As the so-called BRIC countries, Brazil, Russia, India, and China, have grown more and more influential in the world economy, their administrators and myriad pundits have inevitably concluded that they and other rising powers should also become more important actors in global politics. The insistence by Brazil and India for permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council, a similar push by China and Brazil for a greater say on climate change talks and on IMF and World Bank voting shares, and a greater voice for South Africa in all of these arenas are just a few examples of the BRICs' growing boldness.
But as I noted last year in Foreign Affairs, the emerging powers are not ready for prime time. And never has this been clearer than now, with revolution sweeping the Middle East. It is the traditional powers in the West that will determine the international response to this crisis -- not because they are favored by global institutions, but because their word is backed by military and diplomatic weight. In contrast, the world's rising economies lack the ability -- and the values -- to project their power on the world stage.
Let's back up a bit. By now, the growing economic clout of the new regional powers is indisputable. Their political strength, however, is less obvious. And more importantly, their entry into the halls of world governance would not necessarily strengthen the developing international legal regime. These new powers lack the same commitment as the older ones to supranational institutions and universal values such as human rights, the collective defense of democracy, a robust climate change framework, nuclear nonproliferation, and so forth. Hence, permanent seats on the Security Council for Brazil, India, and South Africa, coupled with greater participation by China, Pakistan, Indonesia, and even Mexico in international agencies or bodies, might weaken the very foundations of the liberal democratic order -- although in this regard, their entrance would also make international bodies more globally representative.
But in recent discussions about what should be done in Libya -- as well as in other potential trouble spots in the Arab world -- yet another weakness is laid bare. In addition to generally not wanting to intervene on humanitarian grounds or in defense of democracy or human rights, the "new powers" lack … power. Despite China's and Brazil's military and naval buildup, and India's and Pakistan's possession of nuclear weapons, they still lack the ability to project power the way that countries such as France and Britain can when NATO or the U.N. Security Council so decide. One can agree with such interventions or oppose them, but at this juncture only countries such as these and the United States have the wherewithal to actually do something in crises such as Libya.