Loose BRICs

Americans shouldn’t be alarmed by the BRIC summit. The body is just another toothless international grouping, not an attempt to exert hard power.

Yesterday's BRIC summit in Yekaterinburg was remarkable for several reasons. The most obvious is that what started out as a Goldman Sachs marketing term has turned into a genuine coalition. Policy makers from Brazil, Russia, India and China have been meeting on a quasi-regular basis for the past few years; the Yekaterinburg summit was simply the first meeting of the heads of state. While these countries might seem poor on a per capita basis, this is clearly a group of heavyweights. Their combined GDP equals 15 percent of world output; their central banks are sitting on 40 percent of the world's hard currency reserves. That last piece of data can move markets. The dollar fell against all major currencies after the BRIC leaders called for a "more diversified currency system" in their communiqué-a reference to China and Russia's desire to replace the dollar as the world's reserve currency.

Could the BRIC grouping represent a real balancing coalition against the United States? This might answer a question that has bedeviled most realists for the past two decades-why has there been no *realpolitik* balancing against the United States? Over the past twenty years, the United States has bombed six different countries, coerced others into adopting its preferred economic policies and declared a war on terror. The absence of balancing has driven some realists to distraction. Some claimed that what we were witnessing was something more subtle: "soft balancing." Others might call this diplomacy. Will the BRIC coalition go from soft balancing to something harder?

Well, not so much, no. The highlights of the communiqué contained little on security matters except a proposal to reform the United Nations Security Council. And, in truth, some of these countries (China and India) have greater security beefs with each other than they do with the United States. And, if you liquored up their heads of state real good, they would probably admit that the United States, in a post-Bush era, does not seem all that keen to engage in any more bellicose unilateralism.

To be sure, on economic matters, the BRIC grouping counts for a bit more. Beyond the statement on the dollar, the countries pledged to explore ways to trade with each other without being so reliant on the dollar. That said, a close look at the communiqué is telling. These countries are not trying to create new governance structures to replace or supplant the IMF, World Bank or WTO. They just want a larger voice in these U.S.-created and U.S.-led institutions (a not entirely unreasonable request). This is not the stuff of hard-balancing coalitions.

The BRIC countries know this. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov acknowledged that the BRIC coalition was "at an early stage of its evolution." They are a heterogeneous lot, consisting of energy exporters and importers, democracies and autocracies, aspiring hegemons and demographic disasters. This is not an easy group to keep together, and the evidence suggests that they don't have much of a common policy agenda.

Instead, think of the BRIC grouping as an homage to other toothless international groupings. Indeed, most of the official BRIC communiqué consisted of pledges to do things that will clearly not be done, like finish the Doha trade round. In doing this, the BRIC coalition appears to be quickly learning from the grand tradition of fruitless G-8 and G-20 communiqués.

 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a senior editor at The National Interest. His book, Avoiding Trivia: The Role of Strategic Planning in American Foreign Policy, was published in April by Brookings Institution Press.