Argument

The Trouble With the BRICs

Why it's too soon to give Brazil and India permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council.

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.

The BRICs are self-consciously aware of these weaknesses, and they are working hard to change. Despite being former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's handpicked candidate, Brazil's new leader, Dilma Rousseff, has partly reneged on some of Lula's more questionable foreign-policy postures. She has explicitly pulled back from Brazil's futile and incomprehensible venture -- hand in hand with Turkey -- into the nuclear proliferation conflict between Iran and the P5+1 countries. Roussef has committed Brazil to denouncing human rights violations wherever they occur (probably excluding Cuba and Venezuela, but not Iran any longer). More importantly, Brazil, as a nonpermanent member of the Security Council, voted in favor of Resolution 1970, which imposed sanctions on Libya for the wanton killing of civilians in its ongoing civil war. Brazil's stand on a Security Council resolution imposing a no-fly zone over Libya remains ambiguous, but it seems far more forward-looking than traditional Itamaraty "anti-interventionism."

A similar shift may be occurring with China. Beijing went along with stiffer sanctions against Iran last year and did not veto the Libya resolution. It has apparently opposed a new stance by the Security Council on the no-fly zone, but it appears that the tougher resistance comes from Russia. (One can hardly consider Vladimir Putin's Russia as an emerging power after the Cold War and its full-fledged status as a hegemon, albeit a relatively short-lived one.) Yet even Russia may eventually go along with a tougher U.N. stance than Resolution 1970 and might even approve some form of humanitarian or pro-democracy engagement.

The real issue, though, remains that only the United States, France, and Britain really count in the Arab world crisis. Only the U.S. military was able to nudge the Egyptian Army into edging Hosni Mubarak out of power (obviously thanks to the popular movement in the street, but Qaddafi has shown that jasmines and chants are not sufficient). Only the French government, after much hesitation and several false starts, was finally able to convince Tunisian ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to leave, and largely because the military abandoned him. And if a no-fly zone is imposed or a humanitarian intervention does take place in Libya, only the United States and NATO will be able to enforce it.

All of which brings us back to square one. The emerging economies may catch up with the older, more developed ones sooner than expected. And they are certainly insistent on conquering the political equivalent of their economic surge. But for the moment, they lack the necessary commitments to the liberal order as well as the ability to project their rising power. Are the new powers willing to fully accept and contribute to the evolving international legal regime on issues such as human rights, collective defense of democracy, trade, climate change, or nonproliferation? Are they committed -- even if Washington is not -- to the International Criminal Court, the Doha round of trade talks, the U.N. Human Rights Council, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and new, more enlightened stances by the IMF and World Bank? Can they eventually begin to assume their responsibilities in U.N. peacekeeping operations (Brazil and India have; South Africa and China are beginning)?

Given the progress that has been made in recent months, scant as it may be, it would seem that a virtuous, non-Faustian pact may be struck with the emerging powers: a seat at the table in exchange for a full-fledged commitment to the agreements, covenants, and deals cut before they arrived, regardless of recurrent noncompliance with all of these structures by the countries that originally created them. The more China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Pakistan, and others meet these standards, the more welcome they should be to the inner councils of world governance. Next year, Mexico will chair the G-20 for six months: This will be a fine opportunity to see whether the emerging powers are finally coming of age.

EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images

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