By Walter Ladwig

First conceived in a 2001 Goldman Sachs research report, the grouping that has become known as the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), which collectively represents at least 25 percent of world economic output and 40 percent of its population, has come to symbolize a possible alternative to the Western-led international economic and political system. Indeed, in recent days, senior officials from India, Russia and China have all suggested that the grouping will play a larger role in world affairs and has the potential to transform global governance.

As the heads of state of the leading emerging economies gather in New Delhi this Wednesday and Thursday for their fourth summit meeting, there are calls to establish a permanent secretariat, headquarters, and even a development bank in an effort to bolster the grouping’s political impact. But this focus on institution-building is misplaced. It is the fundamental incompatibility of the Brics nations, not their lack of organization, which prevents this collection of emerging economies from acting as a meaningful force on the world stage.

The priority that individual states give to pursuing their own national interests challenges their ability to function as a coherent bloc. Were Brics to consist of states where commonalities outweighed their differences, this would be less of a problem. But aside from impressive economic growth over the past decade and an individual desire for a greater say in the institutions of global economic governance, these disparate countries have little in common.

India, Brazil and South Africa are democracies, while China and Russia fall well short of that mark. Brazil and Russia are primarily natural resource exporters, while China and India focus on manufacturing and services. Although in terms of G.D.P. per capita the average Brazilian compares to his South African counterpart, the stark gap in living standards across the Brics nations is clear considering that the average Russian is twice as rich as a comparable Chinese citizen, who is in turn twice as well-off as an Indian citizen.

In terms of the size of the grouping’s economies, China is by far the dominant player, whereas many commentators suggest that Russia and South Africa do not merit consideration as major emerging markets. In political terms, China, India and Brazil are touted as rising powers in global affairs, while Russia is steadily losing its claim to great power status and South Africa appears to be treading water. Read more…

Walter Ladwig is a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a research center on defense and security issues in London.

As published in www.nytimes.com on March 26, 2012 (a version of this op-ed appeared in print on March 27, 2012, in The International Herald Tribune).


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