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The BRICS summit has an unusual origin story. The group’s membership reflects an acronym coined by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill (.pdf) in 2001. At the time, the “BRIC” acronym -- South Africa failed to make the cut -- lumped together four of the world’s fastest-growing large economies. What began as a term intended for investors was later borrowed by the four countries’ leaders to name their first quadrilateral gathering in 2009. With South Africa’s inclusion in 2011, BRICS was born.
Far from representing the world’s emerging powers, however, BRICS simply brings together disparate countries. Only Brazil, India and South Africa are true emerging powers, having recently arrived on the international stage. Russia is a longstanding member of the Great Power club. It possesses what emerging powers lack: a seat on the United Nations Security Council, the world’s pre-eminent decision-making body. So does China, a nation that enjoyed this privileged status long before its economy took flight.
Then there is the much larger number of emerging powers that remain outside BRICS, such as Indonesia, Turkey, Nigeria and Mexico. At most, the BRICS summit speaks for the five countries that participate.
Today the BRICS comprise approximately 20 percent of global GDP and according to projections (.pdf) could, by 2030, collectively rival the combined economies of the G-7 countries: the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. Yet some of the BRICS face demographic and political headwinds that may reduce economic growth. Russia’s working-age population is set to decline 8 percent by 2020, while the number of working-age Chinese peaked in 2011, more than a decade earlier than expected. A rising Russian middle class chafes at the Kremlin’s authoritarian tendencies. In China, the confluence of yawning income inequality, endemic corruption, environmental degradation and proliferating information technologies threatens internal stability.
Regardless of whether the rosiest growth estimates pan out, the future of the global economy belongs not to the BRICS but to established and emerging power democracies. Of the top 20 projected economies in 2030, 16 are democracies today (.pdf). In 2030, they are expected to produce two-thirds of this group’s combined GDP. Add to this the shale gas boom in the United States and the related prospect of higher-than-anticipated growth in what remains the world’s largest economy, and the overlap between the world’s economic and democratic centers of gravity appears likely to endure.
Moreover, without geopolitical or ideological mortar, the BRICS remain loosely cemented. Rather than a bloc, the BRICS is an opportunistic partnership. Members, lacking a common vision, use the group as a platform to air grievances and to pursue their own foreign policy agendas. Although the BRICS are rhetorically committed to a “more democratic and just multipolar world order,” they have yet to even articulate a unified position on U.N. Security Council reform, with China unwilling to formally endorse Brazil and India’s bids for permanent seats.
Mistrust among some members also limits BRICS’ potential. With China possessing a GDP larger than that of the other four members combined and potential BRICS activities heavily dependent on funding from Beijing, leaders in New Delhi and Brasilia worry that the group could become a tool for putting a multilateral face on the pursuit of Chinese interests. Such concerns have delayed the establishment of the much-touted BRICS development bank by complicating agreement on a set of governing rules and on the denomination of commonly held funds. It is also telling that Brazil, India and South Africa, while participating in BRICS, have retained a separate trilateral forum of developing democracies, the IBSA Dialogue Forum, that excludes China. For leaders in these three nations, IBSA offers a more comfortable venue for undertaking political initiatives and holding joint military exercises.
As a result of all these factors, talk of a new international order anchored by the BRICS is just that -- talk. To challenge the interlocking web of global institutions, rules and relationships that has advanced peace, prosperity and security for the past six decades, the BRICS would need to become the nucleus for a much larger coalition of aggrieved nations. Yet other key emerging powers such as Indonesia and Turkey have kept the BRICS at arm’s length, preferring to engage its members bilaterally, and in Indonesia’s case, viewing the group as a potentially polarizing force in world affairs.
The two largest emerging powers in BRICS, Brazil and India, desire modifications to the current order; they do not seek to scrap it. On trade, finance, maritime security and human rights, Brazil has pursued change through existing institutions and arrangements. With the exception of trade, India has actually increased its support for the global order in recent years, for instance, by combating piracy off the coast of Somalia and by seeking membership in major multilateral export control regimes.
The real challenges to global order lie elsewhere. These include stagnating multilateral trade talks, a weakened global financial architecture, the nuclear aspirations of North Korea and Iran, outsized maritime claims by China and other states and a retrenchment of democracy in some parts of the world, all compounded by growing fiscal constraints on the order’s traditional backstops, the United States and Europe. There is no reason to invoke the BRICS bogeyman to justify concerns about the durability of the global order.
When leaders from the BRICS congregate in Durban, they will not be “present at the creation.” Grand pronouncements and a lengthy communique mean little. Lacking an ideological or geopolitical foundation, this house of BRICS is a house of cards.
Daniel M. Kliman is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and, with Richard Fontaine, recently co-authored “Global Swing States: Brazil, India, Indonesia, Turkey and the Future of International Order.”