International Relations Emerging Powers and BRICS
Oliver Stuenkel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 January 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0187


The term “emerging powers” is a broad and somewhat vague category or shorthand for countries that are thought to be in the process of increasing their economic (and political) power faster than the rest. To be described as an emerging power, a country usually needs to be large (both regarding geographic extension and population, though not always, as the case of Japan shows) and poorer on a per capita basis than industrialized countries, though there is no clear definition of when a country ceases to “emerge.” Since emerging power status is desirable and implies an optimistic outlook, governments have an interest in depicting themselves as such. In the same way, investment banks are keen to identify emerging markets with above-average growth potential for their clients. One important part of the literature on emerging powers looks at international power transition in history, and how the arrival of new great powers changes global dynamics. Another, currently larger and more visible part, looks at contemporary emerging powers. For the latter, predictions and estimates about future growth (which are often too rosy) matter greatly. Yet the question of which country qualifies as an emerging power is always contested and in flux. The difficulty in predicting the future explains why some analyses in this realm often lack serious empirical and theoretical scholarship. The concept of emerging powers is not new: Brazil, for instance, was seen as an emerging power in the 1970s. Still, the term gained new prominence in the first decade of the 21st century, when large markets at the periphery of the global economy continuously grew above average, leading to a shift of power away from established powers toward the developing world. The BRICs grouping (consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, and China), created in 2001 and called BRICS (with a capital “S” since South Africa’s accession in 2010), came to symbolize a narrative that seemed distant in the 1990s but appeared to make sense in the mid-2000s: a momentous shift of power from the United States and Europe toward emerging powers. The history of the BRICS grouping can be divided into three phases. In the first phase (2001–2007), “BRIC” (then still without South Africa) stood for little more than an investment category invented by Goldman Sachs. The second phase (2008–2014) saw, contrary to general expectations, the emergence of the BRICS as a political platform, though of a largely informal nature. In 2015, the transition to a third phase began, marked by a process of institutionalization and the launch of the BRICS’s New Development Bank and around numerous meetings between government representatives, the most visible being the yearly presidential summit. The literature on emerging powers is wide and highly diverse in terms of structure, scope, and focus. In addition to more academic work, a large quantity of former policymakers and journalists write about the subject, often in a more speculative and forward-looking fashion. Many analyses deal with emerging powers as one cohesive group, others focus on specific emerging powers (most frequently China, followed by India). These include interesting analyses of the social transformation ongoing in emerging powers. Additionally, within the realm of international relations, works on emerging powers usually focus on the foreign policies of specific countries, questions of global public goods (such as climate change or security) or norms (e.g., democracy and human rights), and global order in more general terms.


The study of rising powers is a multidisciplinary issue related to many different areas, and as a consequence, many journals include articles on the topic. There are no leading journals on emerging powers specifically, but most major international relations journals include articles related to the subcategories presented in the Introduction. International Security is a leading journal that often includes articles on how rising powers such as China affect US interests. While International Security is largely US-centric, publications such as Global Governance, the Chinese Journal of International Politics and Third World Quarterly frequently include writers from outside of the Anglosphere. International Affairs, Foreign Affairs and the Cambridge Review of International Affairs are among leading journals that often provide excellent discussions on emerging powers.

Before the BRICS: Earlier Works on Emerging Powers

Emerging powers have existed throughout history, as Maddison 2008 and Kennedy 1989 show, but the precursors of the contemporary literature on the topic largely described the incipient shift of economic power from Europe and the United States to Asia, focusing on countries like Japan and South Korea—see Vogel 1979, Amsden 1989, Amsden 2003, and Kennan 1994. Later, scholars began to study the systemic implications of their rise, such as Garten 1997.

The BRICS Grouping: Symbolizing a Shift of Power in the First Decade of the 21st Century

Though often called an arbitrary grouping that has little in common, the BRICS grouping, invented in O’Neill 2001 and popularized in Wilson and Purushothaman 2003, came to symbolize the decentralization of power after the turn of the century, spawning a series of analyses focusing on the grouping itself (Stuenkel 2015 and Cooper 2016) or its consequences (Sharma 2013, Laidi 2012, and Armijo 2007).

The Future of Global Order

The most frequently analyzed question in the context of emerging powers is how they affect global order—that is, how and whether they will transform their increased economic power into political power, and how they relate to existing institutions, rules, and norms that make up contemporary global order. This issue is not new. Authors have assessed shifts of power for thousands of years, ranging back to Thucydides and Kautilya. The articles and books listed in this section, however, are useful points of departure for understanding the contemporary discussion about emerging powers.

Global Governance/Global Institutions, Rules, and Norms

A large number of articles and books focus on how emerging powers influence or will influence (once they are more powerful) specific institutions, rules, and norms (Schweller 2011)—ranging from human rights norms, sovereignty, and humanitarian intervention (Stuenkel 2014, Valladão 2012, and Verhoeven 2014), to climate change, maritime security, and international law and global governance more generally (Gray and Murphy 2013, Ikenberry and Wright 2008, Kahler 2013, and Castañeda 2010).

A Challenge to US Primacy?

One of the most important questions of the contemporary international affairs debate is how the rise of China and other emerging powers will impact the United States. Are rising powers a threat to US primacy? The analyses in this section represent different theoretical approaches, ranging from liberal (Ikenberry 2011 and Ikenberry 2014) to realist (Monteiro 2014, Brooks and Wohlforth 2008, Friedberg 2012, and Beckley 2011) and constructivist perspectives (Reich and Lebow 2014), and include an analysis of the bilateral relationship between the United States and China (Foot and Walter 2011). Wright 2017 offers an analysis about the US role in global affairs after Obama, while Jervis, et al. 2018 describes the impact of the Trump presidency on global order.

Country-Specific Analyses in the Broader Debate about Emerging Powers

In discussing the ongoing trend of multipolarization, China’s future growth trajectory is decisive. As a consequence, most of the books dealing with emerging powers focus on China and assess how it will impact the global order (Mearsheimer 2014, Johnston 2003, and Shambaugh 2013). The scope and focus of these books varies greatly, ranging from the historical (Westad 2012), to policy-focused analyses such as Pillsbury 2015, to more scholarly analyses such as Breslin 2010. However, analyses of Brazil (Burges 2011) and India (Malone, et al. 2015) are also important to consider.

The Social Transformations in Emerging Powers

Aside from emerging powers’ much-studied foreign policy, an additional important aspect is the domestic social transformations they are undergoing, which have had a direct impact on the global conversation about issues as diverse as poverty reduction, women’s rights, urban challenges, and religiosity. Osnos 2015 and Jacques 2009 provide ideal introductions to China; French 2014 reveals China’s influence in Africa; Reid 2014 discusses Brazil and French 2012 India. Mendras 2012 sheds light on Russia, while Crais and McClendon 2013 assesses South Africa. Bice and Sullivan 2014 offers a broader discussion on how emerging powers will affect public policies.

The Economics of Emerging Powers

An essential element of the discussion about emerging powers and BRICS is the economic dynamics underlying the big-picture trends discussed by international affairs scholars. In addition to Amsden 1989 and Amsden 2003 (see Before the BRICS: Earlier Works on Emerging Powers), the sources in this section include more contemporary discussions about the potential of emerging powers in the coming years: Kose and Prasad 2010; Nölke, et al. 2015; and Summers and Pritchett 2014. In addition, a series of analyses focuses on how emerging powers’ economic systems differ from those of established powers, such as Lin 2011, Peck and Zhang 2013, Ban and Blyth 2013, and Stephen 2014.

Critical Approaches to Emerging Powers and BRICS

A series of scholars have criticized the debate about emerging powers as Western-centric (in such works as Blaut 1993 and Hobson 2004), pointing out that several supposedly emerging powers such as China and India are merely returning to the center of the global economy after a prolonged absence. Other works, such as Bond and Garcia 2015 and Robinson 2015, bemoan the glorification of the BRICS countries, pointing out that their emergence does little to democratize the international system.

back to top