Leaders raise their arms together during the group picture for the BRICS 2012 Summit in New Delhi, India (AP Photo/Saurabh Das).
Leaders raise their arms together during the group picture for the BRICS 2012 Summit in New Delhi, India (AP Photo/Saurabh Das).

There is an ongoing debate about the logic of using acronyms for clustering ascendant or rising states. The BRICS – a concept originally formulated by Goldman Sachs as BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and translated into action through summits at both the level of foreign ministers and state leaders since 2009 – has gained the most prominence. On top of application through various criteria of economic capacity (gross domestic product, rates of economic growth, foreign direct investment etc), there is also the image of the extended BRICS (the BRICs plus South Africa) animating an impressive form of soft, symbolic or cultural power.

At first glance the soft power argument seems to have some attractive validity. This is especially true of the BRICS pushing to host major sporting/cultural events. The 2008 Beijing Olympics stands out, but the collective desire of the BRICS to attract attention concerning their rise can also be seen by South Africa’s successful hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Brazil’s grabbing both the 2016 Olympics and the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and (although more problematically) India’s hosting of the 2010 Commonwealth games.

Yet the limits of any clustering of the BRICS can be seen by two very different standards of performance. One limitation, as I see it, is the difference in terms of performance. In terms of results, as measured for example by current medal count (as of Tuesday a.m. EST) at the London Olympics: Russia is still very much a force (with 42 medals) although with an image of decline not ascendancy; Brazil (8 medals) and South Africa, somewhat lower down (4 medals with 3 gold), have some admirable results but they are clustered with or below other countries that would be categorized as middle powers or lower; and the unreliability of the BRICS as a guide to performance can be seen by the radically uneven performance of China and India.

At one end of the spectrum, China challenges and may surpass the traditional champion (hegemon!) of global sports, the United States. On Tuesday a.m. China has 65 medals with 32 gold and many varieties of star turns. At the other end of the spectrum, India (even with the infusion of some considerable funding from the Mittal Champions Trust) struggles to get any significant results (3 medals and no gold so far).

Therefore, instead of BRICS what we see is a Cr(i)bs with China dominating the other states and with India almost invisible.

The animation of soft power, however, goes much further than Olympic success. In addition to the hosting of major events such as the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, the other sign of a "rising" power is the identification of a country with a globally recognized brand – a qualitative assessment to be sure! In the case of Brazil and India this type of branding has been reached – with Bollywood and Carnival.

South Africa – although more fragile – still has some of the aura of the Rainbow Nation. Although full of stellar individual achievements in the arts as in sports, it is less clear what the global brand is for China and Russia when the measurement is moved from the competitive to the symbolic sphere.

The image of the BRICS is therefore quite paradoxical. In a quantitative assessment such as in the Olympics, China stands out with Russia in terms of results. On overall soft power branding, in terms of distinctive and attractive global brands, nevertheless, Brazil and India – and to some extent South Africa – seem to have the advantage. This lack of comparative advantage in global branding is reinforced, moreover, by the lack of Chinese companies in the Interbrand’s global top 100 list.

The distinctions between China and Russia on one side and Brazil, India, and South Africa on the other side is reinforced by some key controversies in the former countries over the limits of what can be termed a broader qualitative mark in terms of artistic expression. While the Olympics have dominated attention over the last ten days, the international media continues to focus on Ai Weiwei, the dissident Chinese artist, whose work continues to combine extraordinary beauty (as illustrated by the pavilion he collaborated on at the outdoor Serpentine Gallery in London opened without his presence during the Olympics) and an intensely critical examination of the Chinese state. In a parallel fashion, it is the trial of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot that has grabbed attention. Akin to Ai Wewei, the three women band-members on trial in Moscow – facing punishment for bursting into the Russian Orthodox cathedral and playing anti-Putin songs – have become icons for their willingness to challenge flaws in the Russian system.

Even if facing serious economic problems (slow downs in growth, especially in Brazil and India), no cultural challenges of a similar magnitude face these BRICS. Artists in Brazil who faced repression in the 1960s became influential insiders, notably Gilberto Gil who served as Lula’s minister of culture from 2003–08 and had huge opportunities to animate Brazil’s global brand particularly in the form of creating multiple cultural "hotspots." Long-term critics of India's practise of democracy, such as Arundhati Roy, maintained a strong publicly expressed foundation of support in the media and intellectual circles during the number of occasions when she faced charges of sedition.

Again, on the level of artistic expression, South Africa seems to lie somewhere in the middle. The case of The Spear, an acrylic painting by Brett Murray, an artist known for his political and provocative work, highlights the tensions that are simmering between racial groups and between the new establishment and its critics. Said by its supporters to be an authentic manifestation of artistic freedom, and by its detractors to be a “rude, crude and disrespectable” caricature of President Zuma and the ANC-dominated state, the painting has solidified a cultural divide. Still, although facing a defamation suit, the artist has not faced punishment along the lines of Ai Wewei or Pussy Riot.

Through selective lenses of performance, the BRICS feature more divergences than similarities. On results – as on economic performance – China is in a league of its own as witnessed by its mounting number of Olympic medals. On measures of tolerance for artistic expression, alternatively, it is India and Brazil that stand out. As a source of measurement, then, BRICS befuddles as much as it illuminates. It is a convenient means of clustering big countries that can host big events together. But in terms of performance – especially in terms of expressions of soft power – it falls short as a guide for behaviour.

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