Goldman Sachs -- via economist Jim O'Neill -- invented the concept of a rising new bloc on the planet: BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). Some cynics couldn't help calling it the "Bloody Ridiculous Investment Concept."
Not really. Goldman now expects the BRICS countries to account for almost 40% of global gross domestic product (GDP) by 2050, and to include four of the world's top five economies.
Soon, in fact, that acronym may have to expand to include Turkey, Indonesia, South Korea and, yes, nuclear Iran: BRIIICTSS? Despite its well-known problems as a nation under economic siege, Iran is also motoring along as part of the N-11, yet another distilled concept. (It stands for the next 11 emerging economies.)
The multitrillion-dollar global question remains: Is the emergence of BRICS a signal that we have truly entered a new multipolar world?
Yale's canny historian Paul Kennedy (of "imperial overstretch" fame) is convinced that we either are about to cross or have already crossed a "historical watershed" taking us far beyond the post-Cold War unipolar world of "the sole superpower." There are, argues Kennedy, four main reasons for that: the slow erosion of the US dollar (formerly 85% of global reserves, now less than 60%), the "paralysis of the European project," Asia rising (the end of 500 years of Western hegemony), and the decrepitude of the United Nations.
The Group of Eight (G-8) is already increasingly irrelevant. The G-20, which includes the BRICS, might, however, prove to be the real thing. But there's much to be done to cross that watershed rather than simply be swept over it willy-nilly: the reform of the UN Security Council, and above all, the reform of the Bretton Woods system, especially those two crucial institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
On the other hand, willy-nilly may prove the way of the world. After all, as emerging superstars, the BRICS have a ton of problems. True, in only the last seven years Brazil has added 40 million people as middle-class consumers; by 2016, it will have invested another $900 billion -- more than a third of its GDP -- in energy and infrastructure; and it's not as exposed as some BRICS members to the imponderables of world trade, since its exports are only 11% of GDP, even less than the US.
Still, the key problem remains the same: lack of good management, not to mention a swamp of corruption. Brazil's brazen new monied class is turning out to be no less corrupt than the old, arrogant, comprador elites that used to run the country.
In India, the choice seems to be between manageable and unmanageable chaos. The corruption of the country's political elite would make Shiva proud. Abuse of state power, nepotistic control of contracts related to infrastructure, the looting of mineral resources, real estate property scandals -- they've got it all, even if India is not a Hindu Pakistan. Not yet anyway.
Since 1991, "reform" in India has meant only one thing: unbridled commerce and getting the state out of the economy. Not surprisingly then, nothing is being done to reform public institutions, which are a scandal in themselves. Efficient public administration? Don't even think about it. In a nutshell, India is a chaotic economic dynamo and yet, in some sense, not even an emerging power, not to speak of a superpower.
Russia, too, is still trying to find the magic mix, including a competent state policy to exploit the country's bounteous natural resources, extraordinary space, and impressive social talent. It must modernize fast as, apart from Moscow and St Petersburg, relative social backwardness prevails. Its leaders remain uneasy about neighboring China (aware that any Sino-Russian alliance would leave Russia as a distinctly junior partner). They are distrustful of Washington, anxious over the depopulation of their eastern territories, and worried about the cultural and religious alienation of their Muslim population.
Then again the Putinator is back as president with his magic formula for modernization: a strategic German-Russian partnership that will benefit the power elite/business oligarchy, but not necessarily the majority of Russians.
Dead in the Woods
The post-World War II Bretton Woods system is now officially dead, totally illegitimate, but what are the BRICS planning to do about it?
At their summit in New Delhi in late March, they pushed for the creation of a BRICS development bank that could invest in infrastructure and provide them with back-up credit for whatever financial crises lie down the road. The BRICS know perfectly well that Washington and the European Union (EU) will never relinquish control of the IMF and the World Bank. Nonetheless, trade among these countries will reach an impressive $500 billion by 2015, mostly in their own currencies.
However, BRICS cohesion, to the extent it exists, centers mostly around shared frustration with the Masters of the Universe-style financial speculation that nearly sent the global economy off a cliff in 2008. True, the BRICS crew also has a notable convergence of policy and opinion when it comes to embattled Iran, an Arab Sprung Middle East, and Northern Africa. Still, for the moment the key problem they face is this: they don't have an ideological or institutional alternative to neo-liberalism and the lordship of global finance.