Testing the BRICs: Key to World Order

BRIC heads of state, June 2009

Are the BRICs and other emerging powers of the G-20 ready for Prime Time? To a considerable degree, global stability and prosperity over the coming decades may depend on the answer to that question.

Why? We are in a gradual historic transition where the locus of the world economy is shifting broadly from West to East, and change in the global order is reflecting a diffusion of power with the emergence of new major and middle powers. The elevation of the G-20 to the new High Table, superceding the G-8, is an important political symbol of change in the pecking order of world affairs. It underscores the rise of Rest, beginning to rebalance a Western-centric world order, particularly with the emergence of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and also with pivotal emerging middle powers (e.g. Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, Turkey and South Africa).

But will they assume the global responsibilities – and uphold current norms – that go with their newfound stature, or will they try to have it both ways and freeride or seek to alter the Western-shaped economic and political norms?

There is also some question about the emerging role of the G-20. So far, it has replaced the G-8 in regard to financial matters. But on global security and other transnational issues, what role will it play? For what range of global issues will the G-20 become the fulcrum of global  decision-making and consensus building?

That is a key test of the logic of the G-20 and probably is a question that we will not be able to definitively answer for a decade or more. Why? For several reasons, starting with the reality that all but Russia are also still developing countries, and despite their desire for a seat at the Big Table, they often are quick to point this out when it is a question of assuming the responsibilities that go along with their newfound status as emerging powers. They are, in short, still works in progress, and in the near future their behavior is likely to be ambiguous.

UN as Metaphor

One current example is BRIC adjusting shares of the UN budget to reflect new realities. The percentage a country is assessed for the UN budget is based on a formula taking into account GNP, population debt burden and other factors approximating a country’s ability to pay.

But the system for designating budget shares was created more than half a century ago and requires a consensus of all 192 UN members to change. The U.S. share is 22%, a tad under its proportion of world GNP (though U.S. support for peacekeeping and other voluntary contributions more than offsets any legitimate reason for griping by other UN members). According to a recent New York Times analysis, Brazil and Russia’s share are to rise to 1.6% of the budget. India, with 0.53%, pays only a bit more than Ireland, despite a much larger economy, and China pays 2.7%, less than Canada. The BRICS are scheduled for increases – Brazil by 80%, Russia by 138%, India’s by 16% and China’s by 20%.

But these figures are all relative. China’s contribution to the UN budget, for example, is increasing from 2.7% to 3.2%, and its contribution to the UN Peacekeeping budget rose to 3.94% from 3.15%. All told, the Chinese, according to Chinese TV, will reach $400 million, making it the UN ‘s 8th largest contributor. In contrast, Japan, which China is expected to soon overtake as the world’s 2nd largest economy, pays 16.62% of both the UN general budget and peacekeeping budget.

This underscores one of the many flaws of the UN system: The top fifteen contributors to the UN are assessed a combined 85% of the UN budget and 89.5% of the peacekeeping budget. (The U.S. is assessed 22% of the UN operating budget and 26% of the peacekeeping budget, roughly on par with the U.S. percentage of global GDP.) The 128 lesser assess countries, some two-thirds of the General Assembly pay less than 1% of the UN budget and 0.29% of the peacekeeping budget, as Brett Schaefer of the Heritage Foundation points out.

Yet deciding how to spend the UN budget is based on one-country, one vote. This creates not only a free-rider problem, but also the reality that the majority who contribute little can decide on the budget no matter how loudly the handful of countries that pay most of the bills protest. Schaefer suggests that current practices be changed so that Permanent UN Security Council members pay a 5% minimum to the UN budget and those elected to two-year terms pay at least 1% during their tenure. But then there is the circular problem of how would one get the votes to change the rules?

Who Ya Gonna Call?

The UN budget, however, is only one small example of the issue of global burden-sharing. Major powers historically provide the lion’s share of global public goods. Since World War II, for example, the U.S. has been the leading force in shaping global institutions like the World Bank and IMF; the Non-proliferation regime; and the GATT and its successor, the WTO, in establishing an open global trading system. When there is a crisis – be it a natural disaster like a tsunami, a need to broker peace in the Middle East, instability and aggression in the Balkans or lately in Haiti – the U.S. and its allies have tended to be the world’s 911 number to call. U.S. actions in such situations are above and beyond its UN contributions.

The Obama administration has often pointed out that the nature of transnational problems is such that no one country can solve them. This is the case whether the issue is dealing with climate change, global financial stability, nuclear proliferation, global refugees or natural disasters.

The challenge is how to reform the world system so that emerging economies take on a proportionate share of responsibility. Some of this is occurring in erratic ways. In the case of anti-piracy efforts in the Horn of Africa, for example, countries like China and India have voluntarily sent naval forces to the ad hoc response. Brazil trying to carve out a prominent role in the global effort to help Haiti may be another. It would not be surprising if such a pattern of helter-skelter ad hoc responsibility sharing unfolds in the decades ahead. But can the G-20 bring more of a semblance of considered proportionate responsibility sharing to this phenomenon?

Robert Manning is a senior advisor to the Atlantic Council.  The views expressed here are solely his own, not those of any U.S. government agency.  AP Photo.

Image: BRIC.jpg