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Thick as a BRIC

Analysis: Sure, Obama and Medvedev are talking about the economy. Maybe they shouldn't be.

Then there is China. One might think the world’s largest country, coming into its own economically after two centuries of turmoil, might naturally want to throw its political weight around, too. But if China’s leaders are cynical, they’re not stupid. America remains the nation that puts the sweet and sour sauce on the Chinese egg roll. Without American retail and industrial consumption, China has had to pour state funds into its domestic economy to keep growth from dipping below the point where unrest becomes a serious risk. Put simply: China needs America too much to act childish. It would be against China’s national interests.

This is not the case in Moscow. To some extent, Russia’s President Dmitri Medvedev (and his sponsor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin) still act as if to annoy America proves Moscow still has clout. It is as if Russian leaders worry that, without something petty to argue about, Washington might not pay attention to Russia.

In rational foreign policy establishments, creating economic and political relationships that don’t need constant, high-maintenance attention is the goal. U.S. ties with complicated partners like the European Union, or even with China itself, rarely go through the kind of turbulence generated by Russia.

It did not have to be so. When the term BRIC was coined by a group of Goldman Sachs economists back in 2003, Russia still looked to many like a giant slowly picking itself up off of its back. Even at that late date, in Vladimir Putin’s third year as president, it was possible to hope Russia would eventually join the World Trade Organization, enforce protection of foreign investment inside its borders, and agree to stop cutting off natural gas supplies to its neighbors every time a contract needs to be negotiated.

Alas, that is not the world we live in. Russian economic policy has ensured it has no place anytime soon in the European Union. Meanwhile, Moscow has begun reasserting its suzerainty over former Soviet republics, and recently decided not to take Washington up on an offer to help it join the WTO. Instead of accepting the inconvenient rules on transparency and trade that would cause, Russia announced it will lead its own customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus.

At some point, with decisions like that one clearly based on politics rather than economics, the world has to take a new and more serious look at the mortar that makes up the BRICs.

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