PARIS - The BRICS are no longer able to make up for the poor economy in the Western world. Their growth is slowing down, even if it is still far ahead of Europe's. In geopolitical terms, too, they cannot even partly take the place of a weakened West.
Economic power does not automatically translate into political power and strategic influence. Political will and unity are missing.
The term BRIC was originally invented by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O'Neil to describe the rising non-Western economies Brazil, Russia, India, and China, and now including S for South Africa. The BRICS have become an economic reality that cannot be ignored. Today, their economies are five times that of France, and in the future they will account for one third of world wealth. But on the geopolitical side, their basic differences and their competing interests will create difficulties for them.
Although the BRICS vote together 90% of the time in the United Nations, they are not ready to form a bloc, nor are they capable or willing to form a formal group with a general secretary and the rest. The most important obstacle to their political cohesion is the special position of China. China stands out from the others to such an extent that one can legitimately ask if Beijing is not sometimes using the BRICS as a convenient mask for its advance on the international scene. China also does not hesitate to threaten its partners when it perceives its own national interests to be at stake.
On the military and economic side alone, China is three times the size of India, the other Asian giant. On the strategic side, everything makes China the opposite of Russia. China has an "ideal geography'' and a huge population, which in spite of its predicted decline remains prolific. Russia finds itself in a very different situation. The same is true of their current status. For Moscow, frustrated at losing its position as one of the two great world powers, taking on a role as one of the BRICS in a multi-power world is paltry compensation.
For India and Brazil, on the other hand, the BRICS are the recognition of their recent success. As for South Africa, it is well aware that its presence in this elite group is still disputed. Through South Africa, the entire African continent has been recognized: a continent which in the space of the century between 1950 and 2050 will grow from 180 million people to almost two billion.
A dysfunctional multi-power system
Beyond the special weight of China, it is easy to count up differences that exist between the BRICS. For example, among the permanent members of the Security Council, countries like Russia and China do not wish to broaden the group to include others like Brazil, India, or South Africa. This club of emerging economies will have an even harder time creating a single bloc in the future, when it will include countries as different as Indonesia and Turkey, Mexico, South Korea, and one day no doubt the Philippines and Vietnam. Just as the European Union is more cumbersome with 27 countries than with 15, the BRICS of tomorrow will have a harder time organizing with 10 than with five.
The Western world has certainly contributed to the creation of the BRICS by naming them. The BRICS understand the realities of interdependence better than we do. Western powers have paid too little attention to the existing diplomatic exchanges among the BRICS. China-Brazil relations, for example, played a decisive role in the construction of Brazilian sovereignty.
But the world today is looking for guiding principles. It was divided between the two great powers during the Cold War, briefly under a single power, the U.S.A., from the collapse of the Soviet Union until 9/11. Today, there is no single power center, nothing but an unequal, dysfunctional multi-power system. And that is the problem.
Dominique Moïsi is a special councilor at IFRI, the French Institute for International Relations.
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