What can the BRICS Summit in New Delhi achieve?

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These days diplomats in Brasília, Moscow, New Delhi, Beijing and Pretoria are busily preparing for the 4th BRICS Summit, to be held on March 29 in New Delhi. The Indian Government has launched a “Competition for Design” to find a summit logo (participants must be Indian or of Indian origin), promising to award the winner with US$ 1,000. Yet more importantly, the question looms of what the members of the BRICS would like to achieve during the one-day summit, which will be closely watched by observers around the world.

The meeting will cover wide-ranging issues such as trade, the global economy, international security, agriculture, health and innovation, international terrorism, climate change, food and energy security and global governance reform – thus virtually covering all imaginable topics of global affairs (except human rights). Yet in order to truly make an impact and not just merely produce a lukewarm declaration, the summit’s participants will have to focus on big themes and develop innovative ideas to show the rest of the world that the BRICS are capable of finding consensus regarding some of the most complex global challenges. Put differently, the BRICS should seize the chance of the summit to exercise international leadership.

One could argue that the since the first meeting in Russia in 2009, the BRICS summits have steadily become more productive. As I wrote in an article in April 2011, the summit in Sanya (China) was quite remarkable because South Africa’s inclusion turned out to be a success, and because China and Russia came close to supporting India’s and Brazil’s bid for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. As the BRICS’ economic and political importance is larger today than ever before, the opportunity to turn into a global agenda-setter is even greater.

As Manmohan Singh has rightly pointed out ahead of the summit, “the agenda of BRICS has gone beyond the purely economic to include issues such as international terrorism, climate change and food and energy security.” This statement seems to reflect a growing consensus among Indian policy makers and analysts. For example, many of the topics that will be debated at the 4th BRICS Academic Forum (which takes place in New Delhi one month prior to the leaders’ summit) have little to do with the economy, but include broad themes such as technology sharing, urbanization and education.

Arguing along similar lines, Matias Spektor, Professor of International Relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) recently argued in an op-ed in Folha de São Paulo that the BRICS’ task should be to find a common position regarding today’s most convoluted challenge – the tense political situation in the Middle East. He writes that given the growing risk of armed conflict between Israel and Iran, the BRICS have the chance to play a mediating role and help deescalate the situation. With regard of the Arab Spring, Spektor points out that the BRICS have been too slow to respond to the new situation constructively, and recommends that the BRICS consider the concept of the “responsibility while protecting”, an idea the Brazilian government avidly promotes since Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff first used it during her speech in the UN General Assembly last year. Recently a Brazilian diplomat pointed out that on top of the points raised by Spektor, the BRICS could support the Arab Peace Initiative.

If only one of the ideas mentioned above could be incorporated into the final declaration, the 4th BRICS summit would turn into a great success. But one should be careful not to overestimate the BRICS’ capacity to find a common denominator on such big issues. As a diplomat who participated in all four summits recently pointed out to me, BRICS summits lack the interaction and spontaneity necessary to come up with bold ideas. Russia, for example, already plays a leading role in the negotiations with Iran, so why should it allow the BRICS to enter the fray?

This points to a more general problem with the BRICS (particularly in comparison to IBSA): While Brazil, India and South Africa are pushing for a significant redistribution of institutional power, China and Russia are status-quo powers reluctant to change a system that has served them well over the past decades.

Read also:

Responding to global development challenges: Views from Brazil and India

The case for Stronger Brazil-India Relations

BRICS Summit: A Perspective from Brazil

Why BRICS Matters

See all articles on the BRICS here