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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Change Blowing in From the 2nd World

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On Tuesday, the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India and China will be meeting in Yekaterinburg for the first summit of the BRIC powers. It remains unclear what the BRIC leaders have in common, and what -- if anything -- they expect to achieve in Yekaterinburg. But there is no doubt that the international system is in a critical condition, while political elites around the world are facing severe domestic challenges. Maybe, just maybe, the BRIC initiative will produce a new approach.

Since 2006, the BRIC foreign ministers have met three times on the edges of other international gatherings. They held their first formal meeting in Yekaterinburg in May 2008. This week will be the first summit of BRIC national leaders: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Presidents Hu Jintao of China, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Dmitry Medevedev. The BRIC summit will follow a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group led by China and Russia that promotes security coordination in Central Asia.

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Back in 2001, Goldman Sachs analyst Jim O'Neill coined the BRIC acronym to identify the four largest emerging market economies. The original goal was simply to interest Western companies in selling and investing in these growing consumer markets. The idea struck a broader chord, signaling that globalization was in the process of producing tectonic shifts in the world economy.

The 2008 financial crisis threw a harsh light on the gap between the growing interdependency of national economies and the inadequacy of international institutions to deal with global problems ranging from climate change to the volatility of the financial system. The United States proved unable or willing to lead international efforts to tackle these challenges. (Even if enlightened U.S. leadership had been forthcoming, the other states would have mistrusted U.S. goals and faced a strong incentive to either free ride or actively subvert U.S. initiatives.) Likewise, the European Union has not matured as an institution capable of filling the leadership gap. With the rejection of the constitution in 2005 and subsequent stalling of the Lisbon Treaty, its potential has been set back for several more years.

So, attention has shifted to what Parag Khanna has termed the "second world" of middle-sized powers. Maybe the larger members of the G20 -- Brazil, Russia, India and China -- can step up to the plate and provide the international leadership that is lacking from the United States, the EU and Japan. The BRIC countries account for close to half the world's population and one-fifth of the global economy.

The BRIC leaders see the group not only as a framework to promote economic growth but also potentially as a vehicle to assert their own political goals in a world that was has been increasingly dominated by the United States.

One problem, of course, is the striking asymmetries between the group's members. It includes two vibrant democracies and two authoritarian regimes; two resource-rich and two resource-poor economies. On any particular policy issue, the national interests are likely to pull in very different directions. What they have in common is that they have been excluded from the decision-making institutions that have shaped the global economic system.

Their first point of agreement seems to be to push for a greater role in the International Monetary Fund combined with a concerted effort to reduce the role of the dollar as the global reserve currency. This is fine as far as it goes, but the IMF's role in the latest financial crash was little more than a bystander, since private capital flows dwarf the funds at their disposal. The BRIC nations have not yet shown any great enthusiasm -- nor specific proposals -- for stepping up the regulation of international financial transactions.

Climate change looks a bit more promising, with talk of coordinating their positions in the run-up to the Copenhagen talks in December of this year. But this is likely to be coordination of a position that merely calls on the developed economies to dig deeper into their pockets -- coordination that will delay rather than facilitate a solution to this urgent problem. Russia is also pushing for a common position on energy policy that favors long-term contracts to try to rein in speculation and bring stability to oil prices.

These proposals, or more exactly, ideas about possible proposals, do not amount to much. But economic forces seem to be moving in the BRIC's direction. China and India continue to post strong growth, while the developed economies languish, and their appetite will revive commodity markets, pulling up Brazil and Russia. Sooner or later, one can expect these countries to make a concerted effort to craft international institutions that are more suited to their interests. Change can come from unexpected directions. The Hague Convention on international peace was convened by the Dutch and Russian governments in 1899, but it did set in motion half a century of efforts that eventually led to the United Nations and the Geneva Conventions. Despite its inauspicious beginnings, the BRIC initiative may prove to be an important step in the direction of broadening the base of international decision making.

Peter Rutland is a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown Connecticut and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.