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The abstention by the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China) failing to support UN Security Council Resolution 1973 raises serious questions about the future functionality of the multilateral system – a system in which the BRIC countries aspire to have a stronger voice. Effectively, the BRICs sent a message of opposition to allied intervention in countries experiencing fundamental political change. Their vote was an implicit acknowledgement that such collective action often has unintended consequences, and that it can result in one side being given an undue advantage over another. But a less obvious driver for their position is also the notion that one day such a vote could be cast against one of them.
It is premature to conclude that the collective opposition of the BRIC countries to allied intervention in Libya represents a formal coalition between these countries. While China and Russia have used their Security Council veto with frequency, aspiring permanent Security Council members Brazil, India, and South Africa are still finding their footing on the global stage, appear hesitant to blatantly oppose the collective will of the established five power permanent members of the Security Council. What they share is a long-held mistrust of Western-led military action and a more general stance in favor of non-intervention.
One of the major criticisms of the West’s decision to intervene in Libya by these countries has been the perceived hypocrisy of ‘selective intervention’. While a legitimate complaint, several of the BRICS countries risk spouting hypocrisy of their own in the process. For example, China and Russia’s willingness to put boots on the ground in foreign countries has been well documented. When, in response to Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, not a single sanction was imposed by the international community. While Georgia enjoyed widespread sympathy in the West, the action was not judged to be worth a potential rupture in the West’s relationship with Russia. China invaded Vietnam in 1979 and backed the Australian intervention in East Timor in 1999 because these actions were viewed in its national interest at the time. In the end, of course, national interest is the ultimate driver of bilateral relations and participation in multilateral action.
India also has a history of armed intervention to protect its national interests. Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka have all experienced intervention by Indian military forces. Likewise, South Africa, the soon to be “S” in the “BRICS” has intervened numerous times in its post-independence history, most prominently in the Angolan civil war in 1975/6 and in the post-Apartheid era, and participated in multilateral intervention in Lesotho in 1998. After vocally supporting the principle of non-intervention, it eventually voted in favor of allied action in Libya.
With the exception of Brazil, all of the BRICS countries have a history of military interventions, but even Brazil is equally guilty of protecting its own interests. Brazil has strong commercial links to the Gadhafi regime, and major Brazilian companies operate in the country, including Petrobras, Odebrecht and Queiroz Galvão. It is not surprising, then, that Brazil opted to abstain on the Libya vote. It will be interesting to see how newly elected President Rousseff steers the Brazilian ship through international waters. She has recently signaled her intent by voting in favor of the creation of a Special UN Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran in the UN Human Rights Council. This is seen as the first major foreign policy divergence between her and former President da Silva.
The holy grail of permanent Security Council membership plays a powerful role in guiding these countries’ foreign relations with the West. Brazil craves the approval of the U.S. for its Security Council bid, and India, having already achieved this, does not want to jeopardize it. Economically and politically, neither can afford to count the U.S. among its enemies, however unlikely this may seem. Brazil and India would far rather join an international club led by the U.S. and European Union than one led by China or Russia. This reasoning may in part have spurred their abstention in the case of Libya.
The escalation of the Libyan conflict has surely prompted some of the BRICS countries to contemplate what is involved in having a seat at the world’s top table. The Libyan case further highlights the limitations of a global order struggling to reconcile principles of national sovereignty with principles of multilateralism. The modern history of the world has shown that there will always be crises that require multilateral action. The question has become when the BRICS will be willing to step up to the plate and place idealism above self-interest – an admittedly lofty ambition for any nation-state. Not that the U.S. and European nations have a pristine record in that regard, but they certainly do have substantial economic interests in Libya. The difference is that they have proven willing to sacrifice that interest to participate in sometimes distasteful and necessary political decisions. When was the last time the BRICS countries did that?