Can the BRICS speak with a common voice?

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When the BRICS countries will meet in India this week, their summit declaration will be, as usual, the subject of extensive global scrutiny, particularly from Western analysts who seek to depict the BRICS as a useless outfit unable to agree on anything. Countless op-eds will stress the contrast between India’s and Brazil’s vibrant democracies and China’s and Russia’s authoritarian regimes, point out that India and China may start a war at any moment, and say that Russia is not an emerging power to begin with. There is no question that the BRICS alliance is highly diverse, and that the concept may very well fail to make its mark – yet the internal differences should not overshadow the unique opportunity emerging powers have to use the BRICS summits as a vehicle to turn into international agenda setters. If the BRICS were able to take a constructive position on any of the great challenges the world is facing today – such as nuclear proliferation, trade, the Middle East or climate change – they would immediately turn into the powerful voice in international affairs they long to be, seriously challenging the monopoly the West still holds in the global discourse.

In order to create meaningful partnerships, countries need to have something in common – for example, an interest in ending a particular conflict, securing a particular ocean or the belief in promoting human rights across the globe. Those critical of the BRICS are right in their assertion that unless the BRICS members can find a significant common denominator, there is little reason for continuing to meet on a regular basis. At the same time, insurmountable differences in one area do not necessarily reduce the probability of agreeing on something else. Given the lack of political freedom in China and Russia, the BRICS are unlikely to turn into aggressive promoters of democracy around the world. Yet this does not automatically keep them from adopting a proactive position on how to solve the conflict in the Middle East or on the Korean Peninsula. Given that the BRICS alliance was not created with a single purpose in mind (such as NATO); its leaders are flexible enough to calmly assess on which issue they are able to agree on and assume global leadership.

Comparing the BRICS to any other alliance such as the EU or NATO is unlikely to take the discussion forward, and the public debate in Brazil, South Africa and the other countries must transcend a world with the creation of an institutionalized structure as the only desirable outcome. If regular meetings help emerging powers exchange ideas, articulate common interests and debate common challenges, we may very well deem them a success. Civil societies in the BRICS members have virtually no knowledge of each other (the exception perhaps being Russia- India ties), and the BRICS label may help bring them closer together, improving ties between academics, artists, NGOs, community leaders and companies.

As governments prepare the 2012 summit agenda, they should think less about the future of the BRICS concept itself, but rather attempt to identity issues of global importance on which they can speak with a common voice. Any well-thought out proposal that carries the signature of the five heads of state of today’s most visible emerging powers, representing Asia, Africa and Latin America, will reframe the debate and exert major influence on the global debate.

Oliver Stuenkel is a professor of International Relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) in São Paulo.

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Image credit: Official website of Russia's Presidency in BRICS