WEEKEND READ: Rising powers

Three events occurred this week in Brazil, India and Russia that will shape the global political scene for the next decade. And none had anything to do with the US financial crisis.


Three completely disconnected events occurred this week that will weave together the tapestry of the next decade – not including the $700 billion Wall Street bailout or the US vice presidential candidate debate.

First, Brazil on October 1 made its short list of finalists to supply it with modern jet fighters as part of a large defense modernization program. The final list included the French Dassault Rafale, the Swedish Saab Gripen NG and the American Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. By any measure, Brazil is a rapidly rising power, and this has nothing to do with the fact that it has discovered an obscene amount of oil in its offshore regions in the past year. Brazil’s traditional competitors – Argentina and Venezuela – are in the process of mismanaged economic collapse, leaving Brazil with no competitors in its neighbourhood.

Of course, it takes more than incompetent neighbours to make one a regional hegemon. And in many ways – with its ridiculous labour laws, horrible corruption, runaway crime and rampant poverty – Brazil is its own most-limiting factor.
But one of the ways in which Brazil can start acting like a real country – and thus a regional hegemon – is to develop a military with real power projection capabilities. Setting aside a few billion dollars for the purchase and integration of jet fighters is an excellent way to turn potential into reality. The Brazilian moment has not yet arrived, but it may finally be on the horizon.

More notable than what designs made Brazil’s final cut is the design that failed to: Russia’s Sukhoi Su-35.

Brazil is emerging on the world stage. The decisions it makes now will shape its policy – and thus that of the rest of the world – for decades to come. Brazil deliberately chose to go with a Western system for its airpower.

Of the potential options, the Sukhoi was the only system that would have given Brazil the option of challenging US military primacy (which is not to say that there are not solid technical and military reasons why Brazil did not choose the Russian system). The provider of a system can always choose to halt parts, supplies and support should the buyer adopt policies hostile to the supplier (ask the Venezuelans – they’ve got F-16s). American relations with France and Sweden do not need to be love-filled – and right now they are at their warmest in decades – for Washington to be able to pressure them into not supplying offensive products to a rival in it’s own backyard.

Put simply, rising Brazil has either made a conscious decision to pursue a modernisation program that will put it at American mercy or made a conscious decision to not adopt a hostile attitude toward the United States. That does not necessarily mean an alliance is inevitable or even probable, but it does mean that a potential clash of interests has moved from the possible to the rather unlikely.

The second major event occurred in Washington, where the US Senate gave final approval to a US-Indian agreement allowing full nuclear trade between the two states. Until now, India had languished under nuclear sanctions explicitly designed to retard New Delhi’s nuclear weapons and electricity programs.

India too is an emerging power, and, like Brazil, it has been its own worst enemy for decades: over-population and perhaps the world’s best government at stifling innovation and development combined with a particularly vibrant streak of anti-Americanism that, 20 years ago, stopped generating Soviet subsidies for New Delhi. The United States has always viewed India as a potential ally: it is a large market, is democratic, is a rival of China and is sufficiently hedged in by geography to never really be a long-term threat to American interests.

But there has always been the Pakistani problem. During the Cold War, the United States needed Pakistan as a means of securing China in de facto alliance against the Soviet Union. In the jihadist era, the United States needed Pakistan to help fight the Afghan war. No matter how much Washington may have wanted India as an ally for the long haul, it needed Pakistan in the short run.

Well, not anymore. Evolutions in the Afghan war are leading the United States toward considering Pakistan a lost cause – and perhaps even a state hostile to American interests. As that feeling slowly coalesces into policy, India is the natural – even greatly desired – alternative. The nuclear deal does more than simply allow for US industry to help the Indians out with their nuclear program – it is the start of a broad, deep strategic alliance based on concerns about China and Islam.

The third event happened in St. Petersburg, Russia: Germany and Russia held their bi-annual bilateral government summit.

Germany is the closest thing that Russia has to a friend in Europe these days. And considering that Chancellor Angela Merkel is openly distrustful and critical of the Russian government, that is truly saying something. Merkel certainly wants to stand up to Russia – she is from the former East Germany after all and knows full well what it means to live under Russian "influence” – but she has found herself trapped by geography and history. Her country is economically dependent on Russian energy supplies. Even if Berlin could muster the political will to challenge Moscow, and suffer through the energy dislocation and economic weakness that would come from a massive defense build-up, the thought of the Germans rearming to fend off Russian expansionism is something that sows more than a little terror among Germany’s neighbours.

It could be far easier for the Germans to cut a deal with the Russians to share influence in the regions that lie between them. This has happened before – and has been known to lead to a world war. The winds of history are blowing through Merkel’s window, and it would be truly odd for her to not have felt a bitter chill.

And, with that, the broad lines of the next decade have already been sketched. Brazil and India are both emerging as major powers, and doing so in a way that will not challenge – and may well dovetail with – American power. Germany faces a truly agonizing choice: a confrontation that will make it suffer greatly, or a conciliation that will make its neighbours suffer even more.

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