about infrastructure but never brought a bill to Congress, despite repeated claims that “infrastructure week” was imminent.
“When ‘infrastructure week’ becomes a punch line, it has negative economic implications and also diminishes our standing in the world,” said Hillman, author of The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century.
“Getting a bipartisan infrastructure deal done and actually making these investments is incredibly important for the ability of the United States to compete internationally,” he added. “Now we’re actually on the cusp of making something happen.”
FROM THE ARCHIVES