New BRICS in the Wall


This week the G8 met in Deauville, France to tackle pressing issues around the globe. The G8 is no doubt an influential international forum representing the largest economies in the world. But there are a few notable exceptions. Absent from the G8 are some of the world’s biggest players such as Brazil, India, and China, all members of the G20 but not the G8. And while Russia is now a part of the G8, the expansion didn’t occur until 1997.

Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – the so-called BRICS – are changing the world economy in unprecedented ways. The numbers don’t lie. Together, they represent nearly three billion people, and four of the countries (South Africa excepted) have GDPs in the top 10 globally. Their geographic bulk endows them with tremendous natural resources including fossil fuels, timber, and rare metals. From 2006 to 2009, the annual GDP growth rates for Brazil, Russia, India, and China were 9.5%, 10.4%, 7.4%, and 5.9%, respectively. Meanwhile, worldwide GDP steadily declined during that same period from 5.0% to -0.3%.

With all the recession-defying economic data, some observers are wondering if the BRICS can transform economic growth into political clout. The BRICS Group met formally for the first time in June, 2009, and annual meetings have focused almost exclusively on economic matters, especially the dominance of US currency in world markets. The BRICS have issued coordinated opposition to European IMF leadership, but have failed to name a specific candidate of their own. Perhaps the strongest political maneuver so far is a public statement in opposition to NATO intervention in Libya.

But the differences between the Western alliances and the emerging BRICS Group are stark. Cooperation between the what used to be the G7 -- the United States, Canada, UK, Germany, France, Italy, and Japan -- has a lot of inertia behind it. The friendly relations between these nations are a natural progression of globalization because the world’s strongest economies are historically the world’s most powerful democracies. Moreover, all of these countries, with the exception of Japan, are also members of NATO, meaning that political, economic, and strategic interests are more or less aligned. Friendly cooperation between these nations is inevitable.

This is not so with the BRICS. Politically, the four countries lack cohesion. India, Brazil, and South Africa are relatively stable democracies, China remains under communist control, and Russia’s nascent democracy struggles to break from its authoritarian past, as evidenced by such controversial actions as shutting off gas supplies to Europe in 2009. Geographically, the countries are far apart, so they cannot unite on important regional issues as seen in organizations like the EU, African Union, and the Andean Community.

Moreover, the BRICS are already well established in existing international organizations, including powerful groups like the UN Security Council. Over time, the economic power of these countries will result in additional influence at the negotiating table. Says Benjamin Selwyn of the University of Sussex, "I wouldn't expect the Brazilians or the Chinese to say BRIC means a new configuration of the world. It's a longer process of seeing what gains can be made from collaboration with the G20 and other countries.”

As the BRICS Group continues to develop as an international forum, the question remains as to what kind of influence this group can wield. For now, however, the political differences remain significant, perhaps too much for economics alone to bridge. A more likely scenario is that the BRICS will continue to dominate world economic growth and will work to increase their influence in existing international organizations.

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