Uncertainty in the BRICS

The nature of today's economy is uncertainty, and nowhere is that more true than in developing nations.

In the third of these linked blog posts, we return to the general theme of "The Great Uncertainty" to explore the consequences of the shift in the balance of economic power that many discern, broadly from ‘West’ to ‘East’. The issues, we suggest, are rather more complex and involved than we are typically led to believe in popular accounts couched in terms of ‘rising powers’ and the challenge of the BRICS economies.

So where to start? Well, what is clear to us is that there is indeed a shift taking place in the balance of global economic power. That, at least, we can agree on. There is no need, we feel, to fill this post with figures because the broad picture is pretty well established. Indeed, it is captured, after a fashion, in those speculative pieces that we have all read about exactly when China will overtake the US as the largest economy in the world (although this, too, is more complicated a calculation than is often recognised).

The essential point, though, is that the combination of longish periods of (very) fast economic growth in some countries with slow growth, stagnation and recession in others cannot but alter the respective weights of different countries (and by extension regions) within the global economy. It is from that core shift that all the other features that are so much discussed – different patterns of FDI, aid, trade, bond purchases and the like – emanate.

However, the analytical problem is that economic power does not translate easily or automatically into political power. Or, to put it a little differently in what has been a common theme of ours, economics is not political economy. Economic power can be measured statistically by reference to GDP, proportion of world trade, level and direction of financial flows, and so on. Political power cannot. It has instead to be pondered and probed.

What do we find when we do this? Let’s start with China. In a simple sense it is the most obvious candidate to replace the US as the hegemon of the global political economy. But, for all its fast and continuing economic growth, it is in fact beset by a host of problems generated by its particular experience of late industrialisation and single-party politics. These include: a core imbalance in its economy between investment and consumption, considerable ongoing financial instability, deep social inequalities and tensions, and the confusion about intentions inevitably generated by its opaque and increasingly corrupt state structure. And this is not even to mention the big, looming issue of being pressured to move at some point in a democratic direction.

The reality is that, for all the talk a while ago of an emerging "Beijing Consensus", China has yet to produce a style of capitalism that is globally attractive.

Let’s move on to think about India, Brazil and other ‘rising powers’. Here, once more, the political picture is much less sharply defined than the economic one. In global terms India still lives mostly within itself. It has a very strong historical sense of the uniqueness of its continental civilisation and seems content for the moment to deploy an assertively ‘Southern’ rhetoric amidst broad acquiescence in a US-centred world order.

Brazil is best seen politically as the major regional power of South America. Given its location and history, it is always alert to the possibility of overbearing behaviour by the US and is ready to be stroppy if necessary. But it has yet to set out a coherent and convincing account of the global role that it might like to play in the future.

We could at this point go further on down a list to discuss Russia, South Africa, Mexico, Indonesia, even Turkey. But we already know that we are referring here to countries that have a power and a presence in global politics, without yet constituting major players when it comes to shaping policy outcomes in the UN, the IMF, the WTO or any other global, as opposed to regional or ‘Southern’, institution.

In a very interesting recent article, the veteran Indian political scientist, Achin Vanaik, has argued that what is emerging is a ‘new pentarchy’, consisting of the US, the EU, Russia, China and India. Others don’t quite make the grade. In his view, such a pentarchy will not be formalised like the G8 and G20. Nor will it be a concert of equals or near-equals, but rather a hub-and-spokes arrangement with the US at the centre and the others at the circumference.

Vanaik advances this proposition on the basis of an attempt to integrate economic and political power into his thinking. All his five entities have sufficient demographic, economic and military weight to qualify, as it were, but only the US has the soft – or ideological – power to ‘project a social-political-cultural model that is potentially generalisable’. He asks tellingly: ‘How many states and their ruling and middle classes want to become more and more like Russia, China or India rather than like the USA?’ What about the EU in this context? It is dismissed in a single brutal phrase: ‘The EU by its very nature cannot be a single unified aspirational model’.

Now, this is but one recent piece of political analysis. It’s quite persuasive in its way, but things almost certainly won’t work out in quite the manner that Vanaik suggests, and that is really the key point. Political economy analysis is contentious stuff. We don’t ever stand on especially firm ground. We make judgements, and then see how events unfold, adjusting our thinking as we go. Economic power in the world is shifting, but we can’t be certain quite what that will mean politically over the next few years and that just reinforces the sense of the uncertainty of the times in which we live.

This is the third in a five-post series on the "Great Uncertainty".