World Economy

Taking the BRICS Seriously

Taking the BRICS Seriously
Taking the BRICS Seriously

The first parliamentary forum of the BRICS countries–Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa–had come to a convivial conclusion in Moscow earlier this month.

“Sailing down the Moscow river, I found myself in intense conversation with the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC),” Shashi Tharoor wrote for Project Syndicate.

Before the meeting opened, many wondered whether the five parliaments could possibly find common ground. What on earth could India’s fractious and rumbustious Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament), with its impassioned debates and disruptions, have in common with China’s decorous NPC, a rigorously controlled echo chamber for Communist Party decisions? Membership in the new BRICS grouping, many believed, did not provide a strong enough basis for cooperation.

Such skepticism has been leveled at the BRICS grouping itself from its inception, with some dismissing it as the only international organization invented by an investment bank.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin liked the idea from the start, and suggested in 2006 that the four countries should meet regularly (South Africa joined later). The grouping was soon formalized, with annual summits planned. South Africa joined in 2011, solidifying the BRICS’ presence across the global South, with only Russia in the North.

In fact, this is why Russia’s centrality to the enterprise is so intriguing. Given that Russia was, until recently, a member of the Group of Eight–the northern hemisphere’s most important economic grouping–it would seem to have little affinity with the other four BRICS members, which have traditionally been viewed as the leading developing-country voices in global forums.

The continual deepening of the BRICS enterprise has caught many international observers by surprise. In addition to their annual summits–which have produced joint declarations covering every major global issue, from questions of peace and security to United Nations reform–the BRICS have conducted foreign ministers’ meetings and engaged in think-tank consultations. Moreover, the BRICS have created the New Development Bank, headquartered in Shanghai and headed by one of India’s most respected private-sector bankers.

  Seeking Global Influence

The BRICS are emerging at a time when the future of the international system that arose in the immediate aftermath of World War II is increasingly being called into question.

But it seems that existing arrangements are no longer adequate. China and India are seeking global influence commensurate with their economic weight; Brazil and South Africa are emerging as continental powerhouses, and hydrocarbon-fueled Russia is chafing at its status on the margins of the western system. Not surprisingly, many think that the current system is ready for a makeover.

The existing world powers, however, will not cede their influence so easily. It is absurd that China’s voting power in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is the same as Belgium’s. But the G-20’s effort to create parity in these institutions between the advanced economies and the emerging and transition countries has ground to a halt. Indeed, although US leaders technically agreed to IMF voting reforms, the US Congress has so far refused to ratify them.

Today’s world leaders appear to lack the statesmanship, the breadth of vision, and the generosity of spirit of those who created the post-1945 world order. By clinging stubbornly to the system they dominate and barring the door to new entrants, they have left those outside little choice.

What the BRICS countries have in common is their exclusion from the places they believe they deserve in the current world order. That may not look like enough of a basis for a credible new international system. But, with their economies on course to overtake those of the G-7 before 2050, looks can be deceiving.