Language, especially acronyms, creates value and meaning. When Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill first coined the term “BRIC” to describe the four major emerging economies in 2001, he paved the way for an alliance built not on existing wealth or entitlement, but rather on similar capacities and future international goals. Fifteen years on, the BRICS as the future proprietors of the world order continues to stand at the paradox of both highly possible and simply impossible. It is true the five countries are home to 43% of the world’s population, 37% of the world GDP and 17% share in the world trade — no doubt a significant chunk. On the other hand, China’s miracle growth period is over, Russia can hardly be trusted to be the world’s government. Brazil’s new President, Michel Temer has been clear the BRICS are not his first priority. India’s economy is growing, but still has a long way to go. South Africa’s economy is no doubt impressive relative to her size, but over half the youth is unemployed. Economically as well as politically, each country faces domestic hurdles.
Considered in tandem or as a group, long-term stability between the BRICS seems even more difficult to establish. Particularly, the dynamic within the core — Russia, India and China — is in a constant flux. While Sino-Russian relations have currently been reinforced by events in Tashkent last month, China’s recent obstruction of India’s NSG membership certainly tampers the India-China relationship. Despite these uncertainties however, the Goldman Sachs report does leave behind one powerful legacy: a collective voice of a powerful other, one with both the desire and potential to challenge the American-led global order. And this, in turn, begets another question: what is to become of liberal institutionalism under the BRICS?
Inter and intra-BRICS complications aside, this might be a good time to find out. The impending Presidential election, whether or not Republican candidate Donald Trump wins, is likely to result in the US limiting its role as the world’s government — a shift already initiated to some extent by President Obama in the Middle East. The rise of the BRICS does not of course directly translate into a hegemonic transition, but a retreating American foreign policy certainly strengthens its possibility.
One can make some guesses about the state of the liberal world order under the BRICS.
If the UN vote on Libya is any indication, it is likely that notions of sovereignty will eclipse humanitarian concerns and interventions. Having said that, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, for instance, stands in clear violation of that principle. Given their vastly different political backgrounds and values, combined with lack of helping institutions to create some degree of balance, the BRICS are a fragile alliance almost waiting to combust over the next annexation. The quintuple cannot act alone, and despite its increasingly limited role given its veto structure and inability to enforce recommendations, the United Nations Security Council might be crucial to the survival of the BRICS — although of course updated to paint a more accurate picture of the current power dynamics.
However, the problems of today exist beyond the Westphalian confines of nations going to war with each other. Almost all of the most pressing issues of today: climate change, terrorism, health epidemics are transnational and involve non-state actors. The work of the UN subsidiary bodies has been crucial in such areas; as Ian Bremmer points out, these agencies have achieved considerable success on various fronts, and they don’t always receive the praise or recognition they deserve. If the BRICS do inherit the future, one can only hope that despite their establishment of the New Development Bank and Contingency Reserve Arrangement, they are able to keep their "whiny post-colonial voice" aside long enough to only renovate, not demolish the United Nations.
Not all countries are created equal. Not all values either. In part, American hegemony finds itself protected by its own inherent sense of responsibility towards the rest of the world, combined with the means to enact it. It is always open season on US power and leverage, but it is also true that the US is able to ensure a high degree of security across the world, both through military means or otherwise. Beyond simply sharing their vast development knowledge, the BRICS will have to open up trade, investment opportunities, perhaps even borders in order to gain the stronghold necessary to govern the world. Unless they are prepared to make the internal, and likely even external, sacrifices necessary, the alliance of the future might have hit a bric(s) wall much sooner than they would have liked.
The author is a Digital Intern at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
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