Which Way For The BRICs?

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The rise of Asia has helped establish the generally accepted proposition that we are witnessing a shift of power from West to East—or if we also consider Latin America—from North to South. Many large developing countries have bounced back from the recession more quickly than the developed economies of North America and Western Europe, which were responsible for the crisis, borne out of the excesses of unfettered capitalism.

Painfully aware of this loss of credibility, many observers at this year’s Davos Economic Conference reported that Western leaders and bankers, previously extremely confident—often to the point of proselytizing—about Western development models, began to look at success stories emerging from countries that have taken alternative paths.

The power of acronym has concentrated attention on the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China), but countries such as South Africa and oil-exporting Middle Eastern countries are also playing an increasingly important role on the world stage as the power of the West declines.

As a liberal democracy and still the most powerful country in the world, the US should, and does to some extent, applaud the economic progress of other countries. “A rising tide raises all boats,” as John F. Kennedy said. But in many ways these rising powers are now looking to one another rather than the traditional power centers, a development which has troubling consequences for the US.

An anecdote from the Copenhagen conference captures this nicely. Gideon Rachman, of the Financial Times, reports:

“On the last day of the talks, the Americans tried to fix up one-to-one meetings between Mr. Obama and the leaders of South Africa, Brazil and India—but failed each time. The Indians even said that their prime minister, Manmohan Singh, had already left for the airport.

So Mr. Obama must have felt something of a chump when he arrived for a last-minute meeting with Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, only to find him already deep in negotiations with the leaders of none other than Brazil, South Africa and India. Symbolically, the leaders had to squeeze up to make space for the American president around the table.”

But it is not only the loss of influence that is surprising for the US. The manner in which many of these countries are behaving is flying in the face of perceived wisdom about the nature of development. For decades, many assumed that economic development would lead to political convergence with Western democracies, and the interests of these states would broadly converge with those of the US in some kind of Fukuyaman liberal utopia. In the 90s, this was the rationale in the US behind increased economic engagement with China: As the country got richer, their human rights behavior would automatically improve. Now, no one even pretends to believe this is the case.

President Obama was rebuffed quite openly on his last trip to China. State television did not even broadcast his speech to the Chinese people, and the White House website was reportedly blocked, denying access even to those who actively sought to hear the speech.

Obama simply took the insult and returned to the US. What else could he do? China is holding billions of dollars of US debt and has little confidence that the US will honor the value of the dollar-denominated assets. The US has minimal leverage and even less moral authority over China. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it: “How do you get tough on your banker?”

Mrs. Clinton was recently presented with the uncomfortable fact that many of the world’s rising democracies also do not share the American take on current international diplomacy. During a recent trip to Brazil—the Western hemisphere’s second-largest democracy—President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Foreign Minister Celso Amorim put it as politely as possible that Brazil would have no part in supporting sanctions against Iran. The US is having similar difficulties persuading Turkey and China.

The Brazilian government argues that sanctions could strengthen Iran’s hardliners. But even apart from this very plausible point, what does Brazil have to gain by supporting sanctions? Iran can be an important economic partner for Brazil. It is not Brazil’s duty as a democracy to police the world; its first duty is to provide for its citizens, many of whom are severely impoverished.

In South America, the notion that Brazil would support the US in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is seen by many as laughable. After all, the US and Israel have nuclear weapons of their own and have a much more bellicose recent history than Iran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may talk big, but it has been the US and Israel that have actually launched several invasions between them in the past few years.

In retrospect, it seems extremely naïve to have assumed that economic development and economic liberalization would lead to political liberalization in the world’s authoritarian regimes, or that developing countries would line up with the traditional centers of power as they gained influence.

Two factors are at work here. The first is that these countries, the BRICs and other rising powers, are slowly leaving the poor world behind but remain skeptical of America’s leadership and its brand of global capitalism, especially as a result of the economic crisis. Because of this we will continue to see democracies like India and South Africa regularly refuse to line up with the US on critical global issues, such as trade, climate change or sanctions. The second factor is that the US has far too long conflated its own interests with a notion of the universal goals of modern, developed democracies.

In Sao Paulo, Beijing or Ankara, these points are self-evident. But Washington must also be privy to them if its leaders are to successfully navigate the waters of the rising tides of 21 century geopolitics, stirred up and made more inhospitable by the convulsions of financial crisis.

Vincent Bevins London-based journalist with The Guardian. He is also a frequent contributor to the Financial Times, and the New Statesman.

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