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Are emerging powers ready to assume responsibility?

October 15, 2010

Asking for more responsibility for emerging powers in international decision-making bodies has been so popular that no Brazilian, Chinese or Indian diplomat can start a speech without decrying that global governance remains dominated by established Western nations, and pointing out that international institutions need to democratize to increase their legitimacy and effectiveness in tackling global challenges. They certainly have a point. Discussing measures to curb climate change,  nuclear proliferation, and to assure international financial stability without Brazil, India and China is a fairly useless exercise. Worse, the terribly outdated G8 summit (see my article in the Mail and Guardian), where an economically shaken America, and aging Europe and a declining Russia gather, but where the rising China, India and Brazil are excluded, implicitly exonerates the latter three from assuming any serious responsibility in tackling the world’s most complex challenges.

This is all the more worrisome because China, India and Brazil are key players with regards to virtually every single global challenge. Take poverty. Over the past thirty years, China has lifted 400 million people out of poverty- the largest poverty reduction in the history of mankind. In India, a staggering 300 million people remain poor, more than on the entire African continent, yet this number will fall quickly as India modernizes. In Brazil, large scale cash-transfer programs to parents dependent on their children’s regular school attendance, paired with unprecedented economic growth, has cut the number of the poor to 40 million. In short, the three understand a lot about poverty and how to fight it. All three are so-called “emerging donors”, applying successful projects in their region and in Africa, where they are ever more prominent. President Obama would therefore be well-advised end an anachronistic tradition of having an American lead the World Bank. Rather, he should offer the World Bank Presidency to a skilled technocrat from one of these emerging powerhouses.

Climate change is no different. Brazil, India and China are probably the three key players in the battle against global warming. As China and India grow, and as their middle classes will buy refrigerators and cars, their environmental impact on the planet is too vast to comprehend. If China continues to grow at current rates, its oil consumption alone will surpass, in a few decades, the world’s current consumption. India lags China by a decade or so, but both are bound to become the world’s prime polluters. China has already surpassed the United States as the world’s top carbon emitter. Brazil, on the other hand, seems destined to offer solutions and assume global leadership on climate change. Among the world’s large economies, it is by far the cleanest one. Hydropower produces the majority of Brazil’s electricity, and it is the world’s largest producer of sugar cane-based ethanol, a key product to reduce China’s and India’s dependence on oil. In addition, Brazil is home to the Amazon, the largest carbon sink in the world, and it is the pioneer in developing programs to incentivize the forest’s inhabitants to preserve it.

Furthermore, Brazil, China and India are indispensable nations in the battle against nuclear proliferation. International efforts to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions have shown that the United States is no longer able to succeed without the help of the three emerging giants. Both China and India have significant economic interests in Iran, so imposing sanctions comes at a lot higher cost to them than to America. Brazil, more ideologically motivated, actively engaged with Iran to negotiate a separate deal. Brazil was not particularly interested in Iran’s plight; rather, it sought to make a broader argument that current structures of global governance are unjust. Brazil’s vote against sanctions in the UN Security Council severely reduced the measures’ largely symbolic value.

Finally, the three rising powers are indispensable for international efforts to promote democracy and defend human rights, an issue complicated by China’s human rights violations at home. America can no longer seriously pressure any government without Beijing’s approval. China’s, India’s and Brazil’s economies are so large by now that any dictatorship in the world can easily weather sanctions imposed by Europe and the United States- they simply strengthen ties to the emerging powers. Khartoum’s brand new skyscrapers and Mugabe’s ability to hold on to power in Zimbabwe are the ultimate proof that it is possible to get by without America. This points to a more fundamental question. Rising powers may seek more voting rights in today’s international institutions, but in how far are they willing to provide global public goods? Ranting against American hegemony is politically convenient and sometimes even justified. Yet one cannot deny that the United States has also played, and continues to play, a crucial role as the ultimate provider of global public goods- most importantly, in the security realm. As America will be increasingly less capable of providing global order, rising must step up to the plate and articulate a clearer vision of how and where they will not merely play to their domestic audiences, but assume global leadership. Brazil’s and India’s decision to turn into IMF lenders is a good start. The UN’s climate conference in Mexico in December may be another platform for rising powers to team up, provide thought leadership, and present a compelling proposal to underline their ambitions.

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