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BRICS: To Dismiss or Not to Dismiss?

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
July 16, 2014
Folha de Sao Paulo

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My Folha colleague Clovis Rossi recently noted that my colleagues at the Council on Foreign Relations ignored this week's BRICS summit when assembling the July "World Events Calendar." Whether an editorial oversight or a conscious omission, the BRICS and BRICS-UNASUR summits are indeed barely on Washington's radar.

I share the skeptics' expectation that the meetings may well produce more symbolism than substance. The adage that for a major head of state to just show up is itself the "deliverable" doesn't exactly demonstrate the political/diplomatic heft of the BRICS, (or, for that matter, of any regional summit).

And who can argue with the cautionary notes about the BRICS bank and stabilization fund? The bank will take time to become operational, with many unanswered questions about lending and repayment criteria, transparency and eligibility. Will BRICS (read mainly Chinese) financing for developing world infrastructure require environmental conditions on potential projects? No amount of pique at the IMF quota system or World Bank conditionality should justify lending that runs rough shod over the environment in the name of development. The scrutiny that environmental NGOs have brought to lending by the traditional multilateral banks will now surely, and justifiably, turn to the BRICS bank.

Another common argument against the BRICS relevance is that Washington, Brussels, Paris, London and Bonn will always be preoccupied with other global security issues for which they need emerging power cooperation, but are doubtful they'll get it. Moreover, the doubters argue, the bilateral relationship between each BRICS member and with Washington or Europe will dominate in economic, political and geopolitical terms in the short and medium term.

Still, the strategic thinkers of the North Atlantic community now preoccupied with Iran, Ukraine, Israel, Gaza and the South China Sea, might look up for just a minute. They should ask themselves what it means that Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin now feel confident enough to promise not only financial largesse--we've heard this before--but also to hint at deeper "political" ties with the South Americans attending today's Brasilia summit.

Washington, especially, should take note: it is not just Cuba, Venezuela and the other albistas that are diversifying their trade, investment and "political" portfolios. The long-term trend of autonomy in Latin American foreign policy and hybridity in Latin American economic models (neither free market orthodoxy nor state capitalism or state socialism) challenges the United States not just in historic terms.

Economic, geographic and human ties closely bind the region and the United States, to be sure. But if I were one of the Americans who have to amass votes at the UN Security Council, the IMF, or World Bank, or build a coalition for successful climate talks, for example, I would not be so quick to dismiss this week's BRICS summits as merely an anti-Western symbolic snub.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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