Few matters generate as much consensus in international affairs today as the need to rebuild the world geopolitical order. Everyone seems to agree, at least in their rhetoric, that the makeup of the U.N. Security Council is obsolete and that the G-8 no longer includes all of the world's most important economies. New actors need to be brought in. But even if a retooled international order would be far more representative of the distribution of power, it is not clear whether it would be better.
Over the past half a century, a set of basic principles — the collective defense of democracy, nuclear nonproliferation, trade liberalization, international criminal justice, environmental protection, respect for human rights (including labor, religious, gender, ethnic and indigenous peoples' rights) — has been enshrined in international and regional treaties and agreements. Constructing this web of international norms has been slow and painful, with less overall progress and more frequent setbacks than some have wished for. Now the possible accession of countries such as Brazil, China, India and South Africa to the inner sanctum of the world's leading institutions threatens to undermine those institutions' principles and practices.
These countries are not just weak supporters of the notion that a strong international regime should govern human rights, democracy, nonproliferation, trade liberalization, the environment, international criminal justice and global health. They oppose the idea more or less explicitly.
Consider their positions on the promotion of democracy and human rights worldwide. Brazil, India and South Africa are representative democracies that basically respect human rights at home, but when it comes to defending democracy and human rights outside their borders, there is not much difference between them and authoritarian China. And their ambivalence on so-called soft issues tends to go hand in hand with their recalcitrance on "harder" issues, such as nuclear proliferation. With the exception of South Africa, which unilaterally gave up the nuclear weapons it had secretly built under apartheid, Brazil, China and India today seem to oppose the international regime created by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1968.
One might say that in behaving in these ways, the emerging powers are acting no differently from the established powers, and that this is the best proof that they have come of age. But unlike the existing global players, they are not subject to the same type of pressure from vigorous and organized civil societies. Moreover,their discourse and conduct may seem to be as legitimate as those of the traditional powers, but they are in fact far more self-contradictory. On the one hand, the rising powers still see themselves as members of and spokespeople for the developing world; on the other hand, they are staking their reputations on having become major economic, military, geopolitical and even ideological powers, all of which not only distinguishes them from the rest of the Third World but also involves subscribing to certain universal values.
The stance of these countries on climate change illustrates this persistent ambivalence about what role they are ready to assume. Brazil, China and India are among the world's top emitters of carbon dioxide. In December, at the Copenhagen conference on climate change, they, along with South Africa, put forward a position that they said reflected the interests and views of "the developing nations." They called for assigning states' responsibilities for fighting climate change according to states' capacities. They are willing to reduce their own emissions, they say, but rich countries will have to do more.
This argument raises the question of whom these countries are speaking for and what role they envision for themselves. Do the emerging powers identify more with the rich polluters whose ranks they want to join, or with the poor nations, which are both potential victims of and contributors to climate change? The groups overlap (the rich nations also are victims, and the poor ones also pollute), and Brazil, China, India and South Africa have much in common with both groups, but they cannot be part of both at once. For now, these states seem to have chosen to side with the poor countries.
The ongoing discussion about whether emerging powers should be admitted to the helm of the world geopolitical order emphasizes the economic dimension of their rise and its geopolitical consequences. Not enough attention has been paid to the fact that they remain political and diplomatic lightweights. Given this, granting emerging economic powers a greater role on the world stage would probably weaken the trend toward a stronger multilateral system and an international legal regime that upholds democracy, human rights, nuclear nonproliferation and environmental protection.
Before a serious debate takes place within these countries regarding their societies' adherence to the values in question, it might not be such a good idea for them to become full-fledged world actors. Maybe they should deliberate more prudently over whether they really want to pay in order to play, and the existing powers should ponder whether they wish to invite them to play if they will not pay.
Jorge G. Castañeda, Mexico's foreign minister from 2000 to 2003, teaches at New York University and is on the board of directors of Human Rights Watch. A longer version of the article appears in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs.