Monday, May 19, 2008

Final Thoughts on BRIC and Burma

A bout of insomnia has me surfing the 'net to follow some of the threads of stories I have been writing about.

In Washington, the narrative is that the autocracies of Russia and China played the lead in blocking efforts in the UN Security Council to pressure the junta in Burma/Myanmar to accept aid, but New Europehas a different headline: "China, Indonesia helped Burma block aid." Doesn't fit the matrix, though--since both are Asian powers but one is an aspiring member of a U.S.-led League of Democracies.

Viewing international coverage of the BRIC summit, I found some interesting, and telling, patterns. First, let me make clear that I am not one to over-emphasize this meeting. is free to spout off that the Yekaterinburg meeting created some sort of anti-Western alliance, but that is rubbish. The meeting had much more modest goals--but they succeeded in reaching them. For one, the idea that these four states should meet on a regular basis to discuss world affairs and exchange their viewpoints. Moreover, that they don't need to work via the "hub" of the United States.

So, what does a quick perusal of the net show? Plenty of English-language coverage from Russian, Indian and Chinese news sources. The international wires covered the story--but as far as I can tell, their reports were picked up primarily by the UK media. Little or no coverage or discussion in the U.S.

Which brings me to a final thought about any LOD. All of the U.S. proponents argue that the U.S. is the country that has to bring the LOD about. But is that necessarily the case? Other democracies are free to lay the foundation for the LOD. If they aren't, what does that mean? The EU has created a LOD that is territorially restricted to Europe and has very high standards for admittance. India has, in recent years, created two interesting multilateral formats--the Russia-India-China one (RIC) and the India-Brazil-South Africa one (IBSA), which held a meeting prior to the RIC/BRIC one in South Africa (and will hold a summit in New Delhi later this year). Other countries are engaged in creative exercises in multilateralism--and are taking, yes, short baby steps, but steps nonetheless, toward greater institutionalization. It is a touch of arrogance to assume that we must be present "at the creation" for any such body to have any sort of impact.

It's also clear that few of my colleagues in DC paid attention to what the Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim said in Cape Town about democracy at the IBSA ministerial:

The IBSA alliance, said Mr Amorim, is "in favour of our peoples, of humanity, a world where democracy will prevail - not just a political democracy but a social, cultural democracy".

Does this mean that he would be sympathetic to the PRC's claim that lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty and creating conditions for a middle-class existence is just as democratic as having competitive elections? I don't know--but it clearly returns a question I think many of us here in Washington thought was settled after 1989--that democracy means political democracy.

And for those who care--the IBSA forum also got no coverage in the U.S. press, not even much in the specialized foreign affairs media.

One reason for going under the radar of the specialist foreign affairs media could be the conceptual problem of these alignments. We (in the US) are accustomed to seeing the world in a hierarchy of regional groupings, great powers, and world bodies, with the great powers being key. We don't yet have a way to conceive of individual regional actors in different regions coming together, except as some kind of rebuke to us.

The BRIC and IBSA groupings do represent an assertion and defense of national sovereignty. But I wonder if they do not also implicitly challenge regional and global integrationism as well as the traditional great powers. For third-tier nation-states, national sovereignty is limited, and regional and international groupings are important. But regional and global bodies may prevent the larger nation-states that belong to them from having the wider role that their economies and military capabilities may permit them individually in the future to claim.

The other interesting question is whether these new groupings could lead to more effective forms of international cooperation. Climate, energy, water, food, maritime security, the spread of dangerous technology, and threats emanating from failed states will not go away as problems. No one wants the traditional Western powers to dictate solutions but inclusive regional and international bodies may be unable to act effectively. A different group of leading countries will no doubt be more protective of national sovereignty in whatever solutions emerge. But such a group might have a new influence that leads in time to a new consensus.
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