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The Rise of the BRIC Countries

Is the emergence of BRICS a signal that we have truly entered a new multipolar world?

| Thu Apr. 26, 2012 10:40 PM EDT

World map showing the BRIC countries.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Goldman Sachs—via economist Jim O'Neill—invented the concept of a rising new bloc on the planet: BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). Some cynics couldn't help calling it the "Bloody Ridiculous Investment Concept."

Not really. Goldman now expects the BRICS countries to account for almost 40% of global gross domestic product (GDP) by 2050, and to include four of the world's top five economies.

Soon, in fact, that acronym may have to expand to include Turkey, Indonesia, South Korea and, yes, nuclear Iran: BRIIICTSS? Despite its well-known problems as a nation under economic siege, Iran is also motoring along as part of the N-11, yet another distilled concept. (It stands for the next 11 emerging economies.)

The multitrillion-dollar global question remains: Is the emergence of BRICS a signal that we have truly entered a new multipolar world?

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Yale's canny historian Paul Kennedy (of "imperial overstretch" fame) is convinced that we either are about to cross or have already crossed a "historical watershed" taking us far beyond the post-Cold War unipolar world of "the sole superpower." There are, argues Kennedy, four main reasons for that: the slow erosion of the US dollar (formerly 85% of global reserves, now less than 60%), the "paralysis of the European project," Asia rising (the end of 500 years of Western hegemony), and the decrepitude of the United Nations.

The Group of Eight (G-8) is already increasingly irrelevant. The G-20, which includes the BRICS, might, however, prove to be the real thing. But there's much to be done to cross that watershed rather than simply be swept over it willy-nilly: the reform of the U.N. Security Council, and above all, the reform of the Bretton Woods system, especially those two crucial institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

On the other hand, willy-nilly may prove the way of the world. After all, as emerging superstars, the BRICS have a ton of problems. True, in only the last seven years Brazil has added 40 million people as middle-class consumers; by 2016, it will have invested another $900 billion—more than a third of its GDP—in energy and infrastructure; and it's not as exposed as some BRICS members to the imponderables of world trade, since its exports are only 11% of GDP, even less than the US

Still, the key problem remains the same: lack of good management, not to mention a swamp of corruption. Brazil's brazen new monied class is turning out to be no less corrupt than the old, arrogant, comprador elites that used to run the country.

In India, the choice seems to be between manageable and unmanageable chaos. The corruption of the country's political elite would make Shiva proud. Abuse of state power, nepotistic control of contracts related to infrastructure, the looting of mineral resources, real estate property scandals—they've got it all, even if India is not a Hindu Pakistan. Not yet anyway.

Since 1991, "reform" in India has meant only one thing: unbridled commerce and getting the state out of the economy. Not surprisingly then, nothing is being done to reform public institutions, which are a scandal in themselves. Efficient public administration? Don't even think about it. In a nutshell, India is a chaotic economic dynamo and yet, in some sense, not even an emerging power, not to speak of a superpower.

Russia, too, is still trying to find the magic mix, including a competent state policy to exploit the country's bounteous natural resources, extraordinary space, and impressive social talent. It must modernize fast as, apart from Moscow and St. Petersburg, relative social backwardness prevails. Its leaders remain uneasy about neighboring China (aware that any Sino-Russian alliance would leave Russia as a distinctly junior partner). They are distrustful of Washington, anxious over the depopulation of their eastern territories, and worried about the cultural and religious alienation of their Muslim population.

Then again the Putinator is back as president with his magic formula for modernization: a strategic German-Russian partnership that will benefit the power elite/business oligarchy, but not necessarily the majority of Russians.

Dead in the Woods

The post-World War II Bretton Woods system is now officially dead, totally illegitimate, but what are the BRICS planning to do about it?

At their summit in New Delhi in late March, they pushed for the creation of a BRICS development bank that could invest in infrastructure and provide them with back-up credit for whatever financial crises lie down the road. The BRICS know perfectly well that Washington and the European Union (EU) will never relinquish control of the IMF and the World Bank. Nonetheless, trade among these countries will reach an impressive $500 billion by 2015, mostly in their own currencies.

However, BRICS cohesion, to the extent it exists, centers mostly around shared frustration with the Masters of the Universe-style financial speculation that nearly sent the global economy off a cliff in 2008. True, the BRICS crew also has a notable convergence of policy and opinion when it comes to embattled Iran, an Arab Sprung Middle East, and Northern Africa. Still, for the moment the key problem they face is this: they don't have an ideological or institutional alternative to neo-liberalism and the lordship of global finance.

As Vijay Prashad has noted, the Global North has done everything to prevent any serious discussion of how to reform the global financial casino. No wonder the head of the G-77 group of developing nations (now G-132, in fact), Thai ambassador Pisnau Chanvitan, has warned of "behavior that seems to indicate a desire for the dawn of a new neocolonialism."

Meanwhile, things happen anyway, helter-skelter. China, for instance, continues to informally advance the yuan as a globalizing, if not global, currency. It's already trading in yuan with Russia and Australia, not to mention across Latin America and in the Middle East. Increasingly, the BRICS are betting on the yuan as their monetary alternative to a devalued US dollar.

Japan is using both yen and yuan in its bilateral trade with its huge Asian neighbor. The fact is that there's already an unacknowledged Asian free-trade zone in the making, with China, Japan, and South Korea on board.

What's ahead, even if it includes a BRICS-bright future, will undoubtedly be very messy. Just about anything is possible (verging on likely), from another Great Recession in the US to European stagnation or even the collapse of the eurozone, to a BRICS-wide slowdown, a tempest in the currency markets, the collapse of financial institutions, and a global crash.

And talk about messy, who could forget what Dick Cheney said, while still Halliburton's CEO, at the Institute of Petroleum in London in 1999: "The Middle East, with two-thirds of the world's oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies." No wonder when, as vice president, he came to power in 2001, his first order of business was to "liberate" Iraq's oil. Of course, who doesn't remember how that ended?

Now (different administration but same line of work), it's an oil-embargo-cum-economic-war on Iran. The leadership in Beijing sees Washington's whole Iran psychodrama as a regime-change plot, pure and simple, having nothing to do with nuclear weapons. Then again, the winner so far in the Iran imbroglio is China. With Iran's banking system in crisis, and the US embargo playing havoc with that country's economy, Beijing can essentially dictate its terms for buying Iranian oil.

The Chinese are expanding Iran's fleet of oil tankers, a deal worth more than $1 billion, and that other BRICS giant, India, is now purchasing even more Iranian oil than China. Yet Washington won't apply its sanctions to BRICS members because these days, economically speaking, the US needs them more than they need the US

The World Through Chinese Eyes

Which brings us to the dragon in the room: China.

What's the ultimate Chinese obsession? Stability, stability, stability.

The usual self-description of the system there as "socialism with Chinese characteristics" is, of course, as mythical as a gorgon. In reality, think hardcore neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics led by men who have every intention of saving global capitalism.

At the moment, China is smack in the middle of a tectonic, structural shift from an export/investment model to a services/consumer-led model. In terms of its explosive economic growth, the last decades have been almost unimaginable to most Chinese (and the rest of the world), but according to the Financial Times, they have also left the country's richest 1% controlling 40%-60% of total household wealth. How to find a way to overcome such staggering collateral damage? How to make a system with tremendous inbuilt problems function for 1.3 billion people?

Enter "stability-mania." Back in 2007, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was warning that the Chinese economy could become "unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable." These were the famous "Four Uns."

Today, the collective leadership, including the next Prime Minister, Li Leqiang, has gone a nervous step further, purging "unstable" from the Party's lexicon. For all practical purposes, the next phase in the country's development is already upon us.

It will be quite something to watch in the years to come.

How will the nominally "communist" princelings—the sons and daughters of top revolutionary Party leaders, all immensely wealthy, thanks, in part, to their cozy arrangements with Western corporations, plus the bribes, the alliances with gangsters, all those "concessions" to the highest bidder, and the whole Western-linked crony-capitalist oligarchy—lead China beyond the "Four Modernizations"? Especially with all that fabulous wealth to loot.

The Obama administration, expressing its own anxiety, has responded to the clear emergence of China as a power to be reckoned with via a "strategic pivot"—from its disastrous wars in the Greater Middle East to Asia. The Pentagon likes to call this "rebalancing" (though things are anything but rebalanced or over for the US in the Middle East).

Before 9/11, the Bush administration had been focused on China as its future global enemy number one. Then 9/11 redirected it to what the Pentagon called "the arc of instability," the oil heartlands of the planet extending from the Middle East through Central Asia. Given Washington's distraction, Beijing calculated that it might enjoy a window of roughly two decades in which the pressure would be largely off. In those years, it could focus on a breakneck version of internal development, while the US was squandering mountains of money on its nonsensical "Global War on Terror."

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