Back in 2001, Goldman Sachs’ Jim O’Neill coined the term BRICs to describe the key fast growing developing economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China. But a dozen years later, is the focus on the BRICs misplaced? Indeed, is the group “broken,” as Morgan Stanley’s Ruchir Sharma has suggested?
“Although the world can expect more breakout nations to emerge from the bottom income tier, at the top and the middle, the new global economic order will probably look more like the old one than most observers predict,” Sharma wrote earlier this year. “The rest may continue to rise, but they will rise more slowly and unevenly than many experts are anticipating. And precious few will ever reach the income levels of the developed world.”
Each day this week, beginning with Russia, a leading analyst will assess the prospects of a BRIC nation and weigh in on whether it still deserves its place in a group of economic high flyers.
By William Pomeranz, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: William Pomeranz is deputy director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are his own.
Created by bankers as a catchy acronym to entice foreign investors, the BRICS – first Brazil, Russia, India, China and then South Africa – have subsequently morphed into a loose association of countries with an emerging global view. The group now gathers annually to discuss its common aspirations, yet it still has few underlying structures.
In light of its origins and inchoate organization, the BRICS could be accused of being a Potemkin village – all show and no substance. Russia, of course, invented the Potemkin village and knows how to exploit its practical – and symbolic – uses. As a result, Russia highly values its BRICS membership and wants to deepen its cooperation even as the economic dynamism behind the original concept has begun to run out of steam.
To the extent that the BRICS have a common core, it unites a group of emerging market countries that had no input in drafting the rules of global commerce. Russia lacks the economic clout to revisit these conventions, so it needs its fellow BRICS members to change the rules of the game – or at least create alternative institutions that get around these rules.
Russia has used its influence to push the BRICS in the latter direction, in the process giving some shape to this amorphous association. In particular, the BRICS have called for the creation of a development bank that would aid emerging market countries in times of economic crisis as well as fund major infrastructure projects. The BRICS also want to establish its own credit rating agency, thereby breaking the monopoly that the western agencies possess in evaluating potential projects.
But the BRICS provide Russia with geopolitical cover, as well. Putin’s foreign policy is based on one overriding principle: national sovereignty. No country or international organization has the right to interfere in another nation’s internal affairs, a viewpoint largely shared among the BRICS countries.
The BRICS approach also coincides nicely with Russia’s vision of a multipolar world and further holds out the prospect of increased multilateral trade between its members. So from Russia’s perspective, the BRICS remain a highly valuable concept that has already produced some tangible results.
Russia’s problem, as it were, is that it believes in the BRICS too much, and wants to give this still nascent grouping of nations a more defined institutional structure. On the eve of the March 2013 meeting of BRICS leaders in Durban, President Putin talked of transforming the BRICS from a dialogue forum to a “full-scale strategic cooperation mechanism that will allow us to look for solutions to key issues of global politics together.”
Any attempt at a more integrated union, however, could negatively impact the organization’s long-term prospects. Commentators have long highlighted not only what unites the BRICS but also what divides it: entrenched historical animosities, distinct political systems, unequal economic resources, etc.
Russia has always been the odd-man out of the BRICS, with a more traditional economy based on raw materials extraction as opposed to economic innovation, high-tech manufacturing, or the provision of services. Russia’s current economic troubles will invariably renew the debate as to whether Russia even belongs in the emerging market category – and the BRICS – at all.
All the BRICS countries face major economic headwinds that could in and of itself doom the enterprise. China remains the key player; its status as the second largest economy in the world makes its relevant, with or without the BRICS, and it could walk away from the project at any time.
Brazil, India, and South Africa could, for their part, survive the breakup of the BRICS as well, especially since they already have an organization (the IBSA Dialogue Forum) to fall back on. Russia is not so fortunate. Indeed, its other major international trade initiative – the Eurasian Union – may soon come crashing down if Ukraine signs its association agreement with the European Union. So, in many ways, Russia is more invested in the BRICS than its fellow members.
The global economy may well be moving to a post-BRICS world, with a declining interest amongst investors in emerging markets. But even if that is the case, it is probably too early write off the BRICS. At this stage, the BRICS has ceased to be just a collection of disparate countries at various stages of economic development but has evolved into something more tangible. It specifically provides Russia with an important platform that supports the country’s broader geostrategic interests.
The ties that bind the BRICS, however, remain tenuous at best. If Russia pushes further integration too hard, the BRICS could easily unravel, and Russia would have nothing to replace it with.