BRICS: A resource guide on the world’s evolving balance of economic (and possibly political) power

BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The acronym has become a buzzword in the public discourse on emerging economies—the so-called “rise of the rest”—and what their rise implies for the global balance of power. We at the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh have compiled this guide to provide you with some useful resources to help you explore and understand this important topic.

Who are the BRICS?

To begin with, it is probably helpful to have some background on the key players, if you are not already familiar with these countries. The CIA World Factbook, which provides detailed profiles of every country in the world, is a good starting place. Here are the links to the Factbook pages for each of the BRICS:

Where did the now-popular acronym come from? Who coined it?

Although the idea of emerging market economies has been around for a number of decades, discussion of the original BRIC group specifically began in 2001. Jim O’Neill wrote a paper for Goldman Sachs entitled “Building Better Global Economic BRICs.” He did not include South Africa. You can read the paper, and O’Neill’s rationale, here.

How did the BRIC countries transform from a buzzword to an influential political bloc?

When Jim O’Neill coined the term, it was an economic grouping of countries which he believed had a particularly optimistic future outlook. As the term generated interest and gained recognition, the four BRIC countries began to recognize the potential for cooperation amongst themselves in the pursuit of common goals.

The transformation from economic concept to political alliance was driven in good part by Russia. In 2006, at Russia’s insistence, the BRIC countries met informally. Then, in 2009, they held an official summit in Yekaterinburg, Russia. As this BBC News article suggests, it may have to do with the criticism levied by some observers that “Russia’s economy is not strong enough to justify its presence in the group.”

These countries also want a bigger say in international affairs. The alliance is to some degree intended to serve as an alternative to the institutions of the current economic regime, such as the G8, which is sometimes seen as an exclusive ‘club’ of mostly Western countries. Emerging countries may see such institutions as vestiges of the Western-dominated economic regime of the past century, which are now out of touch with new economic realities. This article from the Times of London explains more.

For more information on the rise of the BRICs, this graphic timeline feature from Foreign Policy charts “A Short History” of the group.

How did South Africa get involved?

China invited South Africa to join the 2011 summit, likely as a step towards forging stronger ties with the African continent. African countries are increasingly important trade partners of the Chinese, and potential political allies. You can read more about South Africa’s inclusion here.

This article from the BBC analyzes if South Africa’s inclusion in the BRIC group will strengthen the country’s economic standing.

Why Brazil, Russia, India and China? What about other countries that could be considered emerging economies?

Since Jim O’Neill’s report was published in 2001, analysts have debated which countries could and should be included in the group. (Some think others ought to be added, and, as mentioned previously, one common criticism is thatRussiashould not be included at all.)

Others yet have come up with altogether new and different groupings of which emerging economies we should be paying attention to. The Wikipedia page on emerging markets gives a basic overview of some of these.

Many observers, such as the author of this humorous editorial in the Economist, have noted how the discussion has resulted in an outcropping of acronyms and abbreviations.

Following in this vein, O’Neill coined another term in a follow up article in 2005: the N-11 or Next Eleven. These are developing countries that will experience successful growth, but for the most part simply don’t have the scale to match up to the heavyweight BRICs. You can read his follow up report here.

What is the outlook for the BRICS moving forward?

Some believe that the BRICS have reason to be optimistic. O’Neill’s reports, for example, provide data that demonstrates their economic strength and likely future growth. Notably they recovered quickly from the economic recession and financial crisis. They are also becoming increasingly interdependent economically. Some expect economic dominance will translate into political power, and that the BRICS will usher in a new balance of power. It will be a multipolar world in which developing countries will have a bigger say.

On the other hand, not everyone is so confident of the BRICS’ likely ascent. First is the fact that the BRICS label excludes certain important ascendant countries, as discussed in the previous section. Some also say that they are not ready yet to take over at the helm of international relations, while others note their lack of common interests and goals. Notably, China tends to have significantly more power and fewer common interests than the other four.

Here are a few links to articles that analyze some of these aspects pertaining to the future of the BRICS:

  • BBC News– Bric nations become increasingly interdependent
  • BBC News– Bric countries try to shift global balance of power
  • Foreign Policy editorial– What the BRICs would be without China
  • Foreign Affairs– Not Ready for Prime Time: Why Including Emerging Powers at the Helm Would Hurt Global Governance (If you do not have access to the Foreign Affairs journal, the author has written an editorial on a similar subject for Foreign Policy.)
  • New York Times– A Gathering of BRICS

What does it mean for the US?

The big question underlying the buzz about the BRICS is whether the US is in a state of decline. A lot has been written on this subject over the past few years, with varying degrees of optimism or pessimism. Some contend that the US will continue to be the sole hegemonic power into the future; others talk about a ‘post-American’ era.

This Foreign Policy feature called “Think Again: American Decline” is a good starting point for analysis on the subject, as it provides an overview of a number of common claims about the future of American power. Overall, they take a cautious, if not somewhat pessimistic, outlook in responding to these claims.

One prominent voice in the debate is journalist Fareed Zakaria. In 2008, he wrote a much-talked-about article for Foreign Affairs (which can also be found here) called “The Future of American Power.” In this article, he analyzes the decline of the British Empire and compares it to the current US situation, and then goes on to examine the strengths and weaknesses of the US. While the US’s strengths are notable (strong economics, excellent higher education, vibrant demographics, among other things), its biggest challenge is political: what Zakaria calls “do-nothing politics.” The rise of the rest, he says in this detailed analysis, does not necessarily imply US decline, but Washington must be able to adapt to new realities of the global system. An adapted version of this article was published in Newsweek. Earlier this year, Zakaria published a follow-up article in Time Magazine called “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?” All three of these articles are essential reading for understanding the US’s changing power situation.

This Foreign Policy article responds to Zakaria’s 2011 article, proposing a somewhat more optimistic outlook for the US, although still cautious.

Another oft-mentioned article is another one published by Foreign Affairs, by the historian Niall Ferguson called “Complexity and Collapse” (also found here). Although it is largely a historical analysis of the decline of past empires, it concludes with the prospects of the future fall of the American empire. He suggests that a serious economic crisis could be the trigger for the fall, and once the US meets its tipping point, it is likely to fall hard and fast.

This Newsweek article responds to the upcropping of declinist commentary, with a somewhat more optimistic perspective, noting that the problems the US faces are shared by others.

Also interesting is this blog by Daniel Drezner for Foreign Policy, which points out that power comes in different forms, and we are experiencing a shift in the types of power being exercised rather than an absolute shift of power away from the US.

The decline of US power is a contentious and much-discussed topic, and there are many more perspectives beyond those of the authors included in this blog post. Hopefully the links cited here will provide you with some good starting points for understanding the BRICS countries—who they are and why they are important—as well as what implications this has for the changing balance of global power. Also, hopefully this information can act as a springboard for your continued research and exploration of this important topic.

By Rebecca Somple, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern