BRICS is going from strength to strength while the U.S.-driven Pan-American idea has run aground.

Summit diplomacy has become the coin of the realm. More and more key global and regional issues are thrashed out among heads of state and government, skipping the intermediaries. Professional diplomats don't like summits. Yet, given the urgent tasks, the crowded international agenda, and the increased tempo of diplomacy, there isn't much choice: summits are here to stay. This is particularly true of serial summits — that is, the institutionalised, regularly scheduled meetings at the top, like the G20, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or India Brazil, South Africa (IBSA).

Not all of them succeed. Performance varies. Some are better prepared than others. At first, APEC grew in leaps and bounds. Its summits drew enormous attention. Yet, now they are stuck in neutral. The G7 summit was for many years the most powerful. Now it plays second fiddle to G20. Sometimes we get two back-to-back summits whose radically different outcomes illustrate not just the varying capabilities of summit management, the work of the sherpas (i.e. the top aides to the heads), and the leadership abilities of the heads, but also underlying trends in world politics.

Success & fiasco

This was the case of the recent BRICS summit (in New Delhi on March 30-31) and the Summit of the Americas (in Cartagena, Colombia, April 14-15). The outcomes could not have been more different — one a resounding success, the other a remarkable fiasco. The BRICS group is dismissed by some as nothing more than an acronym in search of a role, a “solution in search of a problem”. A first line of criticism is that the five member states (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) have little in common. As a group formed by democracies and non-democracies hailing from four different continents, of very different size and economic performance, of varying economic interests, they would have no business even in meeting together, let alone in developing common agendas, or, God forbid, joint policy initiatives. Given that, notwithstanding these objections, the meetings are nonetheless taking place — this one was the fourth annual gathering — and the group has expanded with the addition of South Africa in 2010.

Russia's presence is irksome to others. The standard line is that Russia should not be rubbing shoulders with “emerging powers”, since Mother Russia herself is no such thing. Russia, according to this argument, is the ultimate “declining power” — demographically, economically and politically. Given this condition, what Moscow should do, presumably, would be to search for other such declining powers in the world (Greece? Japan? Mali?) and join them as “like-minded” nations, rather than doing so with the Chinas and Indias of this world. That is why many prefer to talk of “BICS”, leaving out Russia altogether and conforming, in their imagination, a fictional group more palatable to the taste of Western observers.

All of this is nonsense. Russia's per capita income has quadrupled since the late 1990s. International politics is not reducible to similarities and differences in political economy, though intragroup trade has grown at 28 per cent a year since 2000, reached $230 billion in 2010 and is planned to reach $ 500 billion in 2015. Agency also plays a role. And the proof is in the pudding. Far from attempting to dissolve their alleged differences into empty platitudes, the heads of the BRICS countries, most of them significant world leaders in their own right — from Brazil's Dilma Rousseff to India's Manmohan Singh — came up with a substantial, extensive, 50-paragraph communiqué after their Delhi deliberations. The latter does not stick solely to economic issues, but ranges much more widely. It addresses key questions on the international agenda, such as the crisis in Syria, the stand-off with Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In all of them, it takes stands that vary quite significantly from the perspective of Western powers.

Cartagena summit

Fast forward to Cartagena. The Summit of the Americas has been around since 1994, much longer than BRICS; it brings together a much larger group of countries (34, when they all attend); they all come from the same part of the world, the Western Hemisphere, and all of them are “market democracies” of one kind or another. It also meets once every three years, allowing plenty of time for preparing and agreeing on a common agenda. Under such circumstances, one would expect considerable room for consensus and forward movement, for joint ventures to take on challenges like the drug trade, the escalating murder rate in Central America or the issue of immigration to the United States, which have been clamouring for solutions for years, to no avail. The fact that South America has been undergoing an economic boom, fuelled by world-wide demand for commodities, would seem to help. The U.S., bent on doubling its exports in five years, as per President Obama's commitment, is in need of Latin markets. Already, the U.S. exports more to Latin America than to Europe.

Latin America's rise

The fact that the meeting was held in Colombia is testimony to how far Latin America has come in the past decade. Ten, even five years ago, this would have been unthinkable, given the country's internal conflicts, driven by insurgent guerrilla groups like FARC and the ELN and drug cartels like those of Cali and Medellin. In fact, Mr. Obama is the first U.S. President to spend three days in Colombia. Under the able leadership of Presidents Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) and now Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia has scaled down the violence and returned to the international arena. President Santos performed a key role in this in his previous responsibilities as Minister of Defense. As President, he has surprised many by his pragmatic approach to problem-solving, overcoming long-standing differences with Venezuela, and stepping up to the plate in offering to work with Central American nations on curbing the drug trade.

President Obama, very popular in Latin America, with a 62 per cent approval rating in 2009 according to Gallup (he is now down to 47 per cent), had raised high expectations. In many ways, today's Latin America offers an ideal testing ground for the type of multilateralism many expected Mr. Obama would engage in, in marked contrast to the unilateralism of his predecessor. At least some of the perception of U.S. ‘declinism' so prevalent in much of the world after the fiasco of Iraq, the disaster of the U.S.-triggered Great Recession, and the looming defeat in Afghanistan, could be counteracted by working hand in hand with its Western Hemisphere neighbours, at a time when Latin America is undergoing a veritable renaissance.

No final communiqué

Yet, the Sixth Summit of the Americas was a fiasco. There was no final communiqué, a minimum threshold to measure any such meeting's success. The biggest news to come out of the summit concerned the shenanigans of U.S. Secret Service agents, which came to light because they did not pay for services solicited (there is a metaphor here for the state of U.S.-Latin American relations, for all those who want to see it). Moreover, Washington can hardly allege that any emerging summit consensus was blocked by Latin America's leftist leaders: Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua were not in attendance. President Raul Castro of Cuba was banned from doing so, which became part of the problem. The issue of Cuba's exclusion was not the only one standing in the way. That of the Falklands/Malvinas was another, pitting the English-speaking North versus the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking South. The Panamerican idea has been tested and found wanting.

The paradox is only too apparent. The BRICS summit, dismissed by some as a mere talk-shop with no basis in common interests, is going from strength to strength. The Summit of the Americas, representing the largest gathering of market democracies anywhere, led by the world's leading power, is on its last throes, and may not reconvene again. That this takes place a scarce 30 months after the Honduras crisis should have taught Washington the lesson that Latin American political cooperation and collective diplomacy is alive and well, and that the region will no longer let herself be kicked around for the sake of satisfying Washington's parochial domestic preoccupations.

(Jorge Heine is CIGI Professor of Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. His book, with Andrew Cooper, Which Way Latin America? Hemispheric Politics Meets Globalization, is published by United Nations University Press.)

Keywords: BRICS summitG20IBSA

More In: Lead | Opinion