BRICS for a new world order

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL September 3, 2023
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Jim O’Neill coined BRIC when he was Goldman Sachs chief economist. TWTB collage: Rise of Nations |; O’Neill | Roger Harris, CC 3.0

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The Big Story:

It’s pure coincidence but apt that the five BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa – are holding their 15th annual summit during Gamescom, one of the world’s largest video games expos. The BRICS bloc’s aspirations feel a bit like a new version of an old video game, perhaps Rise of Nations 2.0? Like countries in a world domination game, BRICS wants to project power. It already accounts for almost half the world’s population, roughly one-quarter of global gross domestic product, and by some measures, a larger share of global economic activity than the G7 rich countries.

The Backstory:

Gamescom is in Cologne, Germany; the BRICS summit is in Johannesburg, South Africa. There are few question marks about the video expo; the BRICS game has some glitches. One of the the five BRICS leaders can’t attend in person – Russia’s Vladimir Putin is forced to dial in as he avoids an international arrest warrant for allegedly masterminding the deportation of Ukrainian children.

The leaders physically present also have problems. Xi Jinping’s African safari is no escape from economic headaches at home in China. India’s Narendra Modi is facing criticism for months of ethnic clashes in Manipur, as well as proposed new legislation that could spur more communal trouble. South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa is under pressure because rolling blackouts are strangling his country’s economy. Right now, Brazil’s Lula da Silva is the only BRICS leader with a good story to tell.

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In fact, the ‘father’ of BRICS, Jim O’Neill, is pretty downbeat about the bloc. O’Neill coined the BRIC acronym in 2001 to highlight the economic potential of the big four – Brazil, Russia, India, China. BRIC later added South Africa as a member and became BRICS. But O’Neill now says BRICS has “never achieved anything since they first started meeting (as a bloc in 2009)” except “powerful symbolism”.

What does BRICS symbolise? An imagined world in which the West has lost dominance. Like players in a video game, the bloc is considering all manner of strategies to achieve its goal, not least expansion and even a wildly ambitious common currency.

This Week, Those Books:

Picks for this week include a novel that masterfully builds the very world BRICS might want and a non-fiction exploration of the bloc’s once-praised potential.

The Years of Rice and Salt

By: Kim Stanley Robinson

Publisher: Bantam Books

Year: 2002

Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel has a remarkable premise: 99% of Europe is dead and China and the Muslim world are the dominant powers.

A virulent plague kills everyone west of Constantinople so Christian European culture plays no part in building the international order for 700 years. Asia and the Middle East (called the “Middle West” in the book) take charge. By the 20th century, Africa, Europe and Russia are mostly Muslim and China has a maritime Pacific Rim empire comprising most of what’s left of Asia, as well as Australasia. India is a progressive force, while native American tribes form the Hodenosaunee League to resist the Chinese and Muslims. The superpowers fight a 67-year war. The story plays out across the world and uses Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist concepts. We see the Chinese – in red felt coats, rich as Americans today – shopping in great port towns.

The novel, about which a fair number of admiring academic papers have been written, is unique in presenting a non-Western world order using the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment and the idea of reincarnation. The characters emerge in different time periods and geographies sporting a different gender, race or religion.

Choice quotes:

“Allah protect us,’ Bold said politely. Then, in Arabic, ‘In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate.’ In his years in Temur’s army he had learned to be as much a Muslim as anyone. The Buddha did not mind what you said to be polite.”

“Ibn Ezra shrugged. ‘Well, this is another manifestation of the problem of death and evil in the world. This world is not Paradise, and Allah, when he created us, gave us free will…Allah is powerful, He is good. He cannot create evil. And yet evil exists in the world. So clearly we create that ourselves.”

(Ping me for the free pdf of a Utopian Literature professor’s paper on “critical utopia as critical history” in this novel.)

The Growth Map: Economic Opportunity in the BRICs and Beyond

By: Jim O’Neill

Publisher: Portfolio

Year: 2011

Ten years after coining the term BRIC and a sunshine prediction for what he called “growth markets”, Jim O’Neill’s 2011 book summarised the bloc’s quest to remake the world order. Today, he’s revised that view somewhat. This book shows what might have been…and could still come to pass.

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