Skip to content

Belts, Roads, and the New Coke Fallacy

Getting back to development basics.

Words: Will O’Brien
Pictures: Krisztian Matyas

In 1985, fixated on Pepsi’s successes, the Coca-Cola Company reformulated the recipe for their flagship beverage. This recipe became known as “New Coke.” New Coke was not as popular as the original recipe and — following a failed attempt at rebranding — was discontinued. Coca-Cola returned to its original recipe, now known as Coca-Cola Classic.

The US government’s similar fixation on using international development as a soft power response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the foreign policy community’s “New Coke.” Like the Coca-Cola Company in the 1980s, the US foreign policy community’s response to BRI has been to imitate its competitor rather than return to its roots. To be an effective actor in the developing world, the path forward for federal international development programming ought to be a more coordinated implementation of the classic, values-driven recipe.

In his 1949 inaugural address, President Truman outlined the United States’ first federal plan for international development. Truman called upon the US federal government, the United Nations, and other developed countries to share “technical knowledge” with “underdeveloped areas,” envisioning the precursor to contemporary capacity-building initiatives. In the ensuing seven decades, developed democracies have boasted that their development work brings the promise of self-governance and economic prosperity to poorer countries. For most of that time, there was a clear positive correlation between the spread of democracy and the growth of economies. At the same time, however, many Western development projects around the world had adverse effects on the health, social dynamics and economies of the communities they were aiming to help.

Recently, the increasing economic prosperity of authoritarian governments has also eroded the appeal of Western-backed development. China’s BRI — a global influence campaign in the form of an international development initiative — has been the core marketing strategy to promote authoritarian capitalism through infrastructure investment that focuses on China’s needs and uses Chinese companies and labor. In return, developing countries are not required to meet labor and human rights standards attached to most Western development funding, nor manage guarantees related to market transformation.

Democratic states, and the United States in particular, have sought to respond to BRI with bold, explicit countermeasures — people have suggested everything from a US Belt and Road Initiative to expanding US corporate diplomacy. However, just as Coke could not imitate Pepsi to be competitive, the United States cannot compete with China on the international stage by using the BRI playbook.

Just as Coke could not imitate Pepsi to be competitive, the United States cannot compete with China on the international stage by using the BRI playbook.

It is not enough to be oppositional to China. To respond effectively to authoritarian influence campaigns masquerading as international development projects, the United States needs to ignore targeted attempts to counter BRI and return to its roots: technical capacity building in the developing world.

The United States can and should return to the values and ambitions of 1949 while recognizing the failures to live up to those values and ambitions over the past seven decades. Critics of US international development efforts claim that goals are too specific or too vague, USAID is in too many countries or too few, and the time frames of projects are too long or too short. There are also frequent allegations of mismanagement and waste, which are – fairly or unfairly – made about most government projects. Ongoing efforts should be made to address each of these concerns, but none of these complaints rises to the level of the allegation of neocolonialism that is frequently levied against Western development initiatives.

The potential to fall into colonial-era power dynamics is ever-present in international affairs. A coordinated return to an education-based approach to development focused on capacity building at the local level, where the international development community is a mutual partner with the developing world. The United States’ largest errors in the international development space have occurred when the country strayed from this classic recipe of capacity building as a tool for promoting education, empowerment and democracy in accordance with local needs.

Approaching the international community with humility while also recognizing the harm done will provide the United States the opportunity to work alongside allies and partners to refocus the work of international development outside of the strategic ramifications of great power competition.

The early days of a new administration with a renewed focus on multilateralism makes this moment the ideal time to facilitate cooperation on international development across US government agencies and departments. Ensuring that numerous departments and agencies are employing this classic recipe in the same way will require centralized coordination, a particular challenge as the number of US government agencies carrying out international development and capacity-building work has grown significantly since Truman’s presidency.

Too often, the international development and foreign assistance initiatives of the US government are disjointed. There is no central coordination structure for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the US International Development Finance Corporation, the Department of Commerce, the Department of State, the Department of Agriculture and the many other government entities that work in the international development space. A central body to coordinate foreign assistance efforts, like that of the National Security Council (NSC) on security efforts, would facilitate tremendous opportunities for cooperation with international non-governmental organizations, public-private partnerships and interdepartmental projects. While President Biden has made the USAID Administrator’s position a permanent member of the NSC, there is not a separate coordinating body focused on international development outside of the security context. Such a body should be created to develop a cooperative strategy for international development based on the values and principles of development, not as a tool for competition amongst powers.

A coordinated return to the classic approach to international development, built on values and capacity building, could get the New Coke school of thought on countering BRI off of the shelves permanently. This rejuvenated approach might just be exactly what the United States and the developing world needs — isn’t that refreshing?

Will O’Brien is the international development fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and the special assistant to the executive vice president of the Atlantic Council.

Will O’Brien

Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.