Over the past two years, whenever Russia has undertaken steps in the international arena that the United States disapproves of, there has been a predictable response in Washington: a parade of somber-faced U.S. officials solemnly warning Moscow that its actions are opposed by the "international community" and that Russia risks isolation by its policy choices. Indeed, #RussiaIsolated has become the hashtag of choice in the State Department's social media arsenal.
Certainly, the U.S. has had some successes in turning the hashtag into reality: winning some symbolic votes at the United Nations; getting a coalition of states to impose limited sanctions on Russia in the aftermath of the annexation of the Crimea; and having Moscow ejected from the G-8, thereby returning the grouping to its Cold War-era status as a forum of the leading Western industrialized nations plus Japan.
But for the most part the rhetoric has fallen short. Russian President Vladimir Putin may have been excluded from the G-7 meeting in Brussels earlier this month, but his bilateral meetings with British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande—at a formal dinner at the Elysee Palace, no less—immediately after the Western summit diminished any dramatic impact of his absence. That follows Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attendance of the Sochi Winter Olympics earlier this year as Putin’s honored guest.
Moreover, Putin is scheduled to take part in the BRICS summit in Brazil in July, where the "isolated" Russian president will take his place alongside the leaders of China, India, Brazil and South Africa. This is where the U.S. rhetoric about the international community most visibly begins to lose out in the arena of public diplomacy. Visually, the G-7's claim to speak on behalf of the global family of nations is undermined by an alternate forum whose countries and leaders more accurately reflect the make-up of the globe. All one has to do is compare the summit photos of the G-7 and the BRICS to assess how their respective diversity—or lack thereof—will play out on the front pages of newspapers around the world.
It is unfortunate that so many in the U.S. policy community never took the phenomenon of the BRICS seriously, in part due to its modest origins and limited scope (although the forum is now moving toward developing more-enduring building blocks, such as a development bank). But organizations do not often spring full-formed like Athena from the skull of Zeus. The massive integrated military force that characterizes NATO today was not envisioned when the original 1949 Washington Treaty was signed. Nor did the European Union emerge instantaneously after the 1951 agreement to create a limited coal and steel community was concluded among six Western European nations.
Originally an outgrowth of the trilateral Russia-India-China meetings, Moscow pushed for the group to include other rising powers beyond Eurasia, appealing to their sense of being unfairly excluded from the dominant Euro-Atlantic institutions of the international system. The strategy was to create consensus on the lowest common policy denominators, not to try and create a grandiose superstructure. But in so doing, the goal was also to habituate the policy apparatuses of each of the countries to working more closely with each other, while using the benefits of forming a tactical bloc in international bodies—starting with the G-20, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank—to challenge Western leadership and guidance. By moving to include both Brazil and South Africa, BRICS has absorbed the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) dialogue, which linked together three of the major democracies in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean basins. And even if the grouping remains but a tactical alliance, the BRICS have, to a large extent, made it impossible for Washington to dominate the G-20 process.
As the BRICS was taking shape, starting with foreign minister summits at the United Nations in 2006 before graduating in 2009 to yearly head-of-state and government conclaves, the United States had the opportunity to use its much greater convening power and attractiveness to meet the challenge. There were many proposals put on the table, beginning with direct U.S. security and economic engagement with IBSA, especially after the Somali piracy problem heated up after 2008. Doing so would have given both Brazil and India some incentive to better balance between Washington and the West on one side and Russia and China on the other.
making the rounds several years ago was for the U.S. to take advantage of the counter-reaction on the part of other emerging powers that felt left out of the BRICS process. If there had been a willingness to devote the time, energy and focus, an alternative BRICS-style caucus could have been created linking the U.S. to states like South Korea, Indonesia, Turkey, Nigeria and Mexico.
Such efforts would be harder to pull off today. For one thing, the Obama administration has signaled it is looking for others to do more in terms of burden-sharing, so any new initiatives would be greeted with suspicion that Washington was simply looking for a way to alleviate its costs. Moreover, many of the rising powers have concluded that they can’t put all their eggs into the “Euro-U.S. basket
" and would be leery of anything that appeared to be taking overt sides with the West against Russia and China. There is no way to jury-rig a new truly global coalition of states behind U.S. action that will carry much legitimacy.
As we approach the final two years of the Obama presidency, the inevitable spate of "legacy" articles has already begun to appear. While any presidential administration wants to have signal and significant achievements—and the Obama team may hope that an elusive Israel-Palestine settlement or a nuclear deal with Iran might qualify—the White House needs to focus on shaping the global environment in ways that will be more favorable for whoever succeeds Barack Obama in 2017. Re-seizing the initiative from Putin in engaging the emerging powers, rather than trying to simply isolate him, is one way to do so. Whether it is too late to do so remains an open question.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the former editor of the National Interest and a frequent foreign policy commentator in both the print and broadcast media. He is currently on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government. His weekly WPR column, The Realist Prism, appears every Friday.