On the BRICS, the Security Council, and a New Global Order

An Interview with Professor Andrew Hurrell

Andrew Hurrell at an event of the Bologna Institute for Policy Research at SAIS Europe
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On the BRICS, the Security Council, and a New Global Order : An Interview with Professor Andrew Hurrell - The Editorial Staff

Your book, “On Global Order” tackles the changing landscape of world governance, and the role of emerging countries therein. Could you give an overview of how this new world paradigm will differ from our current system?

What I was trying to do in On Global Order was to say that there are at least two different ways of thinking about global governance and international institutions. One was very much the dominant one through the 1990s and into the 2000s. We can call it the global governance way of thinking or the global governance frame. It sets international relations within a world where the dominant concerns are to do with the management of globalization, tackling global problems, and so on.

The world of global governance, the world of international institutions, and the world of different forms of governance beyond the state was very much the orthodoxy of the 1990s and early 2000s. And what I wanted to do in On Global Order was to say, "Yes, it's all very well to talk about going beyond Westphalia, but there are important parts of international politics where older, more state-based, more power-based ways of thinking have never gone away." They didn't go away in the 1990s and the early 2000s. Instead, we took power for granted. Because of the dominance of the United States, we could park a lot of the “power” analysis on the side. So what I was doing between 2005, 2006, 2007, was to say; “Look, even at the height of thinking about global governance, older patterns of international society remain important.”

And as then we move forward and as we talk more and more about emerging powers, this older way of thinking has come back into firmer view. Not to replace, or not to push out the importance of governance and institutions, but really to sit alongside it, indeed often in tension with it. So one sort of view would say, “Well as we hit harder times, we return to a world of states and power,” or as Robert Kagan put it, the "return of history and the end of dreams." This the realist view: Oh well, all this nice institution stuff gets pushed aside and emerging powers, the rise of China proves that realism was right all along.

My view is actually that we live in a kind of hybrid system where the two things sit alongside each other. There is clearly a lot of governance, and a great deal of deep globalization. But we also see the return of important aspects of a more Westphalian geopolitical world. And this includes, hopefully, a potential return of the ‘power managing’ role of big powers. And it's that sort of duality that I think is really critical for understanding what emerging powers are doing, why there are tensions and problems caused by them, but also how they can be brought into a more effective system of global governance.

And so there's something interesting when we talk about those five BRICS countries. Russia has recently demonstrated a bent for expansionism, while India remains non-interventionist. China builds its military pressures in the South China sea while Brazil is still weakly armed. It’s easy to get fooled by the acronym BRICS into thinking that the countries share values and attitudes, but they are actually very unique nations with disparate tendencies. What, if anything, really cements the BRICS together?

It is quite easy to point to lots of things, as you say, that separate them: why there are tensions and conflicts between them, either actual or potential, as, for example, with China and India. It’s very easy to find lots of issues where they have very different views of the problem in question

Think of nuclear proliferation: China as an established nuclear power; India as a nuclear power that sits outside, rather uncomfortably, of the core regime; Brazil, that maintains a southern third world position on nuclear issues. So you can certainly find things that separate them. But in many ways the remarkable thing is that they come together at all. After all the BRICS was an idea that came from Goldman Sachs and had to do with business and emerging markets. It really had nothing at all to do with international politics. And yet it has achieved a certain life, a certain institutionalization through BRICS summits and so on.

So then we have to think more precisely about what it is. Well, it’s not an alliance; it’s not a kind of clear strong coalition that is kind of deployed strategically, directly, to counter, say, the power of the West. It is perhaps better seen as a caucus where a group of countries that see themselves as either on the margin or in in quite a few cases in opposition to dominant western countries can come together: trying to develop common positions or common ways at looking at the world; and then very gradually, embryonically, thinking of whether there are perhaps more concrete things that the BRICS might do together, such as trying to build institutions that represent, to a certain extent, an alternative to current arrangements or a kind of exit option.  In this regard there has obviously been a lot of attention focused on the BRICS development bank as an attempt to build an institution in the development world that represent, if not a challenge, a kind of alternative to the dominant Bretton Woods institutions.

We have seen that the BRICS status gives a certain amount of influence on the floor of the global stage, but on the regional level these countries still have balances to strike with their neighbors. How do you think this BRICS status affects neighboring countries? For example, India competing with China while considering Pakistan. How do they handle their regional relationship?

There is a very common way of thinking about being a big power, which is to say, if you want to be a big power you have to be a regional power as well. For many people, when you ask why Brazil and India should be part of the core of the system, the answer is obvious: because they're big regional powers.  Hence people talk about emerging and regional powers as a way of capturing what these countries are about. And clearly also within the countries themselves -- although by no means universally -- you find claims to regional predominance; and a sense that they have a natural right to be the dominant power in the region. Just look at a map, just look at the size, just look at how big they are. Russia in its near abroad is a very clear example, or the very powerful tradition within India sees itself as having a natural position of regional dominance.

And yet if you then actually ask: Do these countries really dominate their regions? Are they able to manage their regions? Are they able to provide regional public goods? The answer is often far more ambivalent. If you take the case of Brazil, the relationship is a complex one. Historically, Brazil didn't actually have all that much to do with South America. It was historically and linguistically separate; and in terms of both culture and economic flows, its élites looked overwhelmingly to Europe and then to the United States for their external relations. The turn to the region is something that we can date quite precisely at the end of the 1970s and into the early 1980s, when regional ties gradually become far stronger. This is most apparent with regional integration within Mercosur and the southern cone, but the expansion of economic ties takes placed elsewhere as well. So Brazil increasingly becomes part of the region, more embedded in the region and gradually — particularly in the early 2000s — there emerges both outside and inside Brazil an idea that Brazil should play a more proactive role... I don't want to say a hegemonic one, but certainly a leading role in the way the region develops.

But in reality acting on this idea turns out to be far more difficult. Other countries within a region (secondary states, as people call them, or follower states) often turn out not to be very keen on following. Brazil wants to have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. But second-tier states within the region are not at all obviously supportive of that. Equally, being engaged ever more in a region, especially within a region that has lots of problems, raises difficulties and imposes costs as well as benefits. So the overall picture - whether you're looking at Brazil in South America, at India in South Asia or at South Africa in southern Africa - is often one where being drawn into a region raises issues and difficulties, rather than naturally providing a platform for regional influence; let alone for translating that regional influence into global influence. And so it is in this way, I think, that we might want to contest the theory that if you want to be a great power, you have to be a regional power first.

Historically two of the most successful Great Powers were either not real regional powers or else were able to set the limits of their regional engagement. Britain was a great world power precisely because it was a semi-detached European power. It was able to limit what was often called its continental commitment; and as it became ever more deeply involved - and couldn't avoid becoming involved - in European affairs, this coincided with its decline. For the United States, you look at a map and say "well, obviously the United States is the dominant power in its Western Hemisphere"; but arguably the critical thing about the United States and Latin or South America is not that it can dominate the region, but rather that it can ignore the region. It can simply say: "at this moment the region is unimportant to us. We will not become very involved. We will not become enmeshed and embedded.” For example, at the moment, Mexico is falling in deep crisis. But the United States is able to pretty much ignore this. Contrast that with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union was a dominant regional power, created a kind of de facto empire and yet the complications and costs of trying to manage that empire were central to its decline.

So you might say that actually being able to limit — to have discretion — over the terms of how you become involved in a region is more important than being able to say “I'm the regionally dominant power, I manage the region, this is why I'm therefore a great power”. I think that relation between regional and great power is far more complicated than it appears at first sight. And it is not at all obvious that if you want to be a big emerging power you have to be a regional power first.

You had mentioned how Brazil is a regional power that has aspirations to be a globally dominant power. During your lecture last night you said that Brazil would like to be the first major power to reach this status through soft power means. As long as the traditional hard powers still exist and there are still large militaries everywhere, is it actually possible for Brazil to achieve this through soft power? Or is it that, as long as everyone else is carrying big sticks, speaking softly and carrying no stick won't exactly work?

I don't think it's fair to say that Brazil wants to be a globally dominant power. The primary line of argument and policy has been that Brazil wants to be a global player, plus, as I mentioned, that that there have been times and places where the idea that Brazil should also play a leading role in the region has come up.  Overwhelmingly the claim of successive governments has been that Brazil should be more than simply a regional power: it should be a global player and increase its influence and its connections globally; it should push the idea that the world is multipolar; that it’s more open; that it’s more diversified; and that the cooperation amongst the countries of the Global South should be a central part of the way in which this more plural, open world is constructed. That's the dominant line of what Brazil has sought to do, rather than power-seeking in any very direct sense. Indeed one of the puzzles about Brazil has been historically that it doesn't fit very well into the power seeking mode. It has sought less power than a straight realist analysis suggests ought to have happened.

Many think of the origins and explanations of this policy lie inside the country. As with other developing and emerging powers, the principal focus of concern is with domestic, economic and social development. It is not with power projection. The external correlate of this position is that foreign policy should directly serve development policy, rather than going down the great power road. That's been iterated under many different administrations, even under the Lula government where the idea of getting a bigger, a more visible role seemed very important. Even at this time and amidst the talk of playing a more assertive international role, both the President and many spokespeople laid emphasis on the developmentalist and development side of what Brazil was doing.

In so far as it has sought influence, Brazil has overwhelmingly done so through what we might call a soft power route. The current president, Dilma Rouseff, has suggested that Brazil might be the first major power to achieve greater influence in the world without hard traditional military resources. If this did make any sense it was because it seemed to connect closely with a particular international conjuncture where Brazil’s particular resources fitted in very well. If an aspect of soft power is the capacity to act effectively in international institutions or if you have what one commentator called "diplomatic GNP", then clearly this will depend on there being serious institutions and lots of global governance within which and around which you can play such a role. You can then say, for example:  “We are going to play a brokering role in negotiations on climate change, or on trade, or on human rights. We are going to seek to build bridges between the Global North and the Global South. Or we are going to try to address the legitimacy problems of global governance.” So there you have a clear situation where the type of power that a country has fits with how the international system operates.

But, as I suggested, if the we think about global politics is a hybrid mixture of globalization on the one hand and facing up to more geopolitical issues and problems on the other, then this will change the situation. Then the dilemma of what sort of power you have and need becomes much shaper. If it’s true that the geopolitical situation is encouraging major powers to play a more power-based role once more, then that poses a real dilemma for a country like Brazil and must lead us to question the idea that Brazil might be the first power to achieve broader status without having military power. That's a real question. And it is striking that, even inside Brazil, the question of hard power has become more prominent. Twenty years ago it was very difficult to have a serious discussion in Brazil about direct military power – and at the official level it is still something that Brazil is not interested in. And yet that question is now there in a much more direct form. Of course, how it plays out will really not depend just on Brazil. It will very much depend on the way the world goes and on the balance between these different strands of international politics.

You mentioned the idea of the plural, more open world, and how Brazil's approach measures quite nicely with the international order. Do you think the kind of institutions that we have in place adequately reflect that balance, or do you think structures such the UN need to be overhauled to allow the rise of countries like Brazil, with their softer approach?

Well it's a double-sided problem for emerging powers. As emerging but still relatively weaker states in the international system, their preference is for a world of institutions and for a world in which institutions focus less on direct hard power. As such a country you need international institutions to project your own interests but also to protect against the power of more dominant states - to tie big states down within international institutions.

So there's a dominant concern for sustaining and developing strong institutions.  We ask the perennial question: “Are emerging countries challenging global order and wanting to overhaul it?” But the answer reveals that in many ways, rising powers are actually strong defenders of existing institutions. Of course, at the same time, they want those institutions to be revised and reformed, and particularly they obviously want those institutions to give them a greater say.

The problem, of course, is that many existing institutions are not in very good shape. We are going through a period in which, in almost every case and region, institutions are coming under real strain. They're stymied, as in the case of the World Trade Organization. The BRICS, particularly Brazil and India, have achieved a significantly greater role and status within trade negotiations, but, at the same time, it's become harder to generate successful negotiations. Then you're faced, of course, with the question of alternative options.  

One of the things that makes you a really Great Power in international relations is the capacity either to ‘go it alone’ or the capacity to choose between institutions: forum shopping as people call it. So if you don't get what you want in one institution or in one institutional setting, you create, or exploit, or develop an alternative institutional setting. And we see that very clearly with the push on the part of the United States to negotiate deeper trade agreements across the Atlantic and the Pacific.  

This example is a very classic instance of a major power using the multiplicity of institutions to maximize its leverage and its power. It's also a case that, from the side of emerging powers, causes real dilemmas. Even if you are not part of a new institution – say a US-EU economic pact, many of the ground rules of the global economy are going to be set within this new forum and will apply to you as well. I think the issue of institutions for emerging powers is very much this ambivalent one.  You have a dominant preference for institutions being there, and at the same time you want them to be reformed, so you want to push back. But you can't push too hard, you can't veto and block too much, because then you then risk pushing other states away from those institutions and undermining your own position. Now it’s true that you too may have some exit options. As we have mentioned, the BRICS development bank is in some sense potentially heading in that direction. But this is still quite marginal in the bigger picture of how global governance actually works.  

Talking about institutions and shaping institutions to allow for the BRICS, if you were in charge of reforming the UN Security Council, what do you think it should look like?  Which powers should be on that council with the veto power?

Well the critical thing is in your last statement about the veto power. There are two questions, whether membership should be expanded and whether permanent membership should be expanded on the back of clear veto power.  We're in a situation where I think almost everyone agrees that we have to have reform of membership. It is sort of impossible to think of an institution like the Security Council carrying on existence with a membership that grew up in the way that it did.  

The question, then, will come down to what is bound to be a really complex, and very difficult set of negotiations, about exactly who should be included, and exactly how.  I don't think there is any kind of clear answer. All sorts of people have tried to play the game of membership by looking at all the countries of the world and trying to rank them and trying to measure them. Saying, “Well countries that meet these precise criteria ought to be permanent members of the UNSC,” -- either because of their power, which tends to be the dominant line of thinking, or because of their regional status. That, again, has several components. One is their capacity to be a regional manager. Another is in their capacity to be a regional representative, because of the idea that the members of the Security Council should in some way represent different regions of the world.  A third criterion lies in their capacity to contribute directly to the work and functions of the Security Council. Those are broadly the three criteria that, almost everybody agrees on in theory, ought to sort of drive negotiations. You can look at the world and you can play with those criteria and you can then say, "Well here is the list, these countries ought to be members." That happens both in practice and it happens, if you like, in more theoretical discussions.  

At the same time, we've also had a long-running debate around Security Council reform that has to do with the relationship between effectiveness and legitimacy. You need more countries for legitimacy, but you can't have too many countries because then you create something that is totally ineffective. And, at the end of the day, when the circle closes, effectiveness is itself a part of legitimacy. If you have an institution that does not and cannot work, then it is to be seen as illegitimate. So that then poses a limit on the numbers of countries. Whether that limit is 22, 25, whatever it may be, you have a real problem. In the same way we have had a similar issue with discussions about expanding the G7/8 into the G20. It's a question of what the form and the size that actually allows effective negotiations and effective agreements. Many negotiation theorists often talk about 12 to 14 being the maximum number where you can maintain close cohesion and potentially reach agreement.

So in the case of the United Nations you have to look at all those things. I personally think that it probably will happen, but not necessarily anytime soon. But when and if it does, it won't be on the basis of any sort of rational calculation.  Who will actually be included will follow from a series of political bargains, with countries supporting other countries and putting together various coalition and likely producing outcomes that will look odd. But then, in a sense, lots of outcomes in institutions often look odd; and I think this won't be any exception.

As a final question, it seems like even as we are talking about the BRICS there are even new acronyms being created for the next set of countries. There's talk of the MINT countries, and of the emerging “Next 11.” What do you think will be the status of these countries in the coming years, and will we have an exactly parallel conversation as these countries emerge even more?

I think that there are two ways of looking at power diffusion. One is about power moving from one group of countries to another group of countries -- and they might be the BRICS or they might be, as you say, the next kind of grouping down, the MINTS or whoever. The other way of looking at power diffusion is in terms of a sort of broader process whereby societies, or groups within societies, maybe even individuals as well, become more mobilized and empowered. Obviously that sort of power diffusion is very much linked with changes in information and technology and in the way that knowledge and ideas flow across the world.

And so we're seeing both these kinds of power diffusion. They are related to each other, but they often cut across each other. One part of the story we tell now, and we might tell in the future, will be about who are the next group of countries to become more visible, more important –although we have to keep remembering to ask: “important for what?” Jim O'Neill was talking about the BRICS in terms of emerging markets. He was talking about countries that will be important for the way that investors and traders and players in the global economy think about the places that matter. He wasn't talking in any direct sense about countries that will have more political or geopolitical influence.  This is something very different. You can be an important emerging market without this having any necessary implications for your geopolitical or your political status in the world.  In terms of the two types of power diffusion, I very much see both of these processes happening. But the broader power diffusion towards society is the more important. The sort of longer term trend is away from the capacity of all centralized points of authority, including especially states, to be able to control their own societies and their own regional environments.

Power is diffusing in this broader sense, and I think that's the dominant line that we have to come to terms with. And it will certainly mean that the capacity of a small group of Western states and societies to dominate the world is likely to continue to decline. But it will also mean that the idea that there are new centres of power -- regional powers, emerging powers -- that can easily dominate their own region and that can play the traditional power political game will also come under increasing strain. So I think it's very much the tension between those two models of power diffusion that will become ever more important in how we think about international relations.

Andrew Hurrell is Montague Burton Professor of International Relations and a Fellow of Balliol College at the University of Oxford. His research interests include theories of international relations focusing on international law and institutions, global governance, history of international relations thought and history of international law. His book “On Global Order: Power, Values, and the Constitution of International Society” won the International Studies Association for Best Book in the field of International Relations in 2009.