What we need is a true power shift that reflects the emerging economic, political and military realities
While “Brics” has been a frequently occurring acronym in our discourse in recent years, not many seem to have grasped the reality of Brics and its actual utility.
The post-Cold War era has seen the economic and political rise of a host of nations -- Brazil, China and India being foremost among them. Since 2000 and the advent of Vladimir Putin, Russia has with some help from soaring oil prices made impressive economic gains. The new South Africa, based equally on the industrial inheritance of the robust but unequal and exploitative apartheid regime and the bounty of nature, now finds itself as an advancing economic power. Unlike Nigeria, which has frittered its oil wealth and has been looted by its native kleptocracy, South Africa has been a relative symbol of responsible government and probity in public life. Each one of these nations is now a major economic player and some already have bigger GDPs than many countries in the Group of Seven. Together, in the next two decades, Brics is likely to outstrip the G-7.
It's now a grouping of a new rung of increasingly powerful countries so far being kept out of the high tables of global power. Russia and China are permanent members of the UN Security Council, but are not in the G-7. India, Brazil and South Africa are in neither. With the advent of new world economic and political powers, logic would demand that the global high table be expanded. But there is an inherent problem with exclusive clubs. Expansion means they become less exclusive and with that goes the attendant risk that some already in will become less important. On the other hand, those who get admitted will find that their admittance has made it somewhat less exclusive. Groucho Marx captured this paradox when he said: “I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.”
If the G-7 were to remain an exclusive and powerful club, the only way to ensure it would be to relegate some of its present members like Italy and Canada to some lesser league. Similarly, if the UN Security Council were to become a truly representative and powerful body, then both Britain and France may have to be seen out and countries like Brazil and India brought in. Neither Britain nor France has the global economic reach of Germany, till this year the world’s leading exporting nation. Britain’s global power status is kept afloat by leased US nuclear submarines and missiles.
But this isn’t happening, nor is it likely to happen in a hurry. The world meanwhile is changing. The countries knocking at the doors are thus trying combinations, and these combinations are many. On the basis of economic potential, and thanks to Jim O’Neill, Goldman Sachs’ head of global economic research who coined the familiar and catchy acronym “Brics”, Brazil, Russia, India and China joined hands and formed a forum called just that. At the end of 2010, South Africa joined the new grouping at the leadership conference at Sanya. Phonetically, “Brics” has a constructive ring about it and works well.
But the fact of the matter is that there is nothing of binding commonality between these five countries. Brazil is far in the west and is a middle income and middle industrialised country with vast natural resources and a land mass to boot. Very much like Russia. Russia, however, is still a colossal military and nuclear power with a global reach. The bulk of it is in Europe and it is largely a Westernised country. South Africa is Africa’s largest and most modern economy, but has to still fully recover from the inequities of the apartheid era, and reconcile the aspirations of the black majority and the still powerful white minority. China and India are low-income Asian countries with gargantuan populations and an entirely different set of problems. But they are the giant economies of the future. Not only do they not have many cultural affinities and historical linkages, they are also are locked in a difficult territorial dispute. China is also a totalitarian one-party and authoritarian state, and doesn’t have in place market economy structures like liberal labour laws and stringent environmental regulations, like the other Brics nations. (These days, however, they seem to have one major thing in common -- increasingly authoritarian regimes.) Would these countries ever have come together if Jim O’Neill did not conjure them up as a group?
There’s a veritable cornucopia of alphabet soups being conjured up. There is “Basic” -- Brazil, South Africa, India and China -- that was very much in the news in Copenhagen as a ginger group that forced Western and industrialised nations, including Russia, to water down their growth constricting agenda. India, Brazil and South Africa as three democratic, fast-growing and non P-5 countries are coming together, presumably to force an expansion of the UN Security Council? China, already in the P-5, is opposed to any new permanent UNSC membership which includes Japan. Many informed observers in India also feel that China is opposed to India’s entry, and though it pays lip service to the cause now, it might actually reveal its disdain for India late in the game as it did in the IAEA.
Also, there is already in existence a “RIC” grouping consisting of Russia, India and China -- that view with askance the meddlesome activities in Central Asia and the blatant partisanship of the United States in the Middle East.
A few years ago I was at a conference funded by the German foreign ministry for a “Gibsa” grouping -- that would somehow inveigle Germany into the equation. Of late, governments in Japan have been signalling their desire for a life outside the American umbrella and would like to have a grouping built around democratic countries like Japan, India and Australia. Nearer home, there’s a grouping called “Bimstec” -- which means Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Co-operation. And so, it goes on.
Clearly, the world is in a churn. The new global players are clearly unhappy with the management of the global system. What we need is a true power shift that reflects the emerging economic, political and military realities. But the multitude of agendas only serves to preserve the status quo – at least for the foreseeable future. Only when Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, Japan and Germany, give or take some, actually come together and determine what the future world system should look like, can we expect a new world order.