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BRICS, the US, and the General Assembly: Growing Together? Growing Apart?

Understanding how present day events fit into the sweep of history is always a challenge. The BRICS economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) have transformed from an acronym created by a Goldman Sachs executive to describe emerging markets to an exclusive club moving toward their sixth summit meeting in July. The recent announcement that they will form their own development bank raises questions about their broader geopolitical ambitions. Are they becoming a more harmonious bloc, and is this bloc becoming a growing opposition to the United States? Available data based on their voting patterns at the UN support the first of these claims, but not the second. While columnists write polemics describing how the White House has “lost” the BRICS, the evidence defies such simple categorizations.

Answering these two questions requires data on the foreign policy preferences of these countries. Scholars have been using information on voting patterns in the UN General Assembly as estimates of those preferences for the past 30 years. More recent methodological developments allow us to better move from voting records (whether or not countries agree on a discrete resolution) to mapping the extent to which countries’ voting records are similar. But we need to be careful in intuiting too much into simple measures. After all, not all resolutions in the General Assembly are the same. The agenda of the UN has also changed over time, meaning that inferring changes in state preferences can be difficult.

Using a sample of identical UN resolutions and a statistical technique that weights votes differentially, Bailey, Strezhnev, and Voeten have derived measures for state preferences from countries voting records on General Assembly resolutions. Readers are encouraged to consult the full paper for fuller discussions. Below I use the Bailey et al data to assess how the General Assembly voting record of the BRICS countries has changed over time. The starting point is 1994, which coincides with South Africa’s readmission to the UN. Below I plot the distance between each countries’ position and that of the United States over time. The measure reported on the Y-axis, then, is the degree of dissimilarity in each country’s position relative to that of the US. Larger values indicate more distance from the US position.



This line chart tells us two things. First, the five countries comprising the BRICS have, in a sense, become more harmonious over time. There has been a softening of Chinese and Indian positions vis-a-vis the US reflecting increasing similarity, and a hardening of Russian positions vis-a-vis the US, reflecting a growing dissimilarity. The differences between these five countries’ positions has narrowed over time. This shift preceded the first summit meetings, which of course is not surprising: they had to have something to talk about.

But when we ask whether these countries now pose a growing opposition group to the United States, these data suggest a different result. Accepting that these data end in 2012, there’s no trend suggesting a turn toward greater dissimilarity with the US. This is especially the case following the first BRICS summit in 2009. The mean value for similarity across these countries in 1993 (-3.15) is not much different than it was in 2012 (-3.19). What these data suggest is greater policy coordination with each other, but not strengthening opposition to the United States. These findings cannot incorporate recent events, but even recognizing these limits, they serve to temper alarmism about the geopolitical implications of the BRICS. We have always been working with countries with divergent interests in multilateral forums. The arrival of the BRICS, in a sense, then, is nothing new.

Martin S. Edwards

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