The nations in the grouping are steered by their individual national interests.
What brings together Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) is the common desire to explore new ways of dealing with their development problems. As a loose grouping that includes authoritarian (China, Russia) and democratic (Brazil, India, South Africa) states, BRICS are not unique: the United Nations and the Commonwealth comprise autocracies and democracies. The presence of economically declining Russia shows that they are not even a collection of “rising” economies. Nor are they a movement or a new world order. Their wish that the international community should remain engaged in Afghanistan over the transformation decade from 2015-2024 shows that they are not anti-West.
But BRICS are dissatisfied with the policies of western-led financial institutions including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank; they are frustrated with the dollar's status as a reserve currency, and they are concerned that American economic policy and western responses to the Arab Spring could be destabilising. BRICS are steered by their individual national interests. Just like the democratic U.S. which is heavily indebted to authoritarian China, and the financially mismanaged European Union — whose member-states, all democracies, hope that China will bail them out.
Rising India, Brazil — democracies which are confirming that dictatorship is unnecessary and undesirable for development — would rather live in world led by the U.S. than China. (Just as the U.S. would prefer to see India, rather than China, expand its influence in Asia).
Brazil and India have raised western expectations of diplomatic support on Libya, Syria and Iran. These expectations are ill-founded. Democracies have never united internationally. In March 2011, Germany — Europe's economic powerhouse and America's great ally — joined Brazil, India, China and Russia in abstaining from voting on the U.N. Security Council resolution which authorised the creation of a no-fly zone in Libya.
The Arab spring
At another level, the onset of the Arab spring last year saw Vice-President Joe Biden saying Hosni Mubarak wasn't a dictator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially lauding Bashar al-Assad as a reformer. Only when it became clear that the popular tide against them was irreversible did the U.S. start preaching democracy promotion to the Arab world. But in December 2011, the U.S. made a large arms sale to Saudi Arabia, reinforcing “the strong and enduring relationship” between Washington and Riyadh, despite Saudi help to autocratic Bahrain's crackdown and its opposition to any domestic political liberalisation. Moreover, the U.S. continues to provide Egypt's military with weapons. In an election year, when President Obama's electoral calculations (rather than facts on the ground) are shaping American strategy in the Middle East, Afghanistan and East Asia, it would be imprudent politics to annoy the domestic arms lobby by stopping the supply of matériel to Saudi oil despots and Egyptian generals.
Brazil opposed violence against the civilian population in Syria — but pointed out that intervention often exacerbates conflict. In February, India played a key role in the drafting of the Security Council's resolution on Syria, which advocated an inclusive, Syrian-led political solution. Russia and China enraged the West by vetoing the resolution because they felt it did not rule out western-sponsored regime change, but now Kofi Annan's plan envisages that Assad will remain in power. South Africa, too, wanted the Syrian people to decide their fate. Which is exactly what they will do by means fair or foul. As for the U.S.? Well, Obama finds the situation in Syria “heartbreaking” but underlines that the question is what's “critical” for U.S. security interests.
Quite. The stance of BRICS on Syria and Iran will, similarly, be dictated by their security interests. China imports some 20 per cent of its oil from Iran; India 16 per cent; both are concerned about Iran's nuclear strategy, but both will defy the American ban on oil imports from Iran. India will pay Iran in rupees and save valuable foreign exchange.
Unlike the U.S. and its EU partners, India and Brazil have not placed democracy promotion on their foreign policy agendas.
At least that makes them less hypocritical than the West. The more important fact is that India supports multilateral democracy-building through the U.N. Democracy Fund. Since 2005 it has been the second largest donor country, having so far contributed $25 million, after the U.S., which has contributed $38 million. That is far more than the amounts donated by rich Germany — $11,306,348 — and Britain — $609, 350 — to the Fund.
The cautious Indian and Brazilian attitudes to democracy promotion resonate — guess where? Among the American public. Democracy promotion abroad is a priority for only 13 per cent of Americans. In a recent CBS news poll, 70 per cent of Americans responded that the U.S. should stay out of other countries' affairs rather than replace despots. And given that the Libyan, Egyptian and Syrian springs might never turn into summer because democrats and unity are not easily found among Syrian and Libyan rebels, talk of replacing dictators seems unrealistic. It does not square with cuts in American defence expenditure and the West's keenness to quit Afghanistan — without having defeated the Pakistani-steered Taliban.
Will BRICS reshape the world in their own image? No — because they have no single image. Can they build an economically fairer world? They will try. Democracy via western-triggered regime change in authoritarian states? Not quite, because successful democracy is always home-grown. Taking the age-old common-sense approach to security BRICS merely want to maximise their diplomatic options and to judge international issues on their merits.
(Anita Inder Singh is an international security analyst who has published widely on Asian and European security. She is Visiting Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, New Delhi.)