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Home >Opinion >Blogs >Brics: The acronym that went Pinocchio

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Jim O’Neill, and the Word was Bric. Then there was Brics and six summits later, there is a $50 billion bank.

When Goldman Sachs Group Inc. economist Jim O’Neill coined the term Bric (Brazil, Russia, India and China) in 2001, he said “over the next 10 years, the weight of the Brics and especially China in world GDP will grow…world policymaking forums should be re-organized and in particular, the G7 should be adjusted to incorporate Bric representatives". His contention was that the rising economic importance of Brics would require the West to reassess and accommodate the interests of these economies, particularly China.

It might not have occurred to him then that these economies, with the addition of South Africa, might not wait for the West to give them space and might simply compete for influence. The Brics development bank, launched last week, which aspires to be an alternative to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) is considered to be the first step towards achieving this lofty ambition.

The bank intends to facilitate availability of easy liquidity in the face of a volatile global economy, enhance greater financial cooperation among Brics as well as provide financial assistance to other countries.

The underlying assumption here is that all Brics members are committed to each other’s financial stability and are equally concerned about all those countries that might seek their assistance.

Why assumptions might fail

One of the most obvious things about the Brics grouping is that there is very little these countries share except that they are emerging economies. Even within that parameter, there is very little that is similar between the pace of growth in China and the other members.

Politically, these countries are distinct as chalk and cheese. India, Brazil and South Africa are democracies. India has a conservative government while Brazil and South Africa are led by socialist leaders. China and Russia are powerful, authoritarian regimes. Of the five members, the power dynamic is strongest between India, China and Russia. However, India can’t trust China and the latter would never want a stronger India. Both are involved in less-than subtle geostrategic maneuvres to pin each other down. China and Russia are fiercely opposed to American dominance in world affairs. India is close to Russia but does not share its anti-West sentiment.

When seen closely, however, there is method in the geopolitical madness. The group as a whole wants to reduce American “hegemony" in global affairs. This makes eminent sense individually for some Brics countries. China and Russia are obvious examples. Brazil, under socialist leaders, too, will want little to do with the US: most socialists in Latin America are actively sceptical about American economic prescriptions and bear a strong mix of political antipathy and fear towards Washington.

That leaves out India and South Africa as the off couple in the group. Both have liberal economic ideas and are heirs to non-violent freedom struggles whose ideas have carried on in their independent lives. So why should they seek to join a group whose anti-Americanism is a thin tissue for authoritarian economics and politics?

Both countries are also confused. India, for example, remains hostage to outdated ideas such as non-alignment in global affairs. This idea was practical as it was realistic in an earlier age. But India’s leadership is also beset with inertia to the point that it is willing to join a group of countries that are authoritarian in the name of countering American influence. This displays a lack of application of mind. A country that has gained much from free trade, access to global markets and technology is now running against the grain of its interests.

The real test for Brics is not in chanting anti-American hymns; its test of resolve will come in dealing with crises that affect the non-democratic world. Brics is least likely to condemn any dictatorial or authoritarian leader. One can go as far as to hazard a guess and say that its collective leadership won’t say anything against Iran, Sudan, the tyrants in Central Asia, Syria and Zimbabwe among others. It, of course, won’t utter a word of condemnation for a bunch of thugs who shoot unarmed civilian aircraft and kill nearly 300 persons. That is Pinocchio geopolitics for you.

Global Roaming runs every Tuesday to take stock of international events and trends from a political and economic perspective.

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