On March 26, the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will gather in Durban, South Africa, for the BRICS grouping’s fifth summit. This collection of non-Western powers has cast itself as a new force in world affairs and a potential alternative to the global order that America and its European and Asian allies have traditionally supported. In reality, though, BRICS is less than the sum of its parts, and the real danger to today’s international order lies elsewhere.
The BRICS summit has an unusual origin story. The group’s membership reflects an acronym coined by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill (.pdf) in 2001. At the time, the “BRIC” acronym -- South Africa failed to make the cut -- lumped together four of the world’s fastest-growing large economies. What began as a term intended for investors was later borrowed by the four countries’ leaders to name their first quadrilateral gathering in 2009. With South Africa’s inclusion in 2011, BRICS was born.
Far from representing the world’s emerging powers, however, BRICS simply brings together disparate countries. Only Brazil, India and South Africa are true emerging powers, having recently arrived on the international stage. Russia is a longstanding member of the Great Power club. It possesses what emerging powers lack: a seat on the United Nations Security Council, the world’s pre-eminent decision-making body. So does China, a nation that enjoyed this privileged status long before its economy took flight.