Can these very different countries really manage to work together?

In his recent essay ("Think Again: The BRICS," November 2012), Antoine van Agtmael ably dissects much of the economic hype surrounding the BRICS. But he does not go far enough in questioning their efforts to institutionalize themselves as a political association. The fundamental heterogeneity of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa belies their efforts to act in a unified manner or emerge as a cohesive alternative to the present Western-designed international economic and political system.

The BRICS (which did not originally include South Africa) were first identified as a unit in 2001 by an economist at Goldman Sachs because they were the largest emerging markets and were experiencing the most rapid economic growth at the time. Yet there is nothing natural about the grouping. Indeed, these disparate countries have little in common aside from impressive economic growth over the past decade and an individual desire for a greater say in the institutions of global governance. From an economic standpoint, China and India's growth is driven by services and manufacturing while Brazil and Russia's is fueled by natural resource exports (and many analysts question South Africa's status as a major emerging market). In the political sphere, China is authoritarian; Brazil, India, and South Africa are democracies; and Russia is somewhere in between.

More importantly, the geopolitical goals of the BRICS are in tension, if not mutually incompatible. China's ideal world order -- a version of Zbigniew Brzezinski's G-2, where Beijing serves as a counterbalance to Washington's power -- has little space for the aspirations of Brazil, India, or Russia to have a seat at the table in a multipolar world. Toward that end, China has consistently opposed an expansion of the U.N. Security Council to include other rising powers. Reforms to international governance that increase China's voice are welcome, but reforms that dilute its existing privileges are not.

It is this fundamental incompatibility of interests that will prevent the BRICS from acting as a cohesive economic or political force on the world stage. As van Agtmael rightly notes, "These big emerging economies will put their stamp on the 21st century." But it will be as individual nations, not as an artificial coalition.

Assistant Professor of International Relations
University of Oxford
Oxford, England

Antoine van Agtmael replies:

As I mention in my article, the BRICS are not a cohesive geographic, economic, or political bloc. They compete more than they cooperate, and they often seek the same open seat at the table. What they have in common, however, is that they are a new generation of economic powers that can no longer be ignored or overlooked. The American Century is over and these countries are a key part of a new multipolar world, whether that world is dominated by a G-2 or a new G-7.

Of course, the United States, the European Union, and Japan are not a cohesive bloc either. They are economic competitors as much as they are dependent on each other's markets, they also span the globe, and -- since the fall of the Soviet Union -- they have lost a common national security threat. Terrorism may represent a new unifying concern for the developed world, but these countries' subtly different approaches to terrorism have been as important as their cooperation on the issue.

Grouping countries together also doesn't imply equality. China's ambitions for political dominance in Asia and global relevance are in a different league than those of the other BRICS. But, at least for the next 25 years, China will need to build common understanding with the other BRICS before it can be a significant global actor. And within each of their hemispheres, Brazil, India, and Russia seek to play their own key roles. Witness India in Afghanistan and Russia in Central Asia. The Brazilians love China as their most important export market but resent it as a competitor in Africa.

Sometimes these divergent national interests will lead to competition among the BRICS. But at other times, the BRICS will develop unified responses to global challenges or perceived threats from the developed world.


Syrians Are War Correspondents, Too

A response to Terry Anderson's "Running Toward Danger."

Dear Mr. Anderson,

I read "Running Toward Danger" yesterday and I had to tell you how much it moved me. Syria is being ripped to shreds, the people are suffering, and the cities are being destroyed. We didn't expect this degree of ruthlessness as a response to the people's demands for freedom after 40 years of Assad tyranny, but as we know well, freedom is not free.

Your thoughts on war correspondents sacrificing everything for the truth applies not only to the brave journalists like Austin and Marie and Anthony and the dozens of journalists inside Syria now, but also to the Syrian men and women who stood behind the cameras, documenting the truth. We have lost dozens of citizen journalists in this revolution. Young men who were students, employees, fathers one day and became threatening targets the next day because of their cell phones, cameras, and laptops. They knew Syrians have been silent too long. Last year, they decided to never cover up Assad's crimes with silence again. And they are paying a heavy price for it.

I don't know what my dead friends would have answered your question, "Was it worth it?" But I do know what the ones who are alive and still film and photograph in Homs, Aleppo, Hama, Idleb, Daraa, and across Syria would say to the question, "Is it worth it to die for your camera?" They would say, "Yes." Because they know for the first time in their lives, their voice matters and they are doing the most important job, to tell the truth while so many are telling lies. Telling the truth, in a way, has become even more important than freedom. It's the road to freedom.

I've been writing about the revolution since the beginning. I didn't expect to take on the role I now have when I began; telling my stories evolved into telling Syria's stories. I only cared about one thing: telling the truth. Sometimes it seems like an impossible task. And many times the truth hurts. But we have to keep going and hope that what's good in the people prevails over the evil.

When I read your piece, I remembered Anthony Shadid, a journalist who changed my life, and how much I miss his voice of truth. And I thought of Austin too. I pray he is safe and will return to his family soon.

Most of all, I wanted to tell you that your words made a difference to me. God bless you.

With much respect,