As the world struggles to deal with its two largest foreign-affairs dilemmas, Syria and Iran, resolutely standing in the way are the BRICs.
That's the acronym foreign-policy wonks use for the block of nations that routinely refuses to join the multilateral world of diplomacy, dominated by the United States and the West. They seem to glory in being contrary. The nations are Brazil, Russia, India and China.
Russia and China, of course, routinely veto any United Nations Security Council resolution criticizing Syria, as they did for the third time last week. China and India, ignoring Western sanctions, continue buying oil from Iran at a furious rate. In fact, after European Union sanctions took effect July 1, both countries actually began purchasing even more Iranian oil. Between them they now buy more than half of Iran's daily output. (Brazil hasn't been a big player in the Iran/Syria debates, though its government does openly oppose sanctions against Iran.)
The nations like to say they bring a principled alternate opinion to the table. In fact, look at what they do and you'll see that actually they're totally self-interested. They don't seem to care about the rest of the world's concerns.
Who cares if Syrian President Bashar Assad continues slaughtering his own people? It's not our problem if Iran builds a bomb.
They look out only for themselves. But even at that, they're doing an extremely poor job. India, Russia and China have mammoth domestic problems that they don't like to talk about.
A few weeks ago, for example, Jairam Ramesh, India's minister for sanitation, acknowledged that his country is the world's largest open-air toilet. Unicef's most recent figures, from 2008, show that about one-third of India's 1.2 billion people have access to a toilet, leaving 800 million people with no choice but to defecate outside. The World Health Organization calls that "the riskiest sanitation practice of all."
At the same time, India's economy makes America's look healthy and robust. Standard and Poor's sovereign rating for India is BBB-minus, just above a junk rating. And in recent weeks, ratings agencies have been threatening to lower it even more.
Right now, one-third of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. Nearly half the nation's children suffer from stunting, meaning they don't grow physically or mentally because of malnutrition during infancy. That's one of the world's highest rates. So is the "wasting" rate: children who are essentially starving to death. That's 20 percent.
Shouldn't India be attending to all of that rather than expending energy on being a balky, brutish BRIC?
China's problems are well known. Its economy is imploding, though Chinese and Western economists say the government is falsifying data to cover up the true depths of the problem. All the while, the nation is in constant foment. Several recent internal surveys of China's wealthiest citizens found that 60 percent to 80 percent of those worth at least $1.6 million say they want to leave the country, move away.
Meantime, the government estimates that Chinese last year staged at least 180,000 "mass incidents," as the government calls them -- large local protests over corruption, land seizures, pollution, job safety and a dozen other social ills. Almost 500 every day.
All of this may foretell regime change at some point in the not-so-distant future.
And then there's Russia. Last Saturday, President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill branding foreign-funded NGOs as "foreign agents," authorizing potentially obtrusive regulation of organizations including Oxfam, Doctors of the World and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
That's just the latest in a continuing cascade of repressive measures Putin has signed into law, indicating his full realization that many if not most Russians know he stole the election in March and don't recognize him as the nation's legitimate leader.
In just the last two months he has signed bills authorizing draconian fines for people who protest against him. He reinstituted a law ordering criminal penalties for "slander," a term that can be twisted to apply to almost anything you want. And he is beginning Web censorship for the first time.
Last Friday, his courts sentenced three young women, members of a punk rock group, to another six months in prison on top of four already served, for criticizing Mr. Putin in a song.
The point is, these three BRICs face incendiary challenges at home, among the most daunting in the world. Maybe if they were not so obstinately selfish and contrary, the rest of the world might be willing to step up and help.
Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times.