The second Bric summit is just under way at the time of this writing. The grouping was the inspired creation of Jim O’Neill, Goldman Sachs’ chief economist, almost a decade ago. Economic size and growth potential were the main criteria for the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India and China. Other dimensions of size—area and population—correlate as well. Three of the four have nuclear weapons capabilities and the same three are also strategic powers by virtue of size and geography.
From a purely economic point of view, Russia has seemed a bit of an odd man out, since it is by far the richest of the four, measured by per capita product, and also the most European. Russia is the only one of the Brics to be a member of the Group of Eight, or G-8, another grouping that is all rich and mostly “Western”, with Japan the only Asian member. A case can be made that Mexico should have been the fourth member of the group, not Russia. It is more truly a developing country, and not much smaller in economic size than Russia. But then, of course, the acronym would have had less appeal.
Russia is, of course, still a paradox, if not the “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” of Winston Churchill’s memorable phrasing. Its global nuclear power matches the US, and it has much of Europe in its make-up. But it has never undergone the social and political transformation that created modern Europe, and it encompasses vast tracts of Asia. Its peripheral regions make it an imperial power, albeit geographically contiguous.
In envisaging the Bric grouping, O’Neill thought in terms of economic potential and the changing balance of economic power, rather than geopolitics. Yet the two are inextricably intertwined. International trade creates mutual gains, but how those gains are divided depends on relative scarcities and ownership of resources. From this perspective, the Bric grouping is an inspired creation, because it embodies an intangible combination of current power and future potential.
From a political economy perspective, then, this is a natural quartet. The Brics also sit inside the new, more official, Group of Twenty (G-20) assemblage, which also combines and balances economic and political clout as determinants of membership. Thus, the G-20 includes South Africa, its only African member, and Argentina, but not Iran or Taiwan. Spain only gets represented through the European Union, even though its economy is bigger than South Korea’s.
One can also make a case for some economic symmetry in the Bric quartet, though it may not have been a driver of the choice of the grouping. Both Brazil and Russia are major commodity exporters and in some way complementary in their commodity exports. China is on the verge of being, if not so already, the world’s chief exporter of manufactures. And India may aspire to a similar role in services. These complementarities may support some coordinated thinking and action on economic issues.
It will be interesting to see how the balance of economic and political similarities and differences among the Brics plays out. Two are democracies, two are not—here I include Russia in the latter, perhaps because of its paradoxical nature again. Two are already global powers, two seek to graduate from regional powers to global status. Or perhaps it is the case that the grouping allows Russia to recover lost global status. Russia eagerly hosted the first Bric summit. Last week its foreign ministry spokesman called the Bric group “a reliable pillar in the formation of polycentric, fair and democratic world order”. This has echoes of Cold War-era doublespeak, but the context is different enough that such posturing will not matter.
The small number of the Bric club can certainly help in finding common ground, or doing deals, and here the grouping has an advantage over the less compact G-20. The latter is also still potentially dominated by its G-8 subset. Again, Russia can get to be a pivot, belonging to both smaller groupings. One can also take the size and small numbers logic to the limit and argue, as some have done, that the only group that matters is the G-2: the US and China.
The world is more complicated than that, however. There are many dimensions of power, potential and influence. Bric-à-brac means a heterogeneous, ornamental collection. The Brics may be heterogeneous, but the group is likely to be more than ornamental, as it carves out a niche within the G-20.
And what of India in all this? It has its own—colonial and diasporic—connections to the West. It is the world’s largest democracy. It has the potential to be the world’s fastest growing economy. And it provided the critical, solitary vowel that made the Bric name possible.
Nirvikar Singh is a professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org