The BRICS’ imperfect communication strategy
At a conference at the University of Pretoria that began today, scholars and policy makers from the Global South and Canada discussed emerging powers and global cooperation, with a focus on IBSA and BRICS. Aside from intra-BRICS and intra-BRICS cooperation, the main debate centered on rising powers’ capacity to align externally and take common positions on global issues. Given lower growth across the Global South and recovering US economy, is there still a place for emerging clubs?
Early on, the discussion focused on the future of IBSA. Several scholars expressed skepticism regarding governments’ commitment to the grouping, pointing to the cancelation of the 10th anniversary meeting in June 2013 in Delhi. South African diplomats assured the group that scheduling issues, rather than more fundamental doubts, had been responsible for postponing the meeting. They mentioned the IBSA Joint Communiqué on the sidelines of 68th UNGA, countering rumors that IBSA and BRICS would officially merge at the 6th BRICS Summit in Brazil next year.
This suggests that neither the IBSA nor the BRICS grouping have done a good job making their case to public opinion makers. While it may be natural that analysts in the United States and Europe are critical of emerging power groupings, most scholars in the Global South are also ambiguous or even dismissive of the idea. Low public expectations may not be a bad thing – any significant progress, then, will be seen as a positive surprise.
Yet the lack of a coherent and convincing communication strategy carries risks, too. When the IBSA Summit was canceled, policy makers in India, South Africa and Brazil could have written op-eds explaining the situation and their commitment to the grouping (for example, in a coordinated fashion, a Brazilian ambassador could write an op-ed in South Africa, a South African ambassador in India, and so on). After the recent meeting of the BRICS’ Ministers of Agriculture, they could have written a joint op-ed to be published in Brazil’s Folha de São Paulo, South Africa’s Mail and Guardian, and India’s The Hindu. The same applies to the BRICS Ministers of Education, who will meet on November 5, 2013. Why are they meeting? How will it benefit citizens in the BRICS countries?
This points to a wider issue, namely, each of the BRICS’ Foreign Ministry’s individual communication strategies. While leading US foreign policy makers such as Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power comment on their work via twitter (she has 35,000 followers, including probably all global public opinion makers), no leading foreign policy maker in Brazil, South Africa, South Africa or Russia is capable of setting the agenda on the microblogging service. The website of Brazil’s foreign ministry, Itamaraty, is in Portuguese only, making it very difficult for analysts in fellow BRICS countries to understand Brazil’s point of view.
The same problems apply to the 6th BRICS Summit, to be organized in Brazil in March or April 2014. How should universities and think tanks adequately prepare for the BRICS Summit – for example by organizing parallel policy events – if the Brazilian government has not even announced the exact date of the summit?
In order to make citizens care about the event, Brazil’s sherpa and responsible for the summit, could write an op-ed in a major Brazilian newspaper and lay out what Brazil aspires to achieve when it hosts five major leaders next year – a historic event from a Brazilian foreign policy point of view, only comparable to the climate conferences in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and 2012 and the 2nd BRIC Summit in 2010. The Alexandre Gusmão Foundation’s decision to host scholars and journalists for several conferences, followed by a publication a series of books on the matter, is an important step in the right direction – the Foundation should try to launch the English version as soon as possible. In order to reach a larger part of BRICS’ populations, Brazil could organize a parallel BRICS TED Talk, with a series of 15-minutes-talks by foreign policy makers, civil society activists, scholars and artists about the role of emerging powers in global affairs. India’s then- Junior Minister of Foreign Affairs Shashi Tharoor’s TED talk, for example, was been watched more than 700,000 times so far.
The governments’ strategy vis-à-vis the BRICS (or IBSA, for that matter) should be guided by the following questions: What are our domestic imperatives, such as the challenges such as inequality, joblessness, education, health care, women’s rights and environmental degradation? And how does being part of the BRICS grouping help us address these domestic imperatives? How can we collectively find common solutions and learn from each other? Only if these issues are adequately explained can foreign policy makers engage the public and possibly initiate a productive debate – a necessary step towards the democratization of foreign policy in the Global South.
Image credit: Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR/ABr