Beyond the “G-8”

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When Germans hear about the „Big Four,“ they tend to think of the four victorious powers of World War II. But, the term will likely gain a new meaning: BRIC, standing for Brazil, Russia, India and China. All four powers are truly big in terms of population, territory and economic potential. And, along with the United States and the European Union, they also form the “premier league” of world politics. By Michael Liebig


Located in the Urals just at the geographic borderline between Europe and Asia, Yekaterinburg was the place where a series of extraordinary diplomatic meetings took place from May 13 to May16. On May 16, the foreign ministers of the “BRIC” group – Brazil, Russia, India, China – convened for their first ever “stand alone” conference in Russia’s third-largest city; earlier they had met at the margins of other diplomatic gatherings. The four were Celso Amorim from Brazil, Sergey Lavrov from Russia, Pranab Mukherjee from India, and Yang Jiechi from China. On May 15, Lavrov, Yang Jiechi and Mukherjee had already met, representing the “RIC Troika.” On May 13-14, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had been in Yekaterinburg meeting his Russian collegue Lavrov.

The coverage of the BRIC meeting in the German media was marginal. And the joint communique, released after the BRIC conference, at first glance doesn’t sound sensational: “The ministers emphasized that the BRIC dialogue is based on mutual trust and respect, common interests, identical or similar views on pressing problems of global development, and has bright prospects… The Ministers agreed that building a more democratic international system based on the rule of law and multilateralism is an imperative of our time. They pledged to work together and with other states to strengthen international security and stability, and ensure equal opportunities for development to all countries.”

But, opposite to the medias’ disinterest and the seemingly unspectacular BRIC communique, the diplomatic meetings in the Urals might be called “historic.” At a closer look, they are a clear signal how profoundly the world political scene has changed towards a multipolar global system, albeit not yet an “order.”

Calm Confidence

At the press conference following the BRIC meeting, Lavrov said that the BRIC countries “where more than half of the world’s population lives and which are becoming major centers of economic growth and political influence are simply obliged to closely cooperate and build common approaches in the world arena in the interest of international stability and ensuring the sustainability and manageability of world development… That is aptly supplemented by a broad convergence of our approaches to the problems of world affairs and of the further development of the system of international relations, bearing in mind that it should become more democratic, equitable and sustainable. I do not want to speculate how this natural process will evolve. But I dare say that our talks yesterday and today allow us to speak with confidence that the natural course of things will find reflection in organisational forms.”

This statement, expressing the calm self-confidence of the BRIC states, summarizes what was really happening in Yekaterinburg. One does not have to think in terms of “Kondratiev long waves” to recognize how much the economic and strategic weight of the four BRIC states has increased over the past decade. De facto, these “Big Four” do already belong to the world’s “premier league” – both in economic and political terms – along with the United States and the European Union.

For sure, the post-1975 format of the “G-7/G-8” as some kind of US-led global “directorate” has become unsustainable; it will inevitably be replaced by a new format, which will include China, India, and Brazil. And that’s what Lavrov said in Yekaterinburg. Of course, the USA will remain a world power, but one facing a decade of “structural adjustment” in economic and strategic terms. The EU will be a very special “power combination,” and Steinmeier’s remarks in Yekaterinburg gave certain indications what Germany’s and the EU’s role in a multipolar world might be.

A New System of International Relations

Brazil’s Amorim told Bloomberg ahead of the BRIC meeting in Yekatrinburg, that it is “recognition of the fact that we are four big economies with large influence in the world.” And, on Brazil’s initiative, it was decided that not only the foreign ministers, but also the BRIC economic and finance ministers will meet on a regular basis.

And, in obvious reference to the US-centered financial crisis and the recession there, Lavrov noted, “that the high rates of economic growth in our countries largely ensure the steady development of the world economy. Now, that there is much talk about reforming the prevailing global economic-financial architecture, we have something to discuss, especially protecting our common interests, including responsibility for the state of affairs in the present- day world (…) and coping with the topical world economic trends.”

When Yevgeny Primakov proposed the “strategic triangle” of Russia, China and India in 1998, he was not taken seriously in the West. And the same dismissive attitude prevailed when Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was founded in June 2001. In respect to BRIC, one should not make the same mistake. BRIC is still an “informal arrangement” among the four participating powers, but BRIC format will “leverage their positions” in world economic and political affairs, said Sujit Dutta of India’s Institut of Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

The emerging multipolar world system will likely not resemble the traditional setting of “power blocs.” Why? Unlike traditional, rigid politico-miliary pacts, already today the leading players in world politics and the world economy are crosslinked by multiple, multi-layered and overlapping economic-strategic “cooperation modules.”

Among such “modules” are the EU, BRIC, the SCO, ASEAN plus 3, Mercosur in Ibero-America, South-South cooperation like IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Even NATO is evolving into something that is quite different from what it used to be before 1989. And this listing of regional and other “modules” in international relations is by no means complete.

To be sure, the emerging system in international relations will not eliminate the “balance of power” mechanics. After all, many of the “cooperation modules” were constituted to counterbalance the USA strategically and economically during her short-lived world hegemony phase 1990-2005. Now the system of international relations has substantially changed by the global cluster of the new multi-leveled, multi-directional and intersecting relations within and between the “modules.” Does that mean that conflicts and wars will be less likely? Certainly not at the “lower” range of the conflict spectrum. Hopefully so at the “great war” end of the scale. Not the least because of the proliferation of nuclear weapons – the terrifying as paradoxical deterrent against “great wars.”

Steinmeier’s “Survey” of World Politics

Was it mere coincidence that German Foreign Minister Steinmeier was in Yekaterinburg just a day ahead of the RIC/BRIC meetings? Probably not. Besides his extensive talks with Lavrov, Steinmeier gave an unusual speech at the Yekatrinburg’s Urals University on May 13. He referred to Alexander von Humboldt’s visit to Yekatrinburg in 1829 and then said:

“Humboldt stood for the surveying of the world in the early 19th century… [A]t the beginning of the 21th century, we see a new surveying of the world, albeit in a different way. With the global division of labor and the globalisation of financial markets new horizons are opening up; and with them come enormous opportunities, but also new challenges and risks… Hundreds of millions of people, for the first time in history, have gotten the ability to generate wealth and welfare from their own strength… And what is true for the economy, is also true for politics: New power centers are emerging. In Asia, at the Arab Gulf, in Latin America, even in Africa. The weights are shifting in the world. Compared to the past century, ,many more states and regions will influence and shape the world… [T]he consequence is that we neend more international cooperation, crosslinking and interweavement. [The latter Verflechtung in German, one of Steinmeiers favourite terms] This necessitates a ‘new thinking’: Turning away power politics, ‘balance of power’ politics and unilaterally pushing through national interests… For Germany and the EU, Russia is and remains the indispensable partner for building the world of tomorrow. We need Russia as the partner for security and stability in Europe and far beyond Europe.”

In terms of bilateral relations, Steinmeier in Yekaterinburg presented the “strategic offer” of “partnership for modernisation” between Russia and Germany, encompassing industry, mittelstand, energy, science & technlogy and administration. This “partnership for modernisation,” he would discuss with Russian President Medvedev the next day in Moscow. It would also be at the center of Medvedev’s visit in Berlin in June, said Steinmeier, At the joint press conference with Steinmeier on May 14, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said: “Russian-German relations, to which we devoted the greater part of our talks, are improving further, have – without exaggeration – a strategic character, and influence the overall situation in Europe and also in the world as whole. As for Russia, with the new President and the new government, we will maintain absolute continuity in our cooperation [with Germany].”

Germany’s foreign policy orientation towards Russia, China and Central Asia has been traditionally strong. Over the past two years, significant efforts have been made to improve relations with India, in particular in the economic sphere. German-Indian relations had been traditionally very good, but during the last decade much of the earlier momentum was lost. Assuming this will change, there is another “new power center,” which lately has not been at the center of attention of German foreign policy: Latin America. On May 9th, just before Chancellor Angela Merkel left for her visits in Brazil, Peru, Columbia and Mexico, Foreign Minister Steinmeier declared before parliament: “South America has become a new focus for me… South America is a continent rising… The face of this continent has changed a lot more than many realize here in Germany… I call for a partnership, eye to eye, with South America” Promising words, indeed. And I would guess that the Brazilian foreign minister’s meeting with his Russian, Chinese and Indian collegues in Yekaterinburg would have helped to better appreciate the role of Ibero Amerca in the multipolar world system.

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