BRIC Becomes BRICS: Changes on the Geopolitical Chessboard

The world’s four main emerging economic powers, known by the acronym BRIC — standing for Brazil, Russia, India and China — now refer to themselves as BRICS.

The capital “S” in BRICS stands for South Africa, which formally joined the four on Dec. 24, bringing Africa into this important organization of rising global powers from Asia, Latin America and Europe. President Jacob Zuma is expected to attend the BRICS April meeting in Beijing as a full member.

This is a development of geopolitical significance, and it has doubtless intensified frustrations in Washington. The U.S. has been concerned about the growing economic and political strength of the BRIC countries for several years. In 2008, for instance, the National Intelligence Council produced a document titled “Global Trends 2025” that predicted:

The whole international system — as constructed following WW II — will be revolutionized. Not only will new players — Brazil, Russia, India and China — have a seat at the international high table, they will bring new stakes and rules of the game.

More recently, the U.S. edition of the conservative British weekly The Economist noted in its Jan. 1 issue that “America’s influence has dwindled everywhere with the financial crisis and the rise of emerging powers.”

São Paulo, Brazil (Photo: Roberto Zimme)
São Paulo, Brazil (Photo: Roberto Zimme)

The U.S. is still the dominating global hegemon, but a swiftly changing world situation is taking place as Washington’s economic and political influence is declining, even as it remains the unmatched military superpower.

America suffers from low growth, extreme indebtedness, imperial overreach, and virtual political paralysis at home while spending a trillion dollars a year on wars of choice, maintaining the Pentagon military machine, and on various other “national security” projects.

The BRICS countries, by their very existence, their rapid economic growth and degree of independence from Washington, are contributing to the transformation of today’s unipolar world order — still led exclusively by the United States — into a multipolar system where several countries and blocs will share global leadership. This is a major aim of BRICS, which recognizes it’s a rocky, long road ahead because those who cling to empire are very difficult to dislodge before they swiftly disintegrate.

Looking down that road the next few decades, it is imperative to contemplate two potentially game-changing events that will heavily impact global politics, and the future of world leadership.

1. The rate of petroleum extraction will soon reach the beginning of terminal decline, known as peak oil. This means more than half the world’s petroleum reserves will have been depleted, leading inevitably to much higher oil prices and severe shortages. Under prevailing global conditions, this will greatly exacerbate tensions between major oil consuming countries leading to wars for energy resources

One resource war already has taken place — the Bush Administration’s bungled invasion of Iraq, which possesses the world’s fourth largest reserves of petroleum and tenth largest of natural gas. Since the U.S. with less than 5% of world population absorbs nearly 30% of the planet’s crude oil, who’s Washington’s next target — Iran? Behind the U.S.-Israeli smokescreen of alleged Iranian aggression and supposed nefarious nuclear ambitions, reposes the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves and second-largest natural gas reserves.

In 2009, the U.S., with a population of 300 million, consumed 18.7 million barrels of oil day, the world’s highest percentage. The second highest — the European Union, with a population of 500 million — consumed 13.7 barrels a day. China, with a population of 1.4 billion people, was third, consuming 8.2 million barrels. BRICS, incidentally, includes the country with the world’s first largest natural gas reserves, Russia (which is also eighth in petroleum reserves).

2. Equally dangerous, and perhaps much more so, is the probability of disastrous climate change in the next few decades, the initial effects of which have already arrived and are causing havoc with weather patterns. This situation will get much worse since the industrialized world, following slothful U.S. leadership, has done hardly anything to reduce its use of coal, oil and natural gas fossil fuels that are mainly responsible for climate change.

Another climate question is whether the capitalist system itself is capable of taking the steps necessary to dramatically reduce dependence on greenhouse gas emissions, as the socialists maintain. Eventually, under far better global leadership, some serious action must be taken, but the damage done until that point may not be rectified for centuries, if not longer. The question of better global leadership depends to a large degree on the outcome of the unipolar-multipolar debate.

Returning to the immediate problem, Washington not only opposes BRICS’ preference for multipolarity, but is disgruntled by some of its political views. For instance, the group does not share America’s antagonism toward Iran — President Barack Obama’s whipping boy of the moment.  BRICS also lacks enthusiasm for America’s wars in Central Asia and the Middle East and maintains friendly relations with the oppressed Palestinians. The five nation emerging group further leans toward replacing the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency with a basket of currencies not preferential to any one country, as is the present system toward the U.S., or perhaps even a non-national global reserve legal tender.

For a small group —though it is symbolic of a large trend in world affairs — BRICS will have considerable clout this year as members of the UN Security Council occupying five of 15 seats — temporarily for Brazil (until the end of 2011), India and South Africa (ending after 2012), and permanently of course for China and Russia.

BRICS as an organization had a most unusual birthing. The group was brought into the world, so to speak, without the knowledge of its members. The event took place in 2001 when an economist with the investment powerhouse Goldman Sachs created the BRIC acronym and identified the four countries together as a lucrative investment opportunity for the company’s clients based on the enormity of their combined Gross Domestic Products and the probability of increasing growth.

Neither Brazil, Russia, India nor China played a role in this process, but they took note of their enhanced status as the BRICs and recognized that they shared many similarities in outlook as well as significant differences in their types of government and economic specialties.

The main similarity was that they were emerging societies with growing economies and influence, and they viewed Washington’s unilateral world leadership as a temporary condition brought about by accident two decades earlier due to the implosion of the Soviet Union and most of the socialist world. They all seek a broader, more equitable world leadership arrangement within which they and others will play a role.

At the initiative of Russia’s then-President Vladimir Putin in 2006, BRIC began what became regular meetings at the ministerial level that evolved a couple of years later into what is in effect a political organization. There are some differences and rivalries within its ranks that have been kept within bounds, such as between China and India (which is also close to the U.S.), and, to a lesser extent, between Russia and China. Brazil and South Africa are everyone’s friends.

All five BRICS states — three of whom possess nuclear arsenals — maintain essentially cordial relations with the U.S. and try to avoid antagonizing the world superpower.

Dispite productive working relations between the U.S. and Russia, Moscow justly perceives Washington to be an implicit threat that seeks to neutralize — if it cannot dominate — it’s now reviving former Cold War opponent. The Russian leadership seems to view the U.S. as a strategically declining imperialist power, perhaps all the more dangerous for its predicament.

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Jack Smith

Jack A. Smith is editor of the Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter and is former editor of the (U.S.) Guardian Newsweekly. He may be reached at 

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  • LT

    Good article, not convincing though. I personally dont believe that South Africa deserves a place in BRIC. It is a 3rd world country, nearly 6 million people have AIDS or 12% of its population. It lacks fast economic growth which is typical in BRIC members, and to my belief its membership will not have a great impact on the world order. With a GDP of $500 million, what impact could it have? We also rarely hear of South Africa in foreign diplomacy and economic circles. Mexico or Turkey should be in BRIC instead, both have economic power and increasing influence.

  • Rudi

    @LT: As a South African, I agree. Our admission to BRIC is mostly window dressing to tack on a layer of legitimacy by appearing to represent Africa. SA is still the leading power in Africa, but we’re not exploiting that; other countries such as Nigeria will surpass us soon mainly because our government is utterly incompetent at making any decisions whatsoever, and refuses to take leadership w.r.t. pressing issues such as Zimbabwe.

    I would like to correct you, however, South Africa does not have a typical 3rd world economy, but neither is it 1st world by any means. In South African economic theory, we see ourselves as being somewhere in between. Also, I believe the author here was arguing for the significance of BRIC(S) as an organization, not that SA’s admission will have inherent global impact, as you seem to imply.

    On another note, I won’t pretend to like America’s current modus operandi, but I must say that the author’s ideas about other countries seem a bit naïve. Make no mistake, I did enjoy reading all the US-bashing. But I don’t consider a “multi-polar” world to be inherently and necessarily good, since the last time there was such a thing, we had the Cold War, and SA got pretty screwed over that time (if you think our problems were only about race then I have news for you).

    The gap in the author’s argument here is that he proves conclusively that America, having unchecked power, is making life difficult for many people; but then he leaps to the conclusion that a multi-polar world organized by BRICS must therefore be a better deal, by virtue of being an element of set “not-America”. That doesn’t follow, however, especially if you look at Russia and China’s foreign policy positions in recent times. I don’t think we can characterize shifting world power as an inherently good thing. It is merely different from what we know, but it is not necessarily better (or, for that matter, worse).

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