“It’s time to bid farewell to the Brics,” wrote my FT colleague Philip Stephens this week. Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs economist who first coined the acronym which groups Brazil, Russia, India and China, seems to feel the same. His new book, also reviewed this week by Stefan Wagstyl, the FT’s emerging editor, is called ‘The Growth Map: Economic Opportunity in the BRICs and beyond‘.
The italicisation of “beyond” is my own. Nevertheless, as an intellectual grouping, the Bric term never sat that comfortably with anyone – except, perhaps, as an investment idea. The differences separating its four members are as many and as deep as their similarities. In fact, the only feature these countries really share is immense size. This was lucidly captured several years before Mr O’Neill by none other than George Kennan.
In his 1993 memoir “Around the Cragged Hill”, the brilliant cold war diplomat wrote how Brazil, Russia, India and China were all “monster countries” – just like his own, the United States. Kennan extracts some shrewd observations from this deceptively simple idea.
Monster countries, he noted, have “a certain lack of modesty in the national self-image” and a “feeling that the nation’s role in the world must be equivalent to its size, with the consequent relative tendency to overweening pretensions and ambitions..[and] a vulnerability to dreams of power and glory”.
He called this “the hubris of inordinate size”. It is also, perhaps, a more useful description of what the Bric nations really share, and the US too, than the more gimmicky acronym of even such a brilliant investment banker as Mr O’Neill. The US and Russia have certainly suffered from such hubris over the past decade or so. Brazil, China and India may in turn suffer the same.