Why a BRICS 'world bank' may be welcome

The so-called BRICS 'club' of nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa – plan to start a development bank to rival the World Bank. This challenge to the Western-driven liberal order relies to a large part on that order.

AP Photo
BRICS leaders, from left, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh , Chinese President Xi Jinping , South African President Jacob Zuma, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a group picture during their summit in Durban, South Africa March 27.

Five nations, which together have nearly half the world’s population, agreed Wednesday to set up a development bank that could easily rival the World Bank. If they succeed, it will mark a serious attempt by this group to redefine the values that humanity shares.

The “club” of the so-called BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa – was started only four years ago. The new bank, which aims to loan or grant $4.5 trillion to poor countries, would be their first concrete step to challenge many of the international norms put in place after World War II, largely by the United States.

They’ve long resented the residual influence of Western countries at many other international organizations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Such multilateral bodies have helped create a “liberal order” for the world, promoting free markets and democratic governance in the way they provide economic assistance or agree on rules for commerce.

Most of all, that order has spread the very notion of a global system based on values and not just national interests. They also stand for the idea that values can be universal.

Setting up a separate “world bank” may represent a symbolic blow to many of those ideas and practices. India’s trade minister, Anand Sharma, said the BRICS will “have a defining influence on the global order of this century.” Together, the group accounts for about a quarter of the world economy.

In a new book, “The End of Power,” author Moisés Naím of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace writes about how power within the geopolitical landscape is shifting from West to East and from North to South. The BRICS certainly represent that.

In the last 30 years, the world has also seen more democratic revolutions and more international interventions in sovereign countries to uphold human rights. Those trends worry Russia and China, the two BRICS members with the most money to dispense and whose leaders rule with an iron fist. Yet at the same time, the trend in attitudes worldwide reveals less tolerance for strong authority and more desire for freedom. A number of global opinion surveys back that up.

A similar attempt to challenge so-called Western values was made in the 1980s by a few nations in East Asia, such as Malaysia and Singapore. They claimed the region had a cultural bias toward communal rights and loyalty to authority. That campaign fizzled, especially when it was shown that some non-Asian countries also leaned that way.

Despite these concerns about the new bank, it should not be feared, but rather accommodated. It is, after all, helping humanity, or at least a portion of it where the BRICS want to have influence with what strings are attached to loans. The bank’s very existence plays to the idea of a free market of ideas, or a competition based on merit. And it will likely be run in a democratic way.

All that shows how much the current liberal order has become universal.

It would be too easy to divide the world into “the West and the rest.” The norms of the past half century aren’t rooted in the geography or ethnicity of Europe or the US. They have been shown to expand peace and prosperity. New global visions are welcomed if they can be just as effective.

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