BRICS and Mortar

PARIS – Last week, the leaders of five of the world’s fastest-growing economies – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (the BRICS) – convened in New Delhi to reaffirm their common positions and assert their political autonomy from the West. But how effective are their declarations of solidarity? Have these countries coalesced solely to counterbalance the West? If so, will it work?

Answering these questions requires considering the group’s origins, about which two facts stand out. First, globalization enabled rapid economic growth for all of its members, which now account for more than 30% of global output. Second, the United States’ military campaign in Iraq highlighted the dangers – and the limits – of American hegemony.

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In 2003, at the World Trade Organization summit in Cancún, Mexico, four of these dynamic emerging giants came together for the first time, under Brazil’s political leadership, to challenge US-European control of the institution. And they succeeded.

Since then – and with the addition of South Africa in 2010 – the group’s power has increased considerably, as they proved to be essential to worldwide economic growth in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. In this respect, 2012 will be a symbolic year, when non-OECD countries’ output will equal that of OECD members for the first time. Only 20 years ago, these groups’ shares of global GNP were 38% and 62%, respectively.

The BRICS seek to use their growing power to prevent the West from preserving its global hegemony at a time when its relative economic weight is declining. Indeed, they blame Europe, which failed to regulate public finances, and the US, which flooded the global economy with short-term credit, for endangering global economic stability. They believe that their economic power entitles them to a leading role in global governance.

For example, the BRICS are demanding more equitable representation in the International Monetary Fund – where Europe is grossly overrepresented – by conditioning their financial support on institutional reform. Yet, by failing to unite behind their own candidate to succeed Dominique Strauss-Kahn as the Fund’s managing director, they cleared the path for Europe’s candidate, former French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, to fill the post.

And, while the BRICS have adopted a common position on the World Bank’s next leader, their solidarity is partly attributable to the fact that the US has already secured the nomination, with European support.

Accompanying the BRICS’ demand for a greater role in global governance is a grievance against the West regarding sovereignty. Indeed, since the Arab Spring erupted in December 2010, the BRICS have demonstrated a high regard for the principle of non-intervention – even if it means supporting the most repressive Arab regimes.

Granted, by abstaining from the vote on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized NATO’s intervention in Libya, Brazil, China, India, and Russia allowed it to pass. But, since then, the BRICS have contested the principle of the responsibility to protect. Brazil went so far as to propose an initiative that would impose limits on foreign intervention in order to prevent efforts aimed at regime change.

This staunch commitment to sovereignty also led the BRICS to oppose sanctions against the Syrian regime, which is massacring its civilian population with impunity. But the Syrian case is not only a matter of principle. Russia supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s because his regime is a buffer against an Islamist front to the south, in which Turkey would play a central role. India is also wary of Islamists, but its defense of the Syrian regime is also the product of a nationalist, non-aligned ideology that dates back to the 1950’s and still permeates Indian diplomacy. Brazil’s leaders take a more moderate position, but broadly share this view.

Ultimately, by reaffirming their commitment to sovereignty, the BRICS are protecting their own political autonomy, which they fear could come under threat as they integrate into the global economy. Given this, they are single-mindedly defending this principle in Syria, and will likely do the same in Iran, should Israel or the US attack its nuclear installations.

In fact, the BRICS’ attachment to sovereignty transcends the nature of their respective regimes. While Brazil, India, and South Africa are democracies, they defend the principle no less vehemently than Russia and China do.

Still, the BRICS’ cohesion should not be overestimated. While they oppose the West on specific issues, they are far from achieving consensus in other important areas. For example, while China and India share common vis-à-vis the West, they are locked in a regional rivalry. Meanwhile, it is not certain whether China and Russia are ready to facilitate the accession of Brazil and India to permanent membership of the UN Security Council.

Likewise, Brazil and India are suspicious of Chinese economic policy, which many deem predatory, and they are acutely aware that China is seeking to become the world’s next great hegemon, alongside the US.

Thus, the BRICS are first and foremost rival partners bound by an unwavering commitment to sovereignty. In that commitment lies both the strength and weakness of this motley group.

Read more from our "Falling BRICS?" Focal Point.