One of the clearest trends in the international system post-Cold War was the transition from bipolarity to an apparent unipolar hegemony (or at least this was the US intention, since the demise of the URSS and especially under the neocons that governed in the Bush Administration). This unipolar world is not real, although the US retains many tools and mechanisms to influence international decision making through soft power (influence based in values, history, culture and so forth) and hard power (the capacity to project diplomatic pressure and especially military power).
But the international system is increasingly multipolar. An array of countries is growing in economic and political terms and changing with it the contours of power and influence in the international landscape. This is not a linear process. The group of countries includes some of them or others depending on who defines it, and their motives, positions and interests are far from homogenous. On one hand, they challenge the “old” order and their institutions, rules and norms, and defy some old concepts in terms of international power. On the other, they want to project themselves and attain more influence by taking part in the system and improving their positions within it.
Traditional power centers and especially the US and Europe face challenges with regards to those changing power balances. Although retaining significant degrees of influence, it is diminishing (especially in Europe). All those trends make international power schemes less clear and the world more complex, and this is also happening in peace and security issues.
These raising powers actively seek a more prominent role in political and economic affairs. One undisputed group are the BRICS: Brazil, India, Russia, China and South Africa. But there are other actors like Turkey, Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea or Qatar, that also aspire to project themselves in their areas of influence. All them face internal problems (such as poverty and inequality, among others) but have growing economies and seek to transform economic power into political influence. All take part (or are leaders) in regional institutions and want to improve their international positions.
Their motives and objectives are far from common in many aspects, one of them peace and security. They actively work towards a better position within the current system (as do Brazil and India when reclaiming a permanent seat in the UNSC). In other cases look for a prominent role in peacebuilding, like Russia and China, and their active role and financial contributions to peacebuilding missions and the UN Peacebuilding Fund. But at the same time, both countries remain extremely wary of issues of State sovereignty and reject interventionism. As a consequence, their support is for missions based in the consent of the affected State.
China has near global interests, especially in economic terms, while Russia projects power over its traditional area of influence. South Africa has a strong political voice in issues related with racism and non-discrimination. Some are active contributors to peacebuilding (such as Brazil in Haiti) or disarmament (Mexico with regards to cluster bombs). And almost all project their own history and preferences when rejecting interventionism. Brazil, India, China and Russia abstained in the UNSC voting of Resolution 1973 that authorized NATO intervention in Libya.
One example is worth mentioning as illustrative of their potential role in international issues and conflicts. This is the Brazil and Turkey negotiations and agreement with Iran with regards with the latter nuclear program. The agreement set the conditions for Iran low enriched uranium to be stockpiled outside the country, with the others acting as providers of security and guarantees of the material. Theoretically this agreement should have satisfied the requirements of the international community: if Iran has no control over uranium stockpiles, there is no danger of further enrichment that would be indispensable for a nuclear weapons program. Since this issue has been subject of contentious politics for years, a negotiated solution should have been good news. However, the US immediately raised protests and set up new sanctions. The doubt is why? Were the terms of the agreement not enough? Was it reticence in the face of others brokering the agreement? Or is there another agenda behind the nuclear contention with Iran?
The emerging powers will influence the international agenda in coming years and increase their power in international institutions. They will also continue changing international power balances. Their growing role is undeniable and their contribution welcome (if not by all). The challenge for analysts and decision makers will be to know how, and with what objectives, do they seek international projection, what their agendas are, what balances are reached among old and new powers and what are the resultant policies and doctrines. The landscape is complex and interesting and over-simplification a difficult task.