What Are the BRICS Building?

This odd coalition was formed to shift the world economy. But is it becoming a political tool for autocrats?

(L-R) Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Chinese President Xi Jinping, South African President Jacob Zuma, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Russian President Vladimir Putin applaud at a photo session during the fifth BRICS Summit in Durban, March 27, 2013.

(L-R) Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Chinese President Xi Jinping, South African President Jacob Zuma, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the fifth BRICS Summit in Durban on Wednesday

Photo by Rogan Ward/Reuters

The Chinese call it jin zhuan, or golden brick. The Russians have suggested calling it briuki, an acronym meaning trousers in Russian. And what about the ambiguous S? It originally was just a plural for the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, places where a Goldman Sachs analyst was urging greater investment. Now it stands for South Africa, which joined in 2010 despite having an economy roughly on the order of China’s sixth-largest province.

What is this thing called the BRICS? This week’s summit in the South African city of Durban produced grand plans for a new development bank and a new currency stabilization fund, though without many of the key specifics. It also heard ringing calls to “reform” the United Nations Security Council, aka the old global order, where BRICS members who don’t have permanent seats are eager to nail one down. (Russia and China made no promises.) BRICS might be, as a recent Kremlin “concept paper” asserted, “one of the most significant geopolitical events at the start of the new century.” But that remains to be seen.

Understandably, some of the fastest-growing economies in the world want to change an international financial architecture that is more than 60 years old. The BRICS represent about 45 percent of the world’s population and nearly a quarter of its gross domestic output (though China’s economy is bigger than the other four put together). Their main goal is getting a bigger say in how the world economy is run.

It’s less clear what the BRICS represent politically. Setting up a big new bank to give away money is easier than figuring out what to do with a desperate crisis like Syria. And on that test of global leadership, where so many have been so critical of the global powers-that-be, the BRICS this week stumbled miserably.

They had to take up the matter. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad appealed to the BRICS for their help in negotiating a peace; dozens of civil society groups, Human Rights Watch included, had written urging the BRICS to denounce the killing of civilians and the use of cluster munitions and incendiary bombs, which the Syrian government has widely deployed.

The upshot? On the bright side, at least the BRICS didn’t side with Assad. But their final communiqué limply expressed the same “deep concern” as the previous year, when the death toll stood at 9,000. It’s more than 70,000 today.

The BRICS did call for “immediate, safe, full, and unimpeded” access for humanitarian organizations to deliver aid. But they ducked the critical question of how to ensure that U.N. agencies can cross Syria’s borders to help millions of people in need. The Syrian government has so far kept U.N. agencies from operating in opposition-held areas, and the Russians and Chinese have kept the Security Council from pressuring Assad to open access. For their Syria statement to have any significance, the BRICS will need to put the screws on Assad to let aid come over the border directly. That may mean a Security Council statement; apparently, the old world order still matters.

In the corridors of international diplomacy, India, Brazil, and South Africa make an attractive target for diplomatic blandishment. Two years ago, they were all serving two-year stints on the Security Council, which helped cement their status as a swing vote. As recently as last month, the Brazilians were still clinging to “IBSA,” a term their former president coined 10 years ago, calling it “even more ambitious than the BRICS.” IBSA will have its own summit later this year in India.

As democracies with free media, IBSA might be expected to resist the courtship of repressive China and Russia. But the 2011 U.N. Security Council vote that led to intervention in Libya has made them wary of again providing cover for Western military action. South African President Jacob Zuma took a lot of heat from his own African National Congress for supporting a Western campaign that helped overthrow Qaddafi; reaction in India and Brazil was also negative. So on Syria, IBSA is stepping carefully. And that suits China and Russia just fine.

For a sense of the BRICS political proclivities, one need look no further than the summit itself. Unlike G-8 summits, climate change conferences, and just about any major international gathering these days, the BRICS declined to register any participants from non-governmental organizations at all. Literally at the same moment that Russian President Vladimir Putin was calling on the BRICS for a “common approach on a broad range of political and economic issues,” authorities in Moscow were “inspecting” the offices of Human Rights Watch and Transparency International. Countless other NGOs around the country had suffered the same fate earlier in the week. Putin is presiding over the worst crackdown on civil society since the Soviet Union collapsed more than 20 years ago. He hardly wants feisty NGO activists in the room at a BRICS summit.

Without civil society in the corridors making trouble, it was left to journalists to raise the inconvenient questions. But it wasn’t easy doing so. The Chinese and Russian regimes traveled with their own lapdog media. The “press conferences” in Durban this week were all dog-and-pony shows in which leaders read prepared statements and walked out without taking any questions. When this author shouted a question to Putin about whether he would support a Security Council resolution allowing humanitarian aid directly over the border to Syria, he paused for a moment and smiled slightly. “We will think about it,” he said.