Has Mr. O’Neill’s BRICs idea changed the course of history?

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There are two fundamentally different ways of understanding the rise of the BRICS concept. The first is that Jim O'Neill's idea was successful because it merely articulated an already existing drive towards a 'rising power identity' and closer cooperation between these countries. Under this assumption, the BRICS would have started holding summits anyways, perhaps in a slightly different composition, even if O'Neill had never invented the BRICs term in the first place.

According to the other perspective, Jim O'Neill not only invented the BRICs term, but also inspired emerging powers to work together and seek to develop joint positions on many important matters in global affairs. If this reading were correct, O'Neill's idea did in fact have a profound impact on international relations in the first decade of the 21st century, building channels of communication between countries in the Global South that may have otherwise never been created.

There are some powerful arguments for both sides. Those who see O'Neill, who will leave Goldman Sachs by the end of this year, as a mere commentator rather than active change agent of history, point out that South-South cooperation was already a hot topic before the BRICs term came to life. Indeed, already under Brazil's President Fernando Henrique Cardoso efforts were made in strengthen ties between Brazil and other emerging countries. Similar dynamics took place in Russia and India, which both experienced the end of the Cold War in a traumatic fashion and saw themselves forced to look for new partnerships.

Those with a more agent-focused reading of history say that emerging powers would have never been able to organize yearly summits had they not been provided with a global brand name - BRICs - that symbolized economic dynamism and power, and which, in turn, was backed by a similarly powerful brand name: Goldman Sachs. This made it highly advantageous for emerging powers to adopt the 'BRICs identity', and even other countries such as South Africa undertook diplomatic efforts to join the exclusive grouping. All this, they say, would have been unthinkable without O'Neill's helping hand.

The truth, alas, is likely to be somewhere in between. South-South cooperation was already on emerging powers' policy makers' agenda in the late 1990s - but it cannot be denied that the BRICs idea provided a meaningful boost that made today's BRICS Summits (with a capital S since South Africa's inclusion) possible. Jim O'Neill's idea thus had a significant impact on how we think about the changing power dynamics over the past 12 years.

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Photo credit: Benjamin Beavan/Reuters