The World’s Rising Powers Have Fallen
There will be no bloc of “emerging economies” rising up to challenge the Western order. But what comes next may be more chaotic and dangerous.
By Suzanne Nossel
As analysts and scholars compose their first drafts of the history of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, a chapter will surely address what were once dubbed “rising powers,” a group that included Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, and others. But the optimism of 2008 — when the so-called “BRICS” were ascendant, ready to reshape global economics and politics — has turned to doubt. The impeachment trial of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and a Russian doping scandal that only a Soviet could be proud of are just the latest unmistakable signs that a surge of newly powerful nations collectively remaking the world stage is hardly a sure thing. A few years ago, a mortal rupture in Europe would have invited crowing over “the demise of the West and the rise of the Rest.” Now, the picture is more complicated: Europe is in disarray, as are several of the might-have-been beneficiaries of the continent’s turmoil.
And as the United States looks ahead to a new administration come January, its approach to shifting global power relations will be ripe for a rethink. Amounting to neither a freshly minted set of trusty democratic allies nor a cohesive counterweight to the Western order, newly powerful nations are proving to be less predictable, more fragmented, and ultimately more reinforcing of U.S. power than even Washington’s own intelligence establishment predicted a decade ago.
In the latter years of the George W. Bush administration and the early part of the Obama years, rising or so-called “emerging” powers seemed to captivate the foreign-policy establishment. Foundations and think tanks proffered rising powers projects, conferences, and white papers. Some were bullish. Analysts, including Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter and John Ikenberry, predicted the rise of a group of new democracies — with Brazil, India, and South Africa topping the list — that would grow into natural allies for the United States.
Everyone from John McCain to Madeleine Albright (who promoted the idea nearly a decade before others cottoned on to it) advocated uniting democracies in a global alliance premised on shared values and joint action.
On the flip side, other academics and analysts anticipated that the rise of new powers could only herald an American decline. In 2010, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Alfred L. McCoy predicted “imperial collapse” and “painful daily reminders of what such a loss of power means for Americans in every walk of life.” A detailed study prepared by officials from rising powers and published by Oxford University Press in 2012 explicated the “synergies and complementarities” that had “already catapulted the BRICS into a leadership position” globally. As Autonomous University of Madrid professor Susanne Gratius wrote in 2008: “In recent years a number of emerging nations have been challenging the position of dominance of the old powers, which are dropping down the international pecking order.” The downcast lot predicted that the decline in relative importance of the United States would be matched only by that of Europe, inaugurating what historian Timothy Garton Ash termed “Europessimism,” a creeping sense that the continent was being edged out by the fast-rising states of China, India, Brazil, and Russia.
The one thing the two sides agreed on was that the shifts wrought by rising powers would be tectonic. In “Mapping the Global Future,” an influential analysis published by the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) in 2004, intelligence experts predicted that the “‘arriviste’ powers—China, India, and perhaps others such as Brazil and Indonesia—have the potential to render obsolete the old categories of East and West, North and South, aligned and nonaligned, developed and developing.” The report made headlines like “2020 Vision: A CIA report predicts that American global dominance could end in 15 years.”
Not so fast, as it turned out. Many of the premises undergirding these predictions evaporated in the ensuing decade. The genesis of global focus on rising powers was a 2001 analysis by Goldman Sachs’s Jim O’Neill that forecast faster, more consistent growth rates among emerging economies that would position them to gradually dominate the world stage, eventually leaving only the United States and Japan among the traditional industrial powers still ranking among the top six global economies. The bank focused on Brazil, Russia, India, and China — a group that O’Neill dubbed the “BRICs” and, later, the “BRICS,” after South Africa’s induction. While Goldman’s analysis was full of caveats, policy wonks focused on the breathless expectation of sustained, rapid growth by emerging economies. Goldman’s anointment of the BRICs as the emerging markets “most likely to succeed” prompted a flurry of prognosticators to formulate their own acronym accolades: MIST (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, and Turkey — which O’Neill designated as next in line after the BRICs) and SANE (South Africa, Algeria, Nigeria, and Egypt — supposedly the African continent’s leading up-and-comers). Britain’s Telegraph went so far as to publish a full lexicon of the emerging-market alphabet city.
Fifteen years later, several of those BRICS (not to mention MIST or SANE) are crumbling, done in by self-dealing, asset bubbles, stock market swoons, commodities fluctuations, and finite supplies of low-wage workers. In a warning published in January, the World Bank predicted negative growth in Brazil and Russia, just over 1 percent growth in South Africa, steady growth of 7.8 percent in India, and a shortfall from expectations in China topping out at 6.7 percent. As the Financial Times put it: “What had once been the brightest spark in the global economy has now become its big headache.” Late last year, Goldman finally shuttered its BRICS investment fund, which had lost 88 percent of its value since its 2010 peak.
The problems aren’t merely economic. Politically, several of the BRICS have proved similarly unstable. The rise of emerging powers was premised on the notion that they were domestically stable, ready and able to consistently project global influence. While some analysts spotlighted corruption, institutional weakness, and political dysfunction as risks, such concerns were often relegated to the footnotes. As the 2020 NIC project put it in its report: “Only an abrupt reversal of the process of globalization or a major upheaval in these countries would prevent their rise.”
Yet in South Africa, Brazil, and Russia, corruption and governance failures have proved catastrophic.
Whether you think Rousseff is being rightfully targeted or unfairly scapegoated — and no matter what you make of charges that her interim successor is trading favors for the votes to impeach her — none of it augurs well for Brazilian governance. In South Africa, President Jacob Zuma narrowly withstood an impeachment campaign and now clings to office as a lame duck in what is effectively a one-party democracy. While Russia and China continue to project firm centralized authority, their intensifying crackdowns on dissidents, lawyers, and influential cultural figures bespeak regimes nervous that corruption and economic slowdowns could turn their populations restive.
Back when rising powers were in style, theorists diverged on what to expect from their foreign policies. Some expected the leading democracies to align with Washington, whereas others foresaw a solid political bloc of BRICS holding Western influence in check. Neither vision came true. In their approach to international human rights and humanitarian intervention, rising democracies have been influenced by their post-colonial identities far more than their modern political bedfellows, emphasizing respect for sovereignty over the moral imperative of civilian protection or conflict prevention. Brazil and India abstained on the 2011 U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, anxious about the prospect that intervention could lead to regime change. Those two countries and South Africa have taken a reticent approach to handling the civil war in Syria, straddling the middle, but with a tilt more toward Russia and China than the United States and Europe.
But while dreams of a powerful “alliance of democracies” have been dashed, the nightmare scenario of a solid BRICS wall has also failed to manifest. While the BRICS do meet periodically as a group, diverse growth rates, population sizes, carbon emissions levels, wealth, and other indicators dictate diverging interests on issues including the global economy and trade, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and conflicts in the Middle East. BRICS countries have come together to form their own development bank, a rebuke to the Western-dominated International Monetary Fund and World Bank system. But the two most powerful and stable nations in the bloc, India and China, are increasingly at odds over terrorism, Beijing’s regional ambitions in the South China Sea and beyond, and New Delhi’s strategy of hedging through strengthened relations with the United States and Japan.
Analysts were right to draw attention to the rapid growth and expanded international profile of a new set of countries. Individual nations, including China, Russia, and India, have become far more important to the United States and the rest of the world than they were a decade ago. Yet the expectation that this group — as a group — would collectively remake global power relations has not materialized. With most of the emerging-powers programs and projects having gone the way of Goldman Sachs’s erstwhile fund, it falls to the rest of us to consider what conclusions to draw from the rise and fall of the concept of “rising powers.”
A few observations arise. First, the United States’ status as what Madeleine Albright once called the “indispensable nation” remains intact. The United States is far from omnipotent and has bumped up hard against the limits of its diplomatic influence and military capabilities in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. But when it comes to catalyzing global action and providing the decisive voice in whether, and to what degree, a global conflict — Libya, Syria, the Islamic State, Ukraine, climate change, Ebola, take your pick — will be addressed at a global level, no other country’s say comes close to Washington’s. With the exception of Russia (where President Vladimir Putin seems motivated by dual desires to check the United States and perpetuate his own personal power), no other rising power has sought to call the shots nor assumed an obligation to lead outside its region.
Second, Europe still matters. The implicit logic of the rising powers was that they would leave the continent a relic of a bygone era of power relations. Despite its economic stagnation, political malaise, refugee crisis, and rising right wing, Europe remains, by far, the United States’ most stable and reliable major ally. While Brexit has dealt a major blow to the European Union, it is likely to further strengthen U.S. relations with Berlin, Paris, and any other European capital that may stand in for London as Washington’s go-to conduit within the union. Just as many Brits belatedly seem to be awakening to just how important the EU is, so Washington may emerge from the crisis with a heightened sense of appreciation for the bloc. Whether on Iran, Ukraine, the Islamic State, or virtually any other issue, European support is the necessary — if no longer sufficient — precondition for U.S. action to enjoy legitimacy.
As President Barack Obama came to recognize this, he was forced to maneuver what Politico described as a pivot from a pivot of sorts, turning back from his heralded “rebalance” to Asia to try to keep the continent in one piece amid severe political and humanitarian strains. Rather than a series of rotating pivots, each of which cancels the other out, Washington needs to perfect a 360-degree model of leadership, where focusing on one region does not come at the expense of others. If U.S. diplomats can pursue major new trade agreements at the same time as a nuclear deal with Iran and a climate change accord, there is no reason the commensurately robust, parallel regional overtures should be mutually exclusive.
A third conclusion derived from the uneven rise of new powers is that China’s rise has rendered the United States more, not less, globally important. Rather than becoming the has-been many predicted, the United States, due to China’s surging influence, has become a far more important ally to countries throughout Asia and beyond. As China’s regional neighbors seek to fortify themselves against the behemoth next door, their relationships with the United States have both broadened and deepened.
The U.S. pivot to Asia is now being driven as much by local demand for an American presence in the region as it is by Washington’s fear of being edged out. Recent discussions about arms sales and even the possibility of a renewed U.S. military presence in Vietnam are only the latest manifestations of thickening ties between the United States and numerous allies in the region, including South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
The reality of geopolitical ups and downs also warrants revisiting some of the major policy prescriptions that grew out of the rising powers literature. Many analysts stressed the urgent need to reform the U.N. Security Council to reflect updated global power dynamics. Analysts called for permanent seats for Brazil and India on a revamped U.N. Security Council and urged the United States to take the lead on restructuring, lest a reconfigured group be somehow foisted upon it.
If one subscribes to the idea that overhauling the Security Council (which still operates as it did when it was originally established in 1946, with five permanent veto-wielding seats reserved for Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States) is inevitable in the near future, it may be to Washington’s advantage to push reform through sooner rather than later. But, unlike a decade ago, the incentive to move now is not because excluded countries are so strong. It’s because they are relatively weak. Brazil and South Africa, two of the most prominent Security Council aspirants, are limping. While India is in good shape, regional resistance to enhanced status for New Delhi remains entrenched. A new U.S. administration may be able to advance a proposal to address the Security Council’s anachronistic makeup while perpetuating a council that Washington can work with. Few countries will be fully satisfied with proposals to leave most of the council’s structure (including the crucial five veto-wielding permanent seats) intact while creating about half a dozen semi-permanent members that serve renewable, four- to five-year terms. But Washington and many others could live with this rather modest version of reform. The United States may be well-served by helping to effectuate it rather than awaiting a time when new powers are back in a position to demand more.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has a tendency to describe rising powers in apocalyptic terms: In 2007, he said, “We’ve gone from this tremendous power that was respected all over the world to somewhat of a laughing stock. And all of a sudden, people are talking about China and India and other places.” This year, he repeated his prediction that a Chinese “economic tsunami” that will “engulf” the United States. His Democratic counterpart, Hillary Clinton, has looked at rising powers pragmatically, helping to engineer a heightened U.S. focus on Asia and forging regular strategic dialogues with Brazil, India, and South Africa. As secretary of state, though, she resisted calls to privilege an anointed few and instead worked to cultivate a broad portfolio of partners, including Indonesia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Kenya, Chile, Japan, and many others. This portfolio approach to alliances — investing broadly, with the knowledge that some of the energy expended will be wasted, that other relationships will prove indispensable, and that it is hard to know in advance which is which — acknowledges that country trajectories hinge not just on growth fundamentals and geopolitics, but also on individual leadership qualities and luck.
After 9/11, and once the long-term damage to the United States’ global standing began to recover from the 2003 Iraq War, foreign-policy thinkers started opining about what would come after what Charles Krauthammer once dubbed the country’s “unipolar moment” following the end of the Cold War. Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations projected a nonpolar era, with power widely dispersed. New America’s Sherle Schwenninger and others forecast a multipolar world. The prognostication-defying fate of the BRICS over the last decade, not to mention last week’s Brexit shocker, may point to a more unsettling prospect: an ambipolar world — ambivalent, ambiguous, ambient — where power is diffuse and national fortunes rise and fall to a rhythm too complex for any theory to adequately reflect.
So rather than betting heavily on specific winners and losers, the United States should diversify its diplomatic capital, recognizing that predicting the path of the world’s rising powers is an uncertain business at best.
Suzanne Nossel is executive director of the Pen American Center and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.