(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

As witnessed by the number of panels at the International Studies Association annual convention dealing with the BRICS, the academic community is catching up to the phenomenon of rising powers as a collective project. Yet, the more it exhibits the features of an important growth industry for scholars, the more enigmatic the nature of the BRICS is.  Instead of clarifying what the meaning of this institutional arrangement is about, the New Delhi summit on March 29 supplies far more questions than answers.

From one perspective the BRICS can be viewed as a caucus of the newly arrived members of the global governance’s inner circle, China, India, Brazil, South Africa plus Russia (a hybrid G8 country). Building in practice on the defunct outreach/consultation of the G8’s Heiligendamm process – although of course the name came from the Goldman Sach’s 2003 publication, Dreaming with BRICs - the core of the non-OECD emerging/emergent countries has ramped up the level of joint activity first to the level of foreign ministers and then to leaders in 2009 and beyond. From this perspective the BRICS performs the same general functions as the G8: hanging together in a “like-minded” atmosphere and issuing a communiqué that at least at the declaratory level exhibits some sense of a common world view.

Such use of the power of voice to the end of making the global system fairer and more equitable – instrumentally above all in terms of the expanded representation of the BRICS themselves notably through a reform of voting rights at the IMF - was fully on display at the New Delhi summit. Although a muscular element was interjected into the voice (the threat to withhold additional financing asked for by the Fund), this was essentially a demand that the internationalist order be opened up even further to the rising powers, with a call for an “enhanced” role for these states “with abundant economic weights.”

Though as of yet there are few signs of coordination in putting voice into action by the BRICS. Just as they failed to agree on a single BRICS candidate for the position of the IMF managing director, they failed to unite over a single BRICS candidate for the presidency for the World Bank. Further, if a potent threat, the threatened withdrawal of funds for further interventions into the Euro-zone debt crisis is defined by non-action as opposed to the proposals for ambitious collective action on a European rescue effort by the BRICS (and the Brazilian finance minister in particular) prior to the Cannes G20 summit in November 2011.

From another perspective, through their moves towards parallel systems, the BRICS can be viewed as a challenge to the established international order. This type of competitive – and transformative - interpretation was amplified in policy terms by the agreement among these countries to extend credit facilities, and even for finance ministers to study the possibility of setting up an autonomous development bank as an alternative to the World Bank.

Delivery on an agenda of this type might indeed come about, and in doing so introduce some added elements of fragmentation. However, factoring in the devils in the details argument, such a shift will take time. Just as the Bretton Woods moment with respect to the creation of the 1945 order was a long moment, any BRICS moment building a parallel system will be protracted as well.

As academic studies highlight, moreover, global transformations need a variety of elements. In addition to the catalytic component of a crisis, there is the need for both behind the scenes technical leadership and some degree of heroic (or anti-heroic) leadership. It is quite clear that the BRICS have the technical capabilities to an ample degree. Looking at the BRICS leaders holding up the Delhi Declaration, I am not convinced that the BRICS leaders want or can push for a more ambitious transformative agenda. All have massive domestic political concerns that most likely will turn them inward. And, while sharing many characteristics (most importantly a sense of authentic resentment about the way the international system treats them), these concerns are also likely to be offset by  rivalries and comparative historical/cultural differentiation between the countries.

In this “in between” environment, in which it becomes harder to make a blunt assessment about the BRICS trajectory, the one thing that will be clear is that the academic industry analyzing these trends will continue to grow – and with good reason given the complexities and stakes involved.

I am not convinced that the BRICS leaders want or can push for a more ambitious transformative agenda. All have massive domestic political concerns that most likely will turn them inward.
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