Down the Bric Road

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET

In a world where China and India and, to a lesser extent, Brazil, Russia and others enjoy mounting economic and political power, where does that leave the United States? On Friday the Century Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton convened a seminar on this topic, gathering a small group of academic experts, policymakers and diplomats - including representation from China, India, Japan, North Korea and Mexico - to debate the topic. While the acronym BRIC is used as a shorthand for Brazil, Russia, India and China Here's what I conclude:

- BRIC's UP, U.S. DOWN? - Though Friday's participants danced around this, realistically the ascent of all these countries has to come at the expense of some existing powers, including the US. While our absolute influence may not diminish, our relative preeminence will be less as others rise. While it is only the Chinese that stand to potentially rival us militarily, conventional military power no longer affords the final say that it used to. Bottom line: assuming we dig out of the foreign policy hole dug by the Bush Administration, the world we'll find will not be the world we left on 9/11

- WHAT WE DON'T LIKE NOW AT THE UN SEEMS BOUND TO GET WORSE - There was a fair amount of discussion on how institutions like the UN will change as new powers ascend. While there may not be much in the way of major structural change, it seems likely that the things that madden the US Congress and, to a lesser extent, the public - - the resistance to reform, the emphasis on development over security issues, the privileging of national sovereignty over humanitarian concerns, the efforts of the many powerless to rein in the powerful - - will only intensify. What Americans view as the UN's faults are not, for the most part, incidental. Various actors have a vested interest in keeping things that the US doesn't like - - certain developing countries resist reforms that may curb pet programs; most of the world cares more about economic development than terrorism and would like to see the UN's budget priorities follow suit; the Chinese and Russians champion sovereignty for reasons of their own national interests; and almost everyone likes to stick it to the US from time to time. It seems safe to say that as these countries rise at the UN, so will the US's blood pressure.

- UN SECURITY COUNCIL REFORM WILL CONTINUE TO STAGNATE - There was lots of talk of when and how the UNSC may be enlarged to reflect shifting power dynamics on the global stage. With Russia and China already enjoying permanent membership, though, the impetus that derives from the rise of new powers is less than one might think. The two countries whose permanent membership the US has championed - Germany and Japan - are not among the world's fast growing economies. I concluded, as I have pretty much anytime I've focused on the question of UNSC reform, that the situation remains checkmated in multiple places at least insofar as the expansion of permanent members is concerned. Mexico and Argentina won't want to see Brazil let into the club. China won't want Japan. Japan won't want India unless it gets a seat too. Italy will resist Germany. Everyone will resist a third European seat . . .

- TOLERANCE FOR US FIAT WILL ONLY DECREASE - As a handful of countries gain more weight to throw around, the US will meet more tangible forms of interference with what it may regard as its superpower prerogatives. The original UN Security Council vote on Iraq was the beginning of this: no one supported us just because it was the US, not even Mexico. If we want backing, we'll need to build support the old-fashioned way - through persuasion, bargaining, and retail diplomacy.