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Five scholars and experts from Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa spoke on 28 June 2011 at a Woodrow Wilson Center conference on “BRICS: Shaping the New Global Architecture.” The original BRIC acronym traces its origins to a 2001 paper by Jim O’Neill, a Goldman Sachs economist, which analyzed the emergence of Brazil, Russia, India, and China as economic powerhouses. This analytical concept took a life of its own when the leaders of the BRIC nations agreed to hold regular summits starting in 2009 to discuss a broad range of issues. In late 2010, the BRIC countries invited South Africa to join in recognition of that country’s natural resources and as a gateway into the African continent. The group held its third summit in April 2011 in Sanya, China with all five leaders.

Over the last decade, the BRIC, now BRICS, term has come to symbolize the growing power of the world’s largest emerging economies and their potential impact on the global economic and, increasingly, political order. All five members of BRICS are current members of the United Nations Security Council—Russia and China are permanent members with veto power, while the rest are non-permanent members currently serving on the Council. The BRICS countries collectively represent about 26 percent of world’s geographic area and 40 percent of the world’s population.

Moderator Amy M. Wilkinson, Senior Fellow, Center for Business and Government, Harvard University, and Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center, guided the discussion among panelists João Augusto de Castro Neves, Founding Partner, CAC Political Consultancy, and Contributing Editor, Politics and Foreign Policy, The Brazilian Economy; Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor, Global Affairs, Moscow; Inderjit Singh, Professor of Economics and Strategic Studies, National War College; DaWei, Director and Research Professor, China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR); and Francis A. Kornegay, Research Associate, Institute for Global Dialogue, Pretoria.

A key issue which emerged from the presentations and discussion was the degree to which BRICS represents a cohesive group or just a clever acronym. The panelists agreed that the differences between the group, in terms of values, economics, political structure, and geopolitical interests, far outweighed commonalities. One panelist suggested the main commonalities between the five members were a mild anti-Americanism and generally internal or domestic challenges facing the BRICS, including institutional stability, social inequality, and demographic pressures. But all five agreed that the BRICS grouping is important for each of the members in terms of the symbolism of creating for themselves an important role on the global stage. The members also share an alternate perspective on the global economic order, and a desire to wield greater influence over the rules governing international commerce and economic policy. The five nations combined hold less than 15 percent voting rights in both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, yet their economies are predicted to surpass the G7 economies in size by 2032. The annual summits provide an important talk shop for the members to discuss issues such as agricultural subsidies that they perceive as unduly advantageous to the traditional economic powers in the West.

The BRICS group does not represent a political coalition currently capable of playing a leading geopolitical role on the global stage, the panelists emphasized. Castro Neves described how Brazil’s foreign policy priority is to consolidate its economic gains at the national level by building international influence and partners, and the BRICS group represents an important opportunity to realize that vision. Lukyanov noted that the group was unable to take a concerted stand on the new head of the IMF, but sees an opportunity for the group to have a more influential, if not major, global role in the future. Wei stressed that China wants to remain a partner within BRICS, not lead it. By way of perspective, he noted that China’s trade with the rest of the group combined was smaller than its bilateral trade with the United States or Japan. Singh contended the absence of shared values between all members limits the potential for the group, and suggested that the pull toward expanding the group to new members would dilute what cohesiveness it does possess. Kornegay argued that while the symbolism of its inclusion in BRICS is important for South Africa, its national interests are better served by pursuing greater regional cooperation, as well as with existing groups with greater shared geographic interests and political values, such as IBSA (India, Brazil, and South Africa).

One of the driving forces behind transforming a Goldman Sachs paper’s analytical tool into an emerging global coalition was a shared frustration among its members with the U.S.-led global economic architecture. While the panelists agreed that BRICS lacks the ability and willingness to mount a challenge to that system, its members do want greater influence in how that system is governed, now and in the future. Wei recommended that “the United States should take it easy – even we are not confident about the future of BRICS!” Instead, he suggested that the United States should be prepared to engage with BRICS, and in fact noted that he sees an improvement in the United States’ willingness to listen to other countries—a greater willingness than he sees from the European Union.

By F. Joseph Dresen
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute

To view the conference in its entirety, please click here.


About the Author

F. Joseph Dresen

F. Joseph Dresen

Senior Program Associate
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more