ON MONDAY, when President Lula of Brazil and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sit down to take stock of the bilateral relationship between two of the most important rising powers of the 21st century, they should go beyond merely asking what they can do for each other and ask what they can do for the world.
What makes the question especially pertinent is the fact that barely days after meeting each other in Delhi, the two leaders will sit down again in Heilingendamm with their counterparts from China, South Africa, and Mexico for an "outreach" meeting with the G8 group of industrialised countries. There, the latter, fresh from their own exclusive meeting, would seek to engage the "outreach" countries on issues the G8 considers vital for the future of humankind. And the leaders of the "outreach" countries, in turn, would smilingly participate in this meaningless and demeaning ritual in the hope that one day, the private club’s doors would swing open to admit them too.
Consider the irony. Collectively, the outreach nations, plus Russia — a late entrant into the G8 and still very much an outsider — have equal or arguably greater system-shaping power in the world today than the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan. Taken together, the BRIC countries account for a substantial share of world growth and output, not to speak of overwhelming dominance in terms of land mass and population. According to Goldman Sachs, which first coined the BRIC concept to map the rising share of Brazil, Russia, India, and China in the global economy, the four countries will likely be the largest economies in the world by 2050. But the intervening years will see the BRIC countries — or Brics, if we add South Africa, or Bricsam, if we add Mexico — increasing their share over world output and trade, and especially their influence in strategic sectors such as energy and natural resources. And yet, when it comes to working out the future rules of the global game, it is the G8 that sets the agenda and priorities.
This is not to say the U.S., France or other members of the "G8 minus 1" are not — and will not remain — dynamic, influential powers. But in terms of the evolving global system, the decisions, choices, and associations the Brics countries make are more likely to be decisive. This is not just an objective fact, driven by economics, but a global "good" in normative terms since these countries represent a much bigger share of the world’s population than the powers of the last century.
The trouble is until now, the Brics countries have tended to look at each other through Northern eyes. Though mutual economic interaction has risen substantially, the Big Six have invested little or no effort in getting to understand one another in the political and cultural realm. In an interview with Indian reporters on the eve of President Lula’s visit to India, a senior Brazilian official acknowledged this. "Because we use the North’s lenses to understand each other, we have ended up incorporating their distorted view," said Roberto Jaguaribe, a Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs. "It is important that we multiply our own exchanges and visits. We might still have a distorted view but at least these will be our own distortions!"
Asked about the potential for greater Brics interaction, Mr. Jaguaribe noted that the concept "brings us back to very basic factors that have been neglected for long — size and population." The concept may have originated outside of the world of diplomacy, he said, but that did not mean the countries concerned should not make full use of it.
But are the Brics countries ready to ramp up their interaction on the global stage? If one looks at the activity each of them is individually engaged in, the answer is clearly yes. Brazil, India, and South Africa have already developed the IBSA forum. India also has begun to interact with China and Russia through the trilateral process. Both India and China have active engagements with Africa, though Beijing is far more active than Delhi in this regard. Finally, Brazil has taken the initiative to hold summits between South America and Africa and South America and the Middle East. On the world trade front, there is the G20. Each of these is a vital part of the new geometry of the emerging global system but what is lacking is an overall thrust or focus. And such a focus can only come by emphasising the shared values and interests that find no space in the global discourse dominated by the G8’s agenda.
What are these values and interests? First and foremost, inclusive growth. Though the Brics are all market economies, the political culture in each of these countries provides more space for the kind of equitable and balanced growth that the world’s poor badly need than the political culture in the G-8 bloc. Secondly, there is the emphasis on the pacific settlement of disputes, rather than the use of sanctions and force. Clearly here, a Brics summit could prove useful as a forum for generating fresh momentum for the claim India, South Africa, and Brazil have for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. Thirdly, as some of the world’s largest energy producers and consumers, straddling both hydrocarbons and biofuels, the Brics are crucial to the evolution of a rational energy future for the world. Fourthly, as big contributors to global migration, the Brics (or especially Bricsam) have a huge stake in the rational and humane treatment of migrant labour, an issue which never makes it to the agenda of either the G8 or the World Trade Organisation. Fifthly, a Brics summit could place on the world’s agenda a serious discussion on the health status of the world’s poor and the need for more accessible drugs, even if this means putting an end to the misuse of patents and intellectual property by big pharmaceutical companies.
The beauty of the Brics summit concept is that it is intuitive, logical, and entirely plausible. All over the world, people are waiting for countries such as India and Brazil to play their due role. Standing in a field full of ripe corn stalks, Wilmar Luis Da Silva, the Agriculture Secretary of the Brasilia federal district, told me last month how Germany, which produces no coffee, was one of the world’s largest "exporters" of coffee. As for soya bean, a handful of companies based in the U.S. dominate world trade. "I think countries that need soy should buy directly from Brazil — we should start making these connections." "I am making a suggestion for Brazil and India to work together," he said, locking his two hands together in a tight grip.
This is the future President Lula and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must work towards, using the Brazil-India strategic partnership as a building `bric’ for the new world order.