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
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.