BRICS and their Soft Power

In traditional terms, the significance of a country’s political power was assessed according to its military might: the nation with the largest army had the most power. But that logic was not always reflected in reality. The US lost the Vietnam War; the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan. In its first few years in Iraq, and despite its military victory in the original war, the US discovered the wisdom of Talleyrand’s adage that the one thing you cannot do with a bayonet is sit on it.

Enter soft power. The term was coined by Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye in 1990 to account for the influence a country wields, beyond its military (or “hard”) power. As Nye put it, a country’s power rests on its “ability to alter the behavior of others” to get what it wants, whether through coercion (sticks), payments (carrots), or attraction (soft power).

The US has been a haven for immigrants, and the land of the American Dream — the promise that anyone can be anything if they work hard enough. It is also the home of Boeing and Intel, Google and Apple, Microsoft and MTV, Hollywood and Disneyland, McDonald’s and Starbucks — in short, some of the most recognizable and influential brands and industries in the world.

The attractiveness of these assets, and of the American lifestyle that they represent, is that they enable the US to persuade, rather than compel, others to adopt its agenda. In this sense, soft power acts as both an alternative and a complement to hard power.

But there are limits to a country’s soft power — even America’s. In the wake of the US terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there was an outpouring of goodwill for the US. Then the country launched its War on Terror, in which it relied heavily on hard power. The instruments of that power — the Iraq invasion, indefinite detention of “enemy combatants” and other suspects at Guantánamo Bay prison, the Abu Ghraib scandal, revelations of CIA “black sites,” the killing of Iraqi civilians by private US security contractors — were not received well by the global public.

America’s soft-power assets were inadequate to compensate for the deficiencies of its hard-power approach. Fans of American culture were not prepared to overlook the excesses of Guantánamo. Using Microsoft Windows does not predispose you to accept torture by the country that produces it. America’s soft power declined sharply, demonstrating that how a country exercises its hard power affects how much soft power it can evoke.

Nye has argued that, in an information age, soft power often accrues to the country that tells the better story. The US has long been the “land of the better story.” It has a thirst for new ideas and a knack for innovation. But the story of America told in the recent election has deeply diminished the soft power the US evokes. Fear trumped hope.

But there are other soft power stories in other parts of the world to keep hope alive.  The roots of India’s soft power, for instance, run deep. India’s is a civilization that, over millennia, has offered refuge and, more important, religious and cultural freedom, to Jews, Parsis, several varieties of Christians, and Muslims. Jews came to the south-western Indian coast centuries before Christ, with the destruction by the Babylonians of their First Temple, and they knew no persecution on Indian soil until the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century to inflict it.

Christianity arrived on Indian soil with St. Thomas the Apostle (“Doubting Thomas”), who came to the Malabar coast some time before 52 A.D. and was welcomed on shore, or so oral legend has it, by a flute-playing Jewish girl.  He made many converts, so there are Indians today whose ancestors were Christian well before any Europeans discovered Christianity.  In Kerala, where Islam came through traders, travellers and missionaries rather than by the sword, the Zamorin of Calicut was so impressed by the seafaring skills of this community that he issued a decree obliging each fisherman’s family to bring up one son as a Muslim to man his all-Muslim navy!

The India where the wail of the Muslim muezzin routinely blends with the chant of mantras at the Hindu temple, and where the tinkling of church bells accompanies the Sikh gurudwara’s reading of verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, is an India that fully embraces the world. Indeed the British historian E.P. Thompson wrote that this heritage of diversity is what makes India “perhaps the most important country for the future of the world. All the convergent influences of the world run through this society…. There is not a thought that is being thought in the West or East that is not active in some Indian mind.”

That Indian mind has been shaped by remarkably diverse forces: ancient Hindu tradition, myth and scripture; the impact of Islam and Christianity; and two centuries of British colonial rule. The result is unique. Though there are some who think and speak of India as a Hindu country, Indian civilization today is an evolved hybrid. We cannot speak of Indian culture today without qawwali, the poetry of Ghalib, or for that matter the game of cricket, our de facto national sport. When an Indian dons “national dress” for a formal event, he wears a variant of the sherwani, which did not exist before the Muslim invasions of India.

We are a land of rich diversities: I have observed in the past that we are all minorities in India. This land imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens: you can be many things and one thing. You can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite and a good Indian all at once. So the idea of India is of one land embracing many. It is the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, culture, cuisine, conviction, costume and custom, and still rally around a democratic consensus. That consensus is around the simple principle that in a democracy you don’t really need to agree – except on the ground rules of how you will disagree.

Part of the reason India commands respect in the world is that it has survived all the stresses and strains that have beset it, and that led so many to predict its imminent disintegration, by maintaining consensus on how to manage without consensus. This is of particular relevance in the world of the 21st century, which will increasingly be a world in which the use of hard power carries with it the odium of mass global public disapproval, whereas the blossoming of soft power, which lends itself more easily to the information era, will constitute a country’s principal asset.

Soft power is not about conquering others, but about being yourself. Increasingly, countries are judged by the soft-power elements they project onto the global consciousness, either deliberately (through the export of cultural products, the cultivation of foreign publics or even international propaganda) or unwittingly (through the ways in which they are perceived as a result of news stories about them in the global mass media).

The BRICS, as a bloc, have the potential to acquire considerable clout in the global stage by virtue of their soft power narratives and to be the “next big story” for the world in the 21st century.  There was a time when BRICS was jokingly dismissed by some as the only world body invented by a merchant bank because the term “BRIC” was coined by Jim O’Neill, chief economist at Goldman Sachs, more than a decade ago, in reference to Brazil, Russia, China and India.

Hangzhou, China on September 04, 2016.

Hangzhou, China on September 04, 2016.

But if one person took the joke seriously, it was Russian President Vladimir Putin by suggesting in 2006 that the four countries meet regularly. The grouping was soon formalized and nobody has looked back since. South Africa joined in 2011, solidifying the BRICS’ presence across the global South, with only Russia in the North. Today, the five member states are taken increasingly seriously as a significant force in global affairs while a host of other countries scramble for its membership.

What is it that makes the BRICS attractive? Is there even sustained interest within the BRICS to stick together? What on earth could India’s fractious and rumbustious Lok Sabha, with its impassioned debates and disruptions, have in common with China’s decorous NPC, a rigorously controlled echo chamber for Communist Party decisions? Some have questioned whether BRICS possesses a strong enough basis for cooperation. Do we have enough of a common agenda to build on across the board?

BRICS, in its original embodiment, was identified as those nations whose rapidly growing economies were challenging the size and preponderance of the G7. Indeed, in the last 15 years, Brazil, Russia and India have caught up with the smallest G7 economy (Italy) in terms of nominal GDP, while China has overtaken Japan to become the second largest economy in the world. Together, the nominal GDP of BRICS countries is similar to that of the European Union (EU) or the United States (U.S.) and will in all likelihood overtake both in the not so far away future. By 2040 the BRICS will account for more of world GDP than the original G-7.

Last year I was part of the first parliamentary forum in Moscow of the BRICS countries, and I found myself in intense conversation with my counterpart, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC). Meanwhile, South African and Brazilian parliamentarians were swaying to Russian music before everyone went out with a guide to see the city’s sights. Before the meeting opened, many wondered whether the five parliaments could possibly find common ground. I can tell you from personal experience that that the parliamentarians all got along very well indeed, and it was clear to everyone there that we have great potential for dialogue and more.

But what is it that draws us close as nation states? As it happens, one major attribute all BRICS members share is their exclusion from the places they believe they deserve in the current world order. And being denied legitimate positions on the global stage by today’s dominant powers is proving to be a very strong glue that holds the grouping together. That may not look like enough of a basis for a credible new international system. But, with their economies on course to overtake those of the G-7 before 2050, looks can be deceiving.

The BRICS forum provides a platform for non-OECD leaders to discuss global challenges and co-ordinate their actions both within and outside existing global institutions. The five countries in the BRICS formation together account for 43 percent of the world’s population, 46 percent of the global labour force, 30 percent of the earth’s landmass and 25 percent of the world’s share of global gross domestic product (GDP). The share of world merchandise trade of the BRICS increased from 7 per cent in 2001 to 17 per cent last year. Add to this a new set of values that looks at establishing institutions of global governance on newer and fairer terms, and the BRICS may well pave the way ahead.

At the moment, at any rate, they are too big to be ignored in hard, economic terms, even as their soft power narrative evolves one step at a time. So China and India are seeking global influence commensurate with their economic weight; Brazil and South Africa are emerging as continental powerhouses, and hydrocarbon-fueled Russia is chafing at its status on the margins of the Western system. Not surprisingly, many think that the current system is ready for a makeover and the BRICS are at the forefront of this demand for change. That they have tremendous cultural resources, historical narratives of depth, and compelling soft power narratives aids the process.

But these countries face challenges not always addressed adequately by institutions that were designed by and remain dominated by the US-led west. For instance, the BRICS founded the New Development Bank (NDB), which promises to become a major regional development bank – the first one without OECD countries, that has the express purpose of addressing infrastructure needs of member states. NDB demonstrates that if we are not given our due at the existing global forums such as the World Bank and the UN, we can consider very realistically the option of bypassing them and planting the seeds of a new order.

BRICS is slowly emerging as an alternative forum that can stand up to the dominant worldview of established economies, the principal ones of which merely happen to still dominate the global system because they were the founders of the post Bretton Woods global order. The BRICS nations might not have mattered in 1945, but this is 2016 — to ignore the BRICS is to ignore the turn of history. The story of the BRICS is not merely one of a group of states claiming a greater share of global power—it is also an effort to change the very underlying principles on which the global order is founded.

In modifying the outdated rules that guaranteed the disproportionate power of the oligarchic conglomerates that these global governance institutions had become, the BRICS have achieved a rare success. In all other cases, existing economic powers resist ceding control and global governance largely remains in the hands of a few in a club that refuses to open its doors to new entrants, and indeed is reluctant even to open its windows to a breath of fresh air from elsewhere on the planet. But if the BRICS can weave a compelling soft power story, championing the right principles and laying out a vision for a new world in this century, keeping those doors and windows sealed becomes doubly difficult for the old guard of the world.

There are, of course, contentious issues even within the BRICS formation and that is largely due to differences in the development models of the five countries. Russia is the odd man out in the North; its soft power has suffered from the recent reassertion of its hard power in places like Ukraine and Syria. China has largely eliminated mass poverty at the expense of civil liberties and democracy, which doesn’t always make for a great soft power story; while the other three still struggle with existential questions of survival for a significant proportion of their populations. Some of these issues could even challenge the relevance of the whole project. While Brazil would like to liberalize agricultural trade, Russia and India oppose the financial transaction tax even as China defends its monetary policy. At the locus of it all is the currency war that rages not only between US and China but Brazil and China as well.

The future of BRICS, though, will be determined by the institutions it creates—by the manner in which it avoids the hard power errors made by soft power giants in the past. I have already referred to the New Development Bank, which in many ways is revolutionary. It is the first time that a group of five emerging economies, with varying political systems and structures, and which are geographically spread wide apart from each other, have taken up the mantle of development together. The terms on which they grow together and the very promise of being able to grow together will be the soft power triumph of the BRICS in the years ahead.

BRICS should ideally find their place within a framework of global structures that ensure all countries a fair deal in keeping with their size, capabilities and contributions to the international system. Bricks can be used to build an equitable world order, or be thrown to shatter the glass towers of the existing system. The same can be said of BRICS. But the journey we have started has the potential to create something great for the citizens of the 21st century.

Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general and former Indian Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs, is currently an MP for the Indian National Congress and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs. He is the author of Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.

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