"There are only two BRICS in the wall" was a standard line by Western commentators about the group that held its first summit meeting in Yekaterinburg in 2009. This implied that among the five member countries, only China and India had the required population, landmass, and GDP size to be taken seriously. The sheer arrogance of the phrase is revealing an attitude that permeated Western views of the entity that gave its name to "the decade without a name", that is, the 2000s. Now that the group, with the addition of Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates (UAE), an expansion formalized in its XV Summit held in Johannesburg on August 22-24, 2023, has eleven members, the tone has changed somewhat, but not much.
What are the prospects of BRICS+ in this new phase? What does the fact that 22 countries formally applying to join BRICS+, and 40 expressing some sort of interest in doing so tell us? Does BRICS’ expansion portend the emergence of a new global order, or will the differences between the members stand in the way of concerted action and achievement of its goals?
To what extent can it be said that BRICS embodies for the 21st century what the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) embodied for the 20th century, and what differences are present? The purpose of this essay is to respond to these questions by putting the emergence of BRICS in the perspective of the broader geopolitical and geoeconomic shift that has taken place in the world, from the North Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific and more generally, from North to South. Far from representing an opportunistic grouping whose members have little in common (as is often alleged by its critics), and therefore should not exist (another barb oft thrown), the BRICS represent an organic outgrowth of deep-seated trends in world politics that are changing traditional alignments, providing a new direction for the international system.
A World Order in Transition
The rise of the BRICS is a product of the transition from the Liberal International Order (LIO) status quo since the end of World War Two, an order that from 1991 onwards acquired a strong unipolar imprint, to one in which power is more widely distributed, and in which US influence is no longer monodominant. In this context, two milestones stand out: 2008 and 2016. The year 2008 saw the global financial crisis triggered by Wall Street come into its own, raising questions about the impact of the excesses of finance capitalism. It is no coincidence that the first BRICS summit took place in 2009. The second, and in some ways more important, is that of 2016.
In 2016 the United Kingdom undertook a referendum that approved its withdrawal from the European Union (otherwise known as "Brexit") and the United States elected Donald J. Trump to presidency. The United Kingdom spent the following years extricating itself from the European Union in a messy process led by five different prime ministers in seven years that caused the country to register the worst performance of any European economy. The United States under President Trump, in turn, proceeded to renege on free trade, to embrace "fair trade", to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, from the World Health Organization (WHO) and to paralyze the World Trade Organization (WTO) by refusing to nominate new judges to its Appellate Body. Although President Trump's successor, Joseph R. Biden, is more sympathetic to multilateralism, he has continued the protectionist measures enacted by the Trump administration, and in many ways doubled down on the "America First" policies of the latter. There is also a strong possibility that Donald Trump might return to the White House in 2024, with all the consequences that entails.
The irony could not have been greater. The LIO, based on multilateralism and free trade, is being dismantled by the very countries that set it up in the first place, namely the United States and the United Kingdom. Unilateralism and "fair trade" are now the key principles guiding US foreign policy, making a mockery of any notion of a "rules-based order," as rules are trampled upon by those who pose as their biggest champions.
What caused this extraordinary situation?
Shifting Economic Sands
A key factor to keep in mind is what the World Bank has identified as a wealth shift that has taken place in the past thirty years or so. This has brought about a re-ordering of intra-South hierarchies and the global order. In this period, the GDP of the Global South rose from 20 percent of world GDP in 1970-1990, to 40 percent in 2017. Concomitantly, the South's participation in global trade rose from 24 percent in1970 to 35 percent in 2000 and 52 percent in 2017. In turn, the South's share of global capital inflows (including FDI) rose from 18 percent in the 1970s to 25 percent in the 1990s and 53 percent by 2017.
At the heart of this process has been the rise of Asia, now the world's most dynamic economic area, with the two Asian giants (China and India) leading the way, albeit on a well-trodden path mapped by Japan and the "Asian Tigers" (Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan). Other countries around the world, like Brazil, Mexico, and Turkey, have also come into their own, dramatically changing the global economic landscape.
Contrary to what many predicted at the beginning of globalization (which started, grosso modo, in 1980), a more connected world, instead of favoring only developed countries in the Global North, opened considerable opportunities for those in the Global South, especially in Asia. On the other hand, the countries of Anglo-Saxon capitalism, reluctant to set up sufficiently strong social protection systems to contend with the ups and downs of the business cycle associated with globalization, have been the most affected by the process of de-industrialization, ensuing from displacement of large numbers of factories to Asia. This de-industrialization of vast sectors of the US Northeast and Midwest (now known as the “Rust Belt") and England's North and Midlands, and the consequent unemployment and underemployment has led to a strong reaction among the working class. This has been channeled by populist leaders like Donald J. Trump and Boris Johnson, whose anti-globalization and anti-immigrant rhetoric catapulted them to power. Suddenly, the consensus in many developed countries is that globalization, far from being the panacea that many thought it was, was a boomerang instead, one that gave a big impetus to countries like China and India, but with negative effects in the Global North.
The BRICS+ and Beyond
The rise of the BRICS and its expansion is thus part and parcel of this transition from one world order to another. On the one hand, we have rising powers who find themselves with no place at the high table of world politics. On the other hand, the so-called "rules-based order" is being jettisoned by the very powers who set it up in the first place, to be replaced by whatever is convenient to Western powers. The inability of hegemonic powers to act in the interests of the international system as a whole became apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic, when “vaccine nationalism" ran rampant in the United States and Europe, preventing any effort at providing needed vaccines to the rest of the world in a timely fashion.
Not surprisingly, in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, many leading countries in the Global South chose not to align themselves with the Western position and calls to stand up for the "rules-based order" fell flat. Which rules-based order? The one that weaponizes international payment systems, relies on unilateral financial sanctions, refuses to come through with climate finance commitments, and is unable to resolve the financial indebtedness of developing nations?
The Ukraine crisis has shown that the main divide in the modern world is not between democracy and authoritarianism, as some would have us believe, but rather between the Global North and the Global South. While many (though by no means all) countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America do not support Russia regarding the Ukraine crisis, almost none have endorsed the diplomatic and economic sanctions on Russia. On the contrary, the freezing of Russian assets abroad was seen as a major threat to any country that might find itself on the wrong side of Western power. It created an added impetus for de-dollarization, however slow and cumbersome that process might be. While the notion of a common BRICS currency might seem far-fetched at this point, the trend towards trading on the bases of local currencies (instead of doing so in US dollars) is gaining traction, as is the use of currencies other than the US dollar or the euro. In what may be the first such case, Brazil offered to pay Argentina part of the import bill on goods in RMB.
To opine that the only factor uniting BRICS member countries are anti-Western grievances is unfair. There are other elements that bring them together, but the sense that the international system is rigged against developing countries is real, there are solid reasons for it, and part of the attraction of joining BRICS is that it aims to provide an alternative to the current world order. The discontent with the status quo is, in a sense, similar to the discontent expressed by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in its early years. However, there is a crucial difference.
The members of the NAM, embodying what was then known as the Third World, deployed what was known as the diplomaties des cahiers des doleances (grievance diplomacy), such as when they campaigned for the New International Economic Order (NIEO). Yet, they did so from a position of weakness, which ultimately undermined their possibilities of success. In contrast, the BRICS, embodying what we might call the New South, does not need to engage in grievance diplomacy, as it speaks from a position of strength. This is reflected in the fact that the combined GDP in PPP terms of the original BRICS Five in 2023 was already higher than that of the G7. Rather than grievance diplomacy, the New South deploys collective financial statecraft, reflected in institutions like the New Development Bank, the Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB), and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The fresh financial resources that new BRICS members like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates bring to the table, and potentially to the New Development Bank, are considerable, further leveraging opportunities across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The self-centeredness the West has shown in relation to BRICS has been exceedingly short-sighted. The XV BRICS summit in Johannesburg marked a turning point in the growth and development of this, as yet informal, but so far remarkably effective group, which now represents 37 percent of the world's GDP and 47 percent of the world's population. Some agenda items BRICS+ should focus on include: reforming multilateral institutions to reflect the current distribution of power, and not that of 1945; bringing an end to weaponization of international payment systems and unilateral financial sanctions that wreak havoc with the world economy; enacting extant commitments from the North that would make reduction of carbon emissions viable in the South; restoring the World Trade Organization (WTO) from its current state of paralysis to one of working order; and building up the World Health Organization (WHO) so that it can play an effective role in fighting the next pandemic on a worldwide basis, thus avoiding "vaccine nationalism."
After the Johannesburg summit concluded, President Lula of Brazil invited the G7 to a formal meeting with the BRICS+ to discuss a common agenda of concerns about the world, and to move forward on it. As of this writing, there has been no response, and most observers would opine that it is unlikely there will be any, at least in the short term. But for how long will the G7, which represents a small sliver of humanity (less than 10 percent of the world's population) be able to hold out, insisting on a position that is ultimately untenable—that is, to refuse to engage the rest of the world, remaining isolated in its own cocoon—is the question on the table. It will not go away.