Brazil and the Brics

2013-03-26 00:00

WE Brazilians were hit by Brics some time in the last decade, and we never asked for it.

And for years we never really cared about the honour of being the new stars in the global economy.

Being grouped in the same category as China, which really deserves the title of saviour of the world economy, was always a little odd.

Maybe it is the constellation of organisations and acronyms in our foreign policy. Brazil belongs to just too many forums, initiatives, areas and markets.

We are in the Mercosur, along with Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and now Venezuela. We belong to the Organisation of American States and to the Ibero-American Organisation.

More recently, we have helped create Unasur, a talking shop for the southern part of the Americas. And the Word Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and of course the United Nations.

So what credit could we give to a clever way created by economist Jim O’Neill to explain to his clients at Goldman Sachs how the axis of the world economy was changing?

Ten years ago, if you went about the streets of São Paulo or Rio asking the man on the bus or the economist in the multinational about Brics, you would be met with the glance a Martian would give someone asking about the Formula 1 championship.

Today, the economist in the multinational cares a lot about Brics, and the man on the bus may have read about it too.

We are proud to be a Bric. We have even joined our Bric brothers India and South Africa in creating a spin-off, the Ibsa forum (but I doubt that the man on the bus knows anything about that one either).

It has something to do with Lula da Silva. The former president (2003-2010) had dreams of grandiosity, delusional sometimes, but quite effective too.

He grasped a simple idea: Brazil is growing and will keep doing so for quite some time. More people are becoming consumers. To keep advancing as a society, our territory and economy are not enough.

We must be a strong part of the global community, open new markets and change the way decisions are made.

He looked around and found other countries in the same situation. Brazil jumped on the Brics bandwagon.

His successor, Dilma Rousseff, is not nearly as interested in foreign policy as Lula was, but she kept the arrangement. And the annual Brics forum keeps going on.

It is easy to see why.

Combined, the economy of Brics is a formidable $11 trillion, enough at least to be heard in economic discussions. It makes sense when the topic is capital flows or the world recession, but Brics now wants more.

It wants to become political. And that brings to light the fact that the group still seems unnatural in so many ways.

For Brazilian diplomacy, it is more than a little discomforting to be in the same forum as China, a brutal dictatorship that behaves irresponsibly in the world arena in so many ways. Or Russia, an oligarchy that is democratic in name only.

Even India and South Africa, our sister democracies, raise questions.

Do we really have that much in common with the wonderfully chaotic Indians, a fascinating but not quite Westernised society?

As for the South Africans, do they really deserve to be in the same league, with an economy that amounts to 20% of the Russian and Indian, 17% of the Brazilian and only six percent of the Chinese?

It becomes clear that South Africa has been included more as a geopolitical gesture than for economics. And that reinforces the fact that Brics is slowly trying to be counted as a political force. South Africa, for all its problems, is still the continent’s economic and democratic star.

The reasoning was: if Brics really wants to become a representative of the developing world, it must have an African arm. South Africa was the natural choice, even though there were those who favoured Nigeria or Egypt.

This is the biggest risk confronting Brics today and the surest path to irrelevance.

At the Durban summit, time and energy will be wasted with things like a declaration about the Syrian war, at a moment when Russia and China are some of the last friends of the discredited Assad regime.

It is not hard to predict the impact of political statements such as these on Western capitals.

In the best case, indifference. In the worst, condemnation. Brics should avoid trying to become the UN of the poor, at least while two-thirds of their members are corrupt autocracies. Instead, they should stick to what the group does best: the economy, the economy, the economy.

Fábio Zanini is the foreign editor of Folha de S. Paulo, Brazil’s largest daily newspaper (www.folha.com.br)

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