Leaders at the two-day, five-nation BRICS summit in Fortaleza and Brasilia in Brazil may not say so explicitly but they do represent a significant geostrategic counter to the United States. BRICS, of course, stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, the five countries that collectively pack a considerable global economic, cultural, political and strategic heft.
At least two of them, China and Russia, see themselves as direct global counters to America. It is not in China’s cultural DNA to make such assertions openly but it is well aware of its emergence as the single biggest challenge to America. Russia, once the core of the Soviet Union, has never really stopped considering itself to be the real adversary to the Unite States, notwithstanding that it is a diminished presence. India has no interest in positioning itself as a counter to anyone but its gravity as a massive economic, demographic, democratic and cultural force is undeniable. Brazil and South Africa are two important but relatively less influential members of this rather interesting grouping.
BRICS presents India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi his first opportunity to experience global diplomacy firsthand. What is expected to ease him into this experience is the setting up of the New Development Bank and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement, a sort of BRICS bank that could eventually become a rival to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It is supposed to get off the ground with a capital of $50 billion, with the five making equal contribution to the fund and hence retaining an equal say in the proposed bank’s decision-making. A specific idea like the bank gives Modi a substantial platform to sink his teeth into global diplomacy.
BRICS may have begun with China and Russia sensing an opportunity to create a global strategic counter to the United States which they can dominate but the presence of India, Brazil and South Africa has given it a more reasonable personality. India, of course, provides the grouping its crucial vowel without which its acronym loses its meaning as building blocks of global economic and cultural stability. (Oh, that is such a stupid little aside.)
Since it is my wont to look for useless details, let me point out that English is not necessarily the lingua franca at the summit even though all the five leaders speak it in varying degrees. Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff (Portuguese), Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (Russian), India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Hindi), China’s President Xi Jinping (Chinese) and South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma (English) all speak different languages. Between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi the two represent the world’s two largest languages. I point out this only to underscore the linguistic, and therefore cultural, diversity of the grouping. Does it really mean anything? May be not in the immediate news sense of the word but it has subtle and important global consequence.
I am sure the United States is watching the BRICS summit with interest because together it does constitute significant global clout. It also comes as a reminder that the days of the American preeminence are fast fading. It is in this context that the BRICS bank is a small but important first step because there is inherent recognition in the move that the world needs hard cash and not moral sermons.
The summit will also afford Modi opportunities to have one-on-one meetings with Xi and Putin which are crucial to the new prime minister’s foreign policy thinking. Having recently met all the seven South Asian leaders, these meetings offer an important next step and build-up towards his summit meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington in September. In about four months of assuming office the prime minister would have covered quite a spectrum of global diplomacy.