The first years of the new century have seen the beginnings of tectonic shifts in the distribution of world power.
What we might call the Political West (the United States, Europe and Japan) still has 73 percent of global wealth and 80 percent of military expenditure, despite only accounting for 14 percent of total population.
But now there are new kids on the block (or should that be bloc?) who have started tilting this bias in world power in new directions away from the Political West.
In his 2003 study Dreaming with BRICs: The Path to 2050, the Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill estimated that within four more decades the economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China would equal in size those of the G6 (US, Germany, Japan, UK, France and Italy).
That shift seems well underway: In 2000 the BRIC countries accounted for a sixth of the world economy; they now account for a quarter (in equivalent buying power). While the US, Europe and Japan are in the doldrums, the BRICs go on growing. A third of world growth in the last decade has taken place in these countries.
So far, so good for the BRICs, but where next? Obviously these trends are extrapolations, based on scenarios which may or may not come true, and forecasting exercises also contain arbitrary elements that ring less true when fully under the microscope.
Russia, for instance, is not an emerging power, but a power in decline. In fact her problems bear comparisons with other European powers: she had an empire but lost it; her demography is in sharp regression; her neighbours are culturally distinct, and distrust her; and her economy is uncompetitive (though with plenty of raw materials).
So there are those who prefer not to include Russia in the group, and use other labels such as BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China), or IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa), or even Second World, the label used by Parag Khanna in his book of the same title. In one bloc he puts the US, Europe and China, who he says now govern the world in practice; and in the other, those who are trying to get in on the act.
However, setting aside the many caveats and qualifications, the trend seems clear, and even accentuated by the financial crisis. The emerging countries have been less hard hit by the recession – they are weathering it, and indeed emerging from it in a relatively strengthened position.
Take the example of Turkey, which the EU cold-shoulders. It is growing at seven percent: three times the average of the euro zone. The political consequences are there for all to see.
The question, then, is not whether the new countries will grow more, and not whether they will catch up with the West, for we already know they probably will. Rather the question is what the political consequences of this might be.
One answer is that in the 21st Century we may be left without anybody able or willing to supply governance. On economic matters, look at the G20′s failure to come up with coordinated action to manage the global economy. On security matters, see how Brazil and Turkey are going their own way over sanctions against Iran.
And as for the maintenance of our shared inheritance, the environment, Copenhagen made it clear that a multipolar order (where there are several poles of power) is a very different thing to a multilateral order (where there are norms binding on everyone).
As we in the Political West watch the BRIC countries rise, the question arises of how we should deal with them.
Three options suggest themselves:
1. We could accommodate them in the present order;
2. We could work with them to change the parameters of the existing order;
3. We could divide them and pit them against each other, thus preserving our hegemony for as long as we can.
But all this depends on our knowing exactly what they want. Do they want to have a share in the existing order? Or to change it? Does the present order seem unjust to them because their role in it fails to reflect their size and aspirations?
Or because it is an inherently unjust order, in which only the strongest have power? For the moment, we don’t know. And they themselves have yet to work out just what they want. The difference is that while both sides doubt, they keep growing. Time is on their side.
This article was published in El País English edition on 6 July 2010.
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