At the end of March 2013, a strange gathering of world leaders met in Durban, South Africa. They included the leader of the world’s biggest democracy, the leader of the world’s biggest dictatorship and the leader of one of the world’s smallest economies. It also included the leader of an old European country with a stagnant economy and the leader of a thriving democratic and economically vibrant South American country. The most amazing thing about this meeting is that they all claimed to have something in common. The meeting, of course, was the fifth BRICS summit.
Originally conceived by an economist at Goldman Sachs in 2003, the BRIC grouping aimed to bring together countries that were likely to overtake the G7 (US, UK, France, Italy, Canada, Germany and Japan) in economic performance by 2040. With South Africa joining the group in 2010, this founding principle has clearly been abandoned as the country is unlikely to move much beyond its status as the world’s 41st largest economy in the next 30 years. Increasingly, it appears that the only thing the group has in common is opposition to the West and resentment against a powerful world economic order that does not fully include them. So what is BRICS and what do they plan to do and how do they plan to do it?
This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. There are calls for reform of the UN Security Council, the World Bank and most ambitiously, the entire world economic system. The two members of BRICS with permanent seats at the UN Security Council (China and Russia) have promised to help but don’t appear to be putting this reform particularly high on their agenda inasmuch as there have already been reforms which have seen South Africa take a role in a revolving seat. Given that there is support for reform of the Security Council outside of the BRICS grouping these calls seem a little redundant. The World Bank reform seems like an item worth putting on the agenda, but the meeting in Durban failed to come up with a commitment to fund a BRICS development bank as an alternative. Although the meeting agreed on the formation of such a body, there was no agreement on where the organisation should be headquartered or how it should be funded. As it stands the BRICS development bank exists on paper alone with no clear plan for its establishment.
With respect to changing the world economic order it’s worth looking at what that would take and what underlies the G7 in terms of shared values and economic clout. The G7 share a commitment to democracy and freedom that the BRICS grouping clearly does not. Russia under Putin is conducting the biggest crackdown on civil society since the formation of the Soviet Union and China’s record on this doesn’t bear mentioning. South Africa has had a bad year when it comes to governance issues, but public statements by President Zuma over the last few years indicate an increasing admiration for how his Chinese comrades do business rather than whatever values Nelson Mandela might have espoused. So at the heart of BRICS there are fundamental differences in values that countries like India and Brazil with their thriving democracies, simply do not ascribe to. This has to have an influence on the vision that the grouping is able to draw on for inspiration. Ultimately it is this clash of values that will limit what they are able to achieve if every agreement must revert to finding the lowest common denominator in order to arrive at consensus.
If we leave aside the clash in values and look purely at the economics, a grouping like BRICS makes even less sense. Although with their strong economic growth and growing middle class populations they have some things in common (with South Africa definitely the outlier in this respect), they have stronger economic relationships with countries outside the group. China has economic links to the United States that are far more important than any within the BRICS grouping. It is difficult to imagine how Brazils’ relationship with South Africa could me more important that its trading links with Europe. Some observers have suggested that China participates in BRICS in order to pre-empt accusations of economic dominance and neo-colonialism that are sure to come once it’s relationship with Africa matures. Building some institutional links with Africa through South Africa (itself a strange and naïve vision of African geopolitics) may be an attempt to legitimize its plans for massive resource extraction. Given that resource extraction is something the West is accused of doing in Africa and which undermined African economies in the past, one gets a sense of déjà vu that this may not go well for the Chinese.
The more one analyses the BRICS group, the more they do not seem like natural partners. If the individual country’s rates of economic growth continue, and they do indeed overtake the G7 countries by 2040 then they will, by virtue of their economic strength be in a position to reform international institutions like the World Bank anyway. This is the economic reality of becoming a wealthy nation and does not need a separate group like BRICS to implement it. Whilst there seems to be a widespread acceptance that this economic dominance is inevitable, there is a link between freedom and long-term economic prosperity which many analysts fail to make. The old adage that “America is great because America is good” (which is not from de Tocqueville, but frequently ascribed to him) can be applied to any country. The countries of the West, and the countries of the east (Japan, South Korea) who dominate the current world order are free countries who recognise that freedom to innovate, experiment and challenge the status quo is ultimately vested in individuals, not international organizations whose only achievement and raison d’être appears to be to rail against the West every five years. The inclusion of India and Brazil in a G9 grouping with the current G7 would make far more sense and the alternative and entirely legitimate views that these countries bring to international relations would produce a true partnership of the new and the old, with shared values, increasing economic prosperity and a continued example of the economic success which freedom brings.