When Barack Obama took office, he pledged a new overture to the world’s emerging powers. Today each of the Brics – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – is at loggerheads with America, or worse. Last month four of the five abstained in a UN vote condemning the fifth’s annexation of Crimea. Next month India is likely to elect as its new leader Narendra Modi, who says he has “no interest in visiting America other than to attend the UN in New York”. As the world’s largest democracy, and America’s most natural ally among the emerging powers, India’s is a troubling weathervane. How on earth did Mr Obama lose the Brics?
Some of it was unavoidable. Early in his first term Mr Obama called for a “reset” of US relations with Russia. His overture was warmly received by Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia’s president, who was considerably less anti-western than his predecessor, Vladimir Putin. Unfortunately for Mr Obama, Ukraine, Pussy Riot and many others, Mr Putin repossessed the presidency. The US president can hardly be blamed for that. Things have gone downhill since then.
The trajectory of US relations with China has also been in the wrong direction. Within his first year in office, Mr Obama made his much-feted “G2” visit to China, in which he offered Beijing a global partnership to solve the world’s big problems, from climate change to financial imbalances. Alas, the Chinese did not feel ready to tackle problems on a global level that they were still struggling with at home. Mr Obama was rudely spurned by his hosts.
The following year he replaced his G2 charm offensive with a rhetorical “pivot to Asia”. Washington presented it as a long overdue rebalancing to a rising Asia Pacific region but it was seen by Beijing – with some justification – as a thinly veiled US attempt to shore up its military alliances with China’s neighbours.
This week Mr Obama will visit Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia – the first three of which are treaty allies of the US. It is his first visit to Asia in two years. China is not on the itinerary. Meanwhile, the anti-US rhetoric coming from Beijing is the toughest in years.
The fallout with Brazil is more specific. Mr Obama made a big play in 2009 to woo the main Latin American countries – even attending the summit of the Organisation of American States in Trinidad. But relations with Brazil took a nosedive after Edward Snowden’s leaks about the National Security Agency last year. Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president, cancelled a state visit to Washington last October in protest at US spying. It did not help that Mr Obama promised only Americans – but not foreigners – that the NSA was not tapping them. US-Brazil relations are now in a deep freeze.
The same is true of India – again, a far cry from Mr Obama’s warm opening act with Manmohan Singh, India’s outgoing prime minister. Mr Singh, whom Mr Obama once described as his “guru”, was given Mr Obama’s first state dinner at the White House in 2009. That goodwill has evaporated. Last month Nancy Powell, the US ambassador to India, resigned, having been treated virtually as a persona non grata in New Delhi since she took the job. It remains to be seen what the Modi effect will be. The fact that he is still denied a visa to visit the US – stemming from the gruesome 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom – would obviously need to be fixed.
Among the Brics only South Africa has what could be described as normal relations with the US. But even here, they are hardly close. If South Africa had spent half as much time wooing the US as it did lobbying to join the Bric club (and thereby adding the S to the acronym), things might be different. Nobody batted an eyelid when it joined the rest in refusing to censor Russia over Crimea.
Each of these deteriorating relationships has specific narratives. But there are two larger themes linking them together. First, the world is adjusting to declining US power. America retains by far the world’s largest military force. But it gets a little less so each year. China’s defence budget continues to grow by double digits while that of the US is falling in real terms. The US miscalculated badly in its 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Mr Obama’s latest defence budget would preclude another Iraq-style invasion. That, of course, is a good thing. But other observers, including those who are beginning to resist American power around the world, are adjusting their behaviour. They see a US that is increasingly unwilling to project global force – except using remote control. Meanwhile, the Brics’ economic growth rates are slowing. But they are still growing faster than the US, and are likely to continue to do so. The economic centre of gravity will continue to shift their way.
Second, the US public is tiring of its country’s global responsibilities. Mr Obama’s real pivot is not to Asia but to America. In this he is only taking his cue from domestic sentiment. Yet his pivot to home is not going too well either. As Lawrence Summers, the former US Treasury secretary, recently observed, the US has two parties, one of which, the Democrats, refuses to endorse any kind of trade deal; the other of which, the Republicans, appears to detest all international institutions. Neither of the two parties listens to what Mr Obama wants. If you believe the television ratings, the US public long ago tuned out from what he says.
Little surprise, then, that the Brics are getting into the habit of talking among themselves.