In the last two decades, the linkages among nation states have deepened to an unprecedented level. In terms of commerce and finance, the world has recovered and surpassed the degree of interconnectedness that was achieved before the Great Depression. Moreover, new issues have emerged, creating new linkages, deepening the web that connects the international community and giving a much wider sense to the notion of globalization.
This has come at a price. As the 2008-2009 financial crisis demonstrated, the consequences of the actions of one state or one nonstate actor can resonate across the globe. The countries which are more likely to have a wider impact are, obviously, the most powerful ones.
It is in this context that the rise of a number of nations has caused both interest and alarm. Among them, Brazil, Russia, India and China are regarded as the emerging powers. Their growing power has enabled them to present the most credible challenge to the hegemony and legitimacy to run world affairs which the United States and their Western allies enjoyed after the Cold War.
The BRICs know it. Their leaders regularly meet to announce their agreement on certain issues and to let the world know that they can act in unison. By doing so, they increase their own power as well as the legitimacy of the group, helping them to provide an alternative forum to all states, including, if not especially, those that are not well regarded in the West.
One thing to note is that the BRICs are all developing countries when comparing their gross domestic product per capita levels with those of the Western powers. This characteristic and their growing international legitimacy has led them to become representatives of the interests of the developing world in certain negotiations with developed nations.
As a group, the BRICs have advanced the notion of reforming the current international system to give more say to the developing world. Among the most important demands are expansion of the United Nations Security Council and an increased voting shares for developing nations in the World Bank.
In the area of global commerce, the BRICs have demanded a decrease of trade barriers. With respect to climate change and efforts by the West to reduce green emissions, the BRICs argue that the current environmental problems are the largely consequence of the industrialized world’s actions and that they have no right to stop others from developing.
But the BRICs are not a coherent group. China and Russia are authoritarian states and sit on the UN Security Council while Brazil and india are democracies and looking to become permanent members. Would China and Russia still endorse the claim of expanding Security Council permanent membership if there was a strong possibility of doing so? Not likely.
Furthermore, China and India are very suspicious of one another and have territorial disputes. India also fears a Chinese monopoly of the Indian Ocean and has recently increased its investment in maritime capabilities. Energy relations among China, India and Russia are very complex. China and India need Russian oil and gas, allowing Moscow to trade energy concessions for strategic gains elsewhere at the detriment of the other two BRIC powers.
Unlike its peers, Brazil is not a nuclear power, which severely decreases its leverage on hard power issues. Brazil is also more adamant about trade liberalization while India seeks to protect its rice farmers.
In short, each one of these countries has its own particular interests and will not renounce to them in favor of an alliance.
While Brazil plays the role of model global citizen, Russia is far more focused on its security. China has serious domestic problems in terms of political accountability and sustainable growth. India struggles between its growth prospects and the institutional inefficiencies which prevent it from achieving them.
The BRICs’ sole factor of cohesion is a shared interest to promote change in the international community. This implies that its usefulness as a grouping in the future will depend on the following perception in the member states — will acting as a group benefit their own particular agendas?
Another question is whether these four countries are the only ones that can be qualified as the emerging powers and therefore legitimate representatives of the developing world? They answered that question by including South Africa in the group. Although it doesn’t compare in size and power to the BRICs, South Africa’s inclusion amply demonstrated there are other countries with sufficient assets and capabilities to be considered as rising powers.
Other clear examples are Indonesia and Turkey. The BRICs would do well to include them. After all, the only requirement for joining seem to be power and an opposition to the existing international system.
However, more members means more national interests to consider. Soon enough, an expanded BRICs could resemble a “G20 minus G7” which would hinder the very notion of promoting dialogue between the developing and the developed world.