By David Rothkopf
While NATO bickers over strategy in Libya, BRIC leaders have gathered in Sanya, China, to demonstrate the growing strength of an alternative grouping that has among its principle selling points the fact that it is neither Western nor U.S.-dominated. To compare the world's most potent and enduring military alliance with a loose affiliation of emerging powers that are divided by perhaps more issues than unite them is clearly comparing apples and lychee nuts or guarana seeds, but the juxtaposition of the two events does offer yet another whiff of how the institutions and ideas of the 20th century are giving way to those of the 21st.
In Libya, the potent alliance that "won" the Cold War is coming apart at the seams fighting over strategy, tactics, and objectives in an optional, low-grade intervention in a largely irrelevant country. The U.S. secretary of state is forced to make public pleas for the bumptious commanders of the coalition to get their acts together, while on the ground the weakened forces of the isolated Muammar al-Qaddafi seem to be holding the megapower onslaught at bay. It is too poignant a reminder that intangibles like knowing what you're fighting for and political will are as important to any battle as the hardware being brought to bear by each side on the other.
In Sanya, Brazil, Russia, India, and the hosts welcomed South Africa into their little club, and if they achieved little else they underscored that they are taking coordination among their countries very seriously and seeking to deepen their ties. However, they did go further and offered a broad agenda including more hints that they will push for alternatives to the dollar-dominated global monetary system that we currently have.
Of course, the BRICs summit resonates with the Libya follies because the original four BRICs voted as a bloc to abstain during the Security Council vote on the imposition of the no-fly zone in Libya and within days of its initiation were publicly speaking out against it. That they were joined in the vote by Europe's most powerful country, Germany, also sent a message that the opposition to the initiative was meaningful and suggested that future votes in international institutions might see the BRICs (or the BRICS … if the final "S" is for South Africa) emerge at the core of a potent new alternative coalition to the traditional Western or developed powers.
NATO is at a watershed. The Libya "moment," which President Obama and others wanted to offer up as an example of a new robust, American-led multilateralism, is quickly morphing into a demonstration of NATO's weaknesses. America wants to be accorded the respect of being the leader but is hamstrung by domestic problems and a lack of strategic clarity. France and Britain seem willing to pick up the slack but others won't follow. Germany seems increasingly uncomfortable with the burdens placed on it as Europe's de facto leading power. The military alliance is overly dependent on U.S. power. There are too many chefs. There is not enough overall mission clarity.
Meanwhile, even while the BRICS are a long, long way from being politically cohesive, they are rent with divisions over important issues, and they have zero aspirations to anything as formal or as action-oriented as an alliance, they do have a few things going for them that make them powerful. For one thing, if you didn't want to call them "the BRICS," you might simply call them "the majority." Because taken together, these five countries nearly total half the planet's people, and if you add in the other countries that have much greater affinities with their views than they do with the Western alliance, it becomes by far the bulk of the world's population. The Atlantic alliance may be where much of the money and power has been. The "BRICS Plus" represents not only the bulk of the world's people and resources but also where the fastest growth is.
Does this matter if even the BRICs themselves are hardly a coherent operating unit? Well, of course, because as the Libya vote hinted, they are an emerging international grouping of significance. Gradually, international institutions -- beginning with the IMF -- are being reshaped to reflect their ascendancy. The G-20 contains roughly as many countries more naturally aligned with BRIC views as with the powers of the 20th century. And more changes are in store. For example, the U.N. Security Council will be reordered to reflect the growing importance of rising powers. It's a good example because it illustrates one of the sticking points of the transition that is taking place … and the sticking point in turn illustrates why the transition will ultimately happen.
The United States is acting as though it was in a position to choose which major players deserved a seat at the remade head table of global society. It blesses the candidacy of India, say, for permanent U.N. Security Council membership, but taunts Brazil with its withholding of an explicit endorsement. But of course, America does not determine which are the major rising powers of the world; history has done that. And by continuing to act arbitrarily and highhandedly America illustrates precisely why the rest of the world is looking for an alternative -- a geopolitical force that breaks free of the fading realities of the post-World War II/Cold War world.
he BRICS gather to say we are powers in our own right and do not require the blessing of others. They vote their interests in the U.N. without apology. They seek to find solutions to problems like Iranian nukes on their own when they find the approaches of the U.S.-led alliance lacking. They will certainly continue to push for changes to the international monetary system that reduce the centrality of the dollar. They may be wrong. They may be ineffective. But they see that in this particular transition, it is they who are "on the side of history." They do not have to ask America's permission to lead … and how America and our old allies react to that reality will go a long way to determining just how the geopolitics of the next several decades will play out.