Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Alphabet Soup

The world’s high table now seats only countries belonging to the G-7 and NATO groupings, which acting in concert advance the economic and political interests of the well heeled and economically developed nations of the world. These nations have the common underlying fabric of western European culture binding them together. Japan is the only exception, being non-European. But Japan, way back in the mid 1800’s in the aftermath of the Meiji restoration determined to Westernise, and after its post-WWII resurgence became an “honorary white” nation. Nothing symptomised this better than the fact that Japanese were officially designated just that in apartheid South Africa. And the Japanese were quite comfortable with that status.

The post Cold War era has seen the economic and political rise of a host of nations, Brazil, China and India being foremost among them. Since 2000 and the advent of Vladimir Putin, Russia with soaring oil prices has made impressive economic gains. The new South Africa, based equally on the industrial inheritance of the robust but unequal and exploitative apartheid regime and the bounty of nature, now finds itself as an advancing economic power. Unlike Nigeria which has frittered its oil wealth and has been looted by its native kleptocracy, South Africa has been a relative symbol of responsible government and probity in public life. Each one of these nations is now a major economic player and already has larger GDP than many in the G-7. Together, in the next couple of decades they will outstrip the G-7.

With the advent of new world economic and political powers, logic would demand that the global high table be expanded. But there is an inherent problem with exclusive clubs. Expansion means they become less exclusive and with it goes the attendant risk that some already members will become less important. On the other hand those who get admitted will find that their admittance has made the club somewhat less exclusive. Groucho Marx captured this paradox when he said: “I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.” If the G-7 were to remain an exclusive and powerful club, then the only way to ensure it would be to relegate some of the present members like Italy and Spain to some lesser league. Similarly, if the UN Security Council were to become a truly representative and powerful body, then Britain and France might have to be seen out and countries like Brazil and India brought in. Neither Britain nor France have the global economic reach of Germany, till this year the world’s leading exporting nation. Britain’s global power status is kept afloat by leased US nuclear submarines and missiles.

But this is not happening nor is it likely to happen in a hurry. In the meantime the world is changing. So the countries knocking on the doors are trying new diplomatic combinations, and these are many. On the basis of economic potential, and thanks to Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs head of global economic research who coined the now familiar and catchy acronym, the BRICs, Brazil, Russia, India and China have come together to form a forum called just that. Phonetically BRICs has a constructive ring about it and works well. On the other hand it could have just as well been CRIBs, which in English means a cot for a baby and in the colloquial as discards on a card table.

But the fact of the matter is that there is nothing of binding commonality between these four countries. Brazil is far in the west and is a middle income and middle industrialised country with vast natural resources and a land mass to boot. Like Russia. Russia however is still a colossal military and nuclear power with a global reach. But the Russian main is in Europe and it is largely a Westernised country. China and India are low income Asian countries with gargantuan populations and an entirely different set of problems. But they are the giant economies of the future. Not only do they have not many cultural affinities but also are locked in a difficult territorial dispute. Then China is a totalitarian one party and repressive state, and does not have in place market economy structures with liberal labour laws and stringent environmental regulations in place like the other BRICs. So would these countries ever have come together if Jim O’Neill did not conjure up them as a group?

Now there is a veritable cornucopia of alphabet soups being conjured up. There is BASIC – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – which was very much in the news in Copenhagen as a ginger group that forced the western and industrialised nations, including Russia, to water down their growth constricting agenda. India, Brazil and South Africa as democratic, fast growing and non P-5 countries are coming together, presumably to force an expansion of the UN Security Council? China, already in the P-5 is opposed to any new permanent membership of the UNSC which includes Japan. There is already in existence a RIC’s grouping consisting of Russia, India and China that view with askance the meddlesome activities in Central Asia and the blatant partisanship of the USA in the Middle East.

Last week I was in a conference funded by the German foreign ministry for a GIBSA grouping to somehow inveigle Germany into the equation. Of late the new Hatoyama government in Japan has been signalling desire for a life outside the US umbrella and would like to have a grouping built around democratic countries like Japan, India and Australia. Nearer home there is BIMSTEC, or Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Srilanka and Thailand Economic Co-operation. And so it goes on.

Clearly the world is in a churn. The new global players are clearly unhappy with the management of the global system. What we need is a true power shift that reflects the emerging economic, political and military realities. But the multitude of agendas only serves to preserve the status quo – for the foreseeable future. Only when Brazil, Russia, India, China, South America, Japan and Germany, give or take some, come together and determine what the future world system must be, can we expect a new world order.

Article by:
Mohan Guruswamy
The Chairman, Centre for Policy Alternatives,
a New Delhi based think-tank

Credits for the Article to Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS)

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