The Myth of the Rising Powers

The Myth of the Rising Powers

Over the past five months, IFAIR’s “Shifting Powers” series inquired about the implications of the apparent changes in the global political landscape. As we are now looking forward to the concluding event of this series on Friday, we would like to anticipate our discussion with a leader exclusively submitted for this purpose by IFAIR Advisory Board member Prof. Dr. Tanja A. Börzel. The managing director of the Otto-Suhr-Institut at Freie Universität Berlin dedicates her article to the one question that lies at the heart of our “Shifting Powers” discussion: Are the BRICS set for global leadership?

Prof. Dr. Tanja A. Börzel

The rise of the so called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) has certainly changed the international political landscape. Yet, we are still a far cry from a multi-polar world. Not only is multi-polarity a concept that belongs into 19th century because it fails to capture the inter-connectedness and interdependence in the present world. The BRICS will not rise to become global powers any time soon. The Western dominance in global politics is certainly fading due to the decline of United States of America (US) as the only remaining super power after the end of the Cold War. At the same time, however, neither the European Union (EU) nor the BRICS have filled the void. Rather than shaping the global order, they have focused on the regional level to mange problems of interdependence that threaten their political stability and economic prosperity.

It is not only the economy, stupid!

Arguments about shifting powers and the beginning of a multi-polar world order focus, on the one hand, on the declining weight of the established powers, epitomized by the current financial crisis, which appears to challenge the Western model of liberal democracy and market economy as the only remaining model for peace and prosperity. On the other hand, we see the rise of the emerging economies in the non-Western parts of the world, which appear to be less vulnerable to the current crisis, and have started to flex their economic muscles in international politics asking for a greater say in multilateral institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the United Nations.

The economic performance of the BRICS is indeed remarkable, the only exception being Russia, which looks more like a rent-seeking economy as we find it in many African countries where economic growth is driven by the exploitation of natural resources rather than industrialization. Yet, it takes more than economic resources to be a global power. Old-fashioned theories of international relations point to the importance of military capabilities. True, Russia, China and India still rank among the top military powers of the world – after the US which is still the lonely number 1. They are also nuclear powers, but so are Israel and Pakistan. China might have the largest standing army but is seriously lagging behind in military technology, the recent purchase of its first (used!) aircraft carrier being a case in point. And its defense budget is not even a quarter of the size of what the US spends on its military. If it was only about military capabilities, Brazil and South Africa would have little potential for becoming a great power any time soon. But how important is coercive power for shaping the global order? Turkey, South Korea Israel also belong to the top ten military powers of the world but are not considered to be rising powers. And for managing the current financial crisis, the military appears to be a real liability given the size of the defense expenditures in the US, the UK, France, or Spain. Rather than arguing about whether spending- or fire-power is more important for being or becoming a global power, I claim that resources as such, be they military or economic, are at best a necessary condition. What it takes to influence, not to mention shape the global order in the 21st century is, first, a vision, and second, the strategic capacity to put ‘your money where your mouth is’, as the Americans say, i.e. deploy your capabilities to pursue your vision. The BRICS lack both.

Economic giants, but political dwarfs?

While the end of the Second World War saw the emergence of multilateral institutions in international politics, the end of the Cold War has made the 21st century the age of global multilateralism. Rather than rejecting Western dominated institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, Russia, China and South Africa have (successfully) applied for membership. The ‘West’, in turn, has sought to accommodate the rising powers into ‘its’ institutions. The resistance of the US and European countries to change decision-making rules and procedures to give the BRICS a greater say, clearly indicates that the ‘West’ has not fully accepted the new reality of the ‘G 20 world’. Yet, the rising powers are unlikely to (re)shape global institutions either because they lack a vision. None of the BRICS has so far developed clear ideas on how to change the global order. Brazil, India, and South Africa call for a new economic world order that reflects the interests and needs of the Global South. But they have failed present their vision of how such a new order would look like.

Interestingly, the European Union has a vision. The European Security Strategy, for instance, identifies the global challenges and key threats to the security of the EU and clarifies its strategic objectives in dealing with them, such as building security in the EU’s neighbourhood and promoting an international order based on effective multilateralism. This vision is somewhat distinct from the US – less with regard to the norms and values on which the global order should be based but rather with regard to the instruments to promote these norms and values, particularly when it comes to the use of military force. The EU does have military capabilities it can deploy and has deployed. Yet, it is more reluctant to use military coercion than the US. As the world’s largest economic power, EU trade and aid should yield significant power to enlist third countries on a voluntary basis in implementing the EU’s vision of global governance, .e.g. by respecting human rights, democracy, the rule of law and good governance and by joining international regimes, such as the Kyoto Protocol or the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Yet, despite having a vision and the capabilities to pursue it, the political power of the EU has been at best limited. So far, the EU has hardly used its economic power to shape the global order. It has both the legal competences and the staff power to play a leading role in international institutions. Yet, its 27 member states often still lack the political will to speak with one voice.

To conclude, it takes more to be a global power than economic resources. The BRICS need to develop a vision for the global order and have the political will to use their capabilities to pursue it. So far, their appetite for global leadership appears to be limited. Rather, they engage in shaping the order of the region they are embedded in. Brazil, South Africa, and India have increasingly acted as regional powers seeing regionalism as way to pursue their national interests e.g. in containing the influence of external actors or in preventing and managing threats to the regional stability, such as massive human rights violations, coup d’états and natural disasters. More recently, China and Russia have also started to seek the cooperation of their neighbours. It remains to be seen whether regionalism will be a stepping stone or stumbling block for the rise of the BRICS as global powers.

 Tanja A. Börzel

Mrs. Börzel is Professor of Political Science and Chair of European Integration, as well as current Managing Director of the Otto-Suhr-Institut at Freie Universität Berlin