by Samir Saran and Vivan Sharan
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New Delhi: There have been heated discussions over the role of BRICS recently. Ian Bremmer, President of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm, wrote an eye-catching article in the New York Times in late November, proclaiming that BRICS is nothing more than a catchy acronym. The BRICS nations represent over 43 percent of the global population that is likely to account for over 50 percent of global consumption by the middle class – those earning between $16 and $50 per day – by 2050. On the other hand, they also collectively account for around half of global poverty calculated at the World Bank’s $1.25 a day poverty line. What, then, is the mortar that unites these BRICS?
First, unlike NATO, BRICS is not posturing as a global security group; unlike ASEAN or MERCOSUR, BRICS is not an archetypal regional trading bloc; and unlike the G7, BRICS is not a conglomerate of Western economies laying bets at the global governance high table. BRICS is, instead, a 21st-century arrangement for the global managers of tomorrow.
At the end of World War II, the Atlantic countries rallied around ideological constructs in an attempt to create a peaceful global order. Now, with the shifts in economic weights, adherence to ideologies no longer determines interactions among nations.
BRICS members are aware that they must collaborate on issues of common interest rather than common ideologies in what is now a near “G-0 world,” to borrow Bremmer’s own terminology. Second, size does not matter and it never has. Interests do and they always will. Intriguingly, Bremmer expresses his concern over China being a dominant member within BRICS. Clearly, Bremmer has chosen to ignore the fact that the US accounts for about 70 percent of the total defense expenditure of NATO countries or that it contributes nearly 45 percent of the G7’s collective GDP.
Third, BRICS is a flexible group in which cooperation is based on consensus. Issues of common concern include creating more efficient markets and generating sustained growth; generating employment; facilitating access to resources and services; addressing healthcare concerns and urbanization pressures; and seeking a stable external environment not periodically punctuated with violence arising out of a whim of a country with means.
Fourth, it is useful to remember that the world is still in the middle of a serious recession emanating from the West. As Bremmer himself points out, systemic dependence on Western demand is a critical challenge for BRICS nations. Indeed, it is no surprise that they have begun to create hedges. The proposal to institute a BRICS-led Development Bank, instruments to incentivize trade and investments, as well as mechanisms to integrate financial markets and stock exchanges are a few examples.
Fifth, through the war on Iraq, some countries undermined the UN framework. The interventions in Libya reaffirmed that sovereignty is neither sacrosanct nor a universal right. While imposing significant economic costs on the world, they failed to produce the desired political outcome. By maintaining the centrality of the UN framework in international relations, BRICS is attempting to pose a counter-narrative.
Sixth, in the post-Washington Consensus era, financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank are struggling to articulate a coherent development discourse. BRICS nations are at a stage where they can collectively craft a viable alternative development agenda.
In the Fourth BRICS Summit in New Delhi in March 2012, there was clear emphasis on sharing development knowledge and further democratizing institutions of global financial governance within the cooperative framework. BRICS is a transcontinental grouping that seeks to shape the environment within which the member countries exist. While countries across the globe share a number of common interests, the order of priorities differs. Today, BRICS nations find that their order of priorities on a number of external and internal issues which affect their domestic environments is relatively similar.
BRICS is pursuing an evolving and well thought out agenda based on this premise. And unlike Bremmer, we are not convinced that they are destined to fail.
* Samir Saran is vice president and Vivan Sharan an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.