By: Arjun Vir Kapoor
Now in 2019, the BRICS are symbolic of a very different world; one that is economically despotic, politically nationalist, and socially tempestuous.
On November 30th, 2001, Jim O’Neill, the then chief economist of Goldman Sachs, released a 16-page white paper declaring a new geo-economic bloc that he said would one day supplant the current western order of the world. If you were an investor, “BRIC” – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – was the way to go. In line with these prospects, O’Neill believed, world policymaking forums should be restructured to incorporate BRIC representatives, on an account of their growing economic and political significance. Almost 17 years later, the BRICS are symbolic of a very different world; not the one that O’Neill foresaw, but one that is economically despotic, politically nationalist, and socially tempestuous.
When O’Neill made his pronouncement, it gained great prominence. Although the world was still 7 years away from the financial crash, O’Neill’s proclamation for the two weakest economies of the current G7 countries to step down, making way for a new G9, including all of the BRIC nations, became a popular notion that many supported. In September 2006, the foreign ministers of the four states met in New York City at the General Debate of the UN General Assembly, founded the confederation, and then had their first summit in Yekaterinburg, Russia in June 2009. In December of 2010, South Africa entered the group of nations, the acronym now changing to ‘BRICS.’
As of today, the five nations have a combined population of approximately 3.2 billion people (42% of the global population), residing in over 25% of the total land on Earth and commanding close to 25% of global GDP. Needless to say, the BRICS do hold significant prominence on the global economic and political front. Although in China and India they hold two of the fastest growing economies in the world, the BRICS are not what O’Neill, and majority of the Western World once saw them to be. “BRICS is an empty concoction, of almost no meaning – a largely Chinese political myth,” says Charles Hill, a former senior diplomat, and now professor at Yale University. What is holding back these nations, in becoming economic juggernauts of the millennial world, is their political framework, that has dramatically changed for each of the nations over the course of the last decade.
On 28th October 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was elected as Brazil’s 38th president. This election marked the pinnacle of the right-wing political discourse of BRICS nations. They have rejected Western Democracy, unlike what most people expected from emerging nations as such. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has laid down an oppressively autocratic government. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a right-wing religiously fanatic nationalist. Xi Jinping, who is the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, has transformed the PRC, as an increasingly authoritarian leader, into a system that is politically entirely antithetical to the west. South Africa’s incumbent leader is Cyril Ramaphosa, who has only come to power after the forced resignation of the corrupt Jacob Zuma in February of this year. And now, Bolsonaro is added to this list; a reportedly misogynistic leader who has publicly insulted minorities, championed torture, and made homophobic and profane claims.
Jim O’Neill’s prediction of the BRICS rising up to the level of, and even joining the G7, has now gone completely off the rails. “The BRICS are a source of ‘alternative’ international institutions to the U.S. led liberal international order,” according to Harold Trinkunas, a professor of International Studies at Stanford University. It is fair to argue now, that the BRICS view themselves as a political and economic counterweight to the post WWII Western Order. Although South Africa and India are in economic alignment to the west, their international trade relations are leading to the emergence of a solitary confederation of eastern economies. Despite their failure, or rather choice to coalesce with the west as O’Neill forecasted, the political and economic fate of the BRICS is of utmost importance on a global scale. China has already established itself as an economic superpower, and India, as the fastest growing economy in the world, is knocking on the door.
Besides general economic and social growth, the central focus of the 2018 BRICS summit that was held in July of this year in Johannesburg, South Africa, was to mitigate the threat of a U.S. led trade war. We have already seen the strained trade relations between China and the United States, and one can only expect the same for the remaining BRICS member nations. Although a bit of a stretch in today’s political environment, it can be argued that this conflict can emerge in a future cold war of sorts: a U.S. led liberal and democratic capitalist world exemplified by the G7, in contrast to a Chinese led autocratic and nationalist worldview, exemplified by the BRICS nations.
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