Are the BRICs Ready to Lead?

They are becoming more assertive, but it is still unclear if rising powers will accept more responsibility.

The rising powers of the world, China foremost among them, are preparing for a more assertive stance on the world stage. Some wonder whether they’re ready to take on greater responsibility though.

Jorge G. Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign secretary, complains in Foreign Affairs that the BRICs — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa too — are immature and indifferent. “Their shaky commitment to democracy, human rights, nuclear nonproliferation, and environmental protection would only weaken the international system’s core values,” were they to be admitted to, say, the United Nations Security Council permanently or granted a larger role in institutions as the World Bank or World Trade Organization.

Brazil, India, and South Africa are representative democracies that basically respect human rights at home, but when it comes to defending democracy and human rights outside their borders, there is not much difference between them and authoritarian China. On those questions, all four states remain attached to the rallying cries of their independence or national liberation struggles: sovereignty, self-determination, nonintervention, autonomous economic development.

Such appeals to nonintervention “contradict the values enshrined in the international order,” according to Castañeda. Evidently, states minding their own business and urging others to do the same are rather considered inconvenient than virtuous, if we are to take Castañeda’s word for it.

One is tempted to point out that Mexico, formerly the de facto representative of Latin America and closest to the United States, is frustrated with neighboring Brazil far outperforming it this past decade. Recent Brazilian initiatives — negotiating a nuclear fuel exchange agreement with Iran and spending billions of dollars on international aid — are only likely to amplify the South American giant’s leverage on the world stage while Mexico, plagued with an ongoing internal drug war, may well succumb to chaos and corruption unless anyone bothers to intervene. Castañeda certainly has reason to fear that his country will be sidelined in the process of multilateralism.

Indeed, oftentimes the loudest opponents of granting either of the BRICs a permanent seat on the Security Council or some high level appointment in any multinational forum are not established powers but nearby competitors who fear being overshadowed by their regional hegemon.

Their fears would be justified if those rising powers showed any signs of powerhungryness. Except they don’t. China may be scrambling for resources worldwide and vying for influence with Russia and the United States in Central Asia; India may occasionally poke its nose in the affairs of neighboring countries but that’s largely to ensure its own security; Brazil is promoting all sorts of Latin American cooperation clubs which goes to show how little ambition it has to dominate its own continent; and Russia — hardly a “rising power” to begin with — is certainly still roaring but no superpower anymore. Smaller countries, like Germany and Japan, or smaller economies, as Indonesia and South Africa, are either too integrated in or too disconnected from the international order to seriously consider challenging it at all.

Underlying the foreign policy aims of nearly all aforementioned countries — certainly all the “rising” ones — is a clear and uncompromising sense of self preservation. Even China, which recently surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy, is worried that its impressive growth track could be interrupted when its people start to demand greater political freedoms. Brazil and India, too, each harbor hundreds of millions of people living in desolate poverty. Their governments are genuinely concerned with doing something about that first before they’ll start trying to box out neighboring states in some sort of zero-sum regional power struggle.

Brazil, China and India are each huge countries which, as they continue to grow, will expect to have a greater say in international rules and games. Their inclusion in the G20 is an encouraging sign of Europe and the United States realizing that they stand little to lose from having these countries participate. But as their own democracies are fragile and their populations still partly impoverished, they’ll do more to try to secure resources and international regulations that work in their favor too, than promote freedom and democracy around the world as the United States have been doing for the past fifty years.