The debate in Brazil: Is there a cost to being a BRICS member?

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Those who argue that the BRICS grouping is bad for Brazil's national interest generally misunderstand it as an ideological, anti-American alliance. Yet global projects without Western participation are merely a symbol of a more politically multipolar global order, and they do not undermine Brazil's historical ties to Europe or the United States. The example of internet governance shows that the BRICS grouping does nothing to reduce Brazil's independence and capacity to disagree with China and Russia when doing so is in Brazil's national interest.

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For the first time, the rise of the BRICS grouping has turned into a key element of the foreign policy debate in Brazil. As I have previously pointed out, being part of the BRICS grouping generates considerable benefits for Brazil, facilitating the diversification of its partnerships and helping it adapt to a more multipolar global order. Brazil no longer needs to choose between leaning more towards the United States or the developing world - it must have strong ties to established and emerging powers alike. Most importantly, a more institutionalized BRICS grouping will provide policy makers in Brasília with a constant channel of communication to China's political leadership. Given Brazil's limited diplomatic presence in Beijing and its growing economic dependence on China, such direct access is priceless.

Yet many policy analysts in Brazil still argue that the grouping is useless or, worse, that it hurts Brazil's national interest. However, their arguments are generally an uncritical repetition of ideas produced in the United States, mostly pointing to the many differences between emerging powers. For example, in a recent column critical of the BRICS grouping in Folha de São Paulo, Alexandre Schwartsmann argues

The demographic profile of each BRICS member could not be more different: Half of the population in India and South Africa is younger than 25, compared with 38 years in Russia  and 34 years in China (in Brazil, the median age is 29 years). We have, therefore, young countries, aging countries and Brazil in the middle of its demographic transition.

While demographers are certain to find such figures of great interest, it is entirely unclear why they should matter in the context of Brazil's foreign policy. Why should Brazil choose its partners based on their demographic profile? If demography mattered as much as Schwartsmann implies, should Brazil stop cooperating with Japan, Germany and Italy, three countries with vastly different demographic profiles from Brazil? There is, to my knowledge, not a single study that shows that countries with similar demographic profiles are more likely to cooperate. So why mention it?

Schwartsmann, along with many others, also mentions GDP per capita, pointing out that Russia's GDP per capita stands at U$ 20,000 compared to India's U$ 3000. Yet strangely enough, nobody cared much about GDP per capita when NATO, which includes Norway (with a GDP per capita of around U$ 100,000) accepted Albania, which has a GDP per capita of less than U$ 4000. Similar discrepancies exist in the European Union, Mercosur, ASEAN, the AU, the UN, the G20 or pretty much every international grouping one can think of. There is a long history of successful cooperation between countries that are very different from each other - just think of Turkey's NATO membership, the profound economic embrace between the United States and China, or US military alliances with countries such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. One may be very critical of some of these, but certainly not because they included countries of differing demographics or per capita income.

In the same way, frequent disagreement does not keep countries from cooperating or being part of the same clubs. Germany and Italy are fiercely opposed when it comes to UN Security Council reform, and Germany and France sharply disagreed over military intervention in Libya. The United Kingdom and France, for their part, held opposing views on such important matters as the military intervention in Iraq. And yet, not a single analyst argued that these disagreements showed that NATO or the EU were bad ideas.

Criticizing the BRICS grouping based on the differences between its members distorts the purpose of the project and implicitly accepts a US-centric with-us-or-against-us world view.

It is worth remembering that one of the major reasons for the endurance of US hegemony has been its capacity to avoid any serious cooperation between powers that could challenge US leadership. As a consequence, the United States has generally attempted to keep countries from assuming regional leadership by bolstering their foes. This is most visible in Asia, where the United States actively cooperates with Japan, India and others to tie down China in its neighborhood. Continued tension between China and its neighbors is very much in the United States' interest. An alliance between China and India, on the other hand, would pose a challenge to US control of the region.

The United States is equally interested in keeping the BRICS grouping superficial and disunited. During the 2nd BRICS Summit in Brasília in 2010, a US-American diplomat privately asked me "what the US could do to weaken the BRICS grouping and convince Brazil that it was too different from Asia's emerging powers to establish any institutionalized platform."  One of the strategies has been precisely to depict the BRICS grouping as an anti-Western alliance, something that has naturally caused a stir in Brazil. Yet it is not: Brazil continues, along with all the other BRICS members, to cooperate with both the World Bank and the IMF, and there is no sign that the BRICS grouping weakens Brazil's ties to the US or Europe in any way. Quite to the contrary, decision-makers in Washington, DC are likely to take Brazil more seriously because of it, as some in the United States believe Xi Jinping is attempting to turn BRICS into a platform from which to advance China’s global agenda.

Leading voices in international affairs based in the United States (in both the media and academia) have systematically criticized the BRICS grouping since its transformation into a political grouping in 2009. It is no coincidence that it is in Brazil, the only BRICS country whose newspapers merely copy and translate most articles on international affairs from Western authors, where opinion makers are most skeptical of the BRICS concept. 

Yet, as I have pointed out before, being a BRICS member has no cost. Brazil's neutral reaction to the Crimean Crisis was not, as some analysts had suggested, a consequence of its BRICS membership. With regards to internet governance, Brazil stance strongly diverges from that of the other BRICS, showing that Brazil does not feel obliged to align with Chinese or Russian position unless it wants to.

Most importantly, the BRICS do not seek to establish an EU-like association that is in any way anti-Western or anti-American. Those who characterize it as such blindly buy into the Western-centric narrative that any global project without Western participation must automatically be directed against the West. In a multipolar world, however, such projects will be increasingly common.

Those in Brazil who are skeptical of the BRICS grouping have yet to find a single instance where Brazil's membership has hurt the country's national interest. They are unlikely to find one soon.

Read also:

BRICS do not seek to undermine the IMF

BRICS: Greatest challenges lie ahead

Why Brazil benefits from BRICS membership

Photo credit: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP