José Francisco Lynce Zagallo Pavia is Associate Professor at Lusíada Universities of Lisbon and Porto, Visiting Professor at Sciences Po Grenoble (2022)
During the recent BRICS summit, which took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, on the 22nd, 23rd and 24th of August 2023, where the leaders of the five members were present (with the exception of Vladimir Putin for the reasons already mentioned in a previous post) in addition to other world leaders, who responded affirmatively to the 67 invitations sent by the South African organization, the historic decision was made (this was the adjective used by the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping) to invite six other States to become effective members: Argentina, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Egypt and Ethiopia. The latter will join as full members in early 2024.
Could this group (which derived from an acronym invented by the chief economist at Goldman Sachs, Jim O’Neil, to designate the initial four members – the S for South Africa was introduced later, in 2010, with the accession of that country into the group) represent a challenge for the current global leadership of the United States of America and the International Liberal Order? Or will their immense diversity and sometimes diverging interests will be their weakness? Whatever the answer, this is a new reality the international system will have to reckon.
From BRIC to BRICS and beyond
As already mentioned, the acronym BRIC, referring to the four initial members, Brazil, Russia, India and China, was introduced in 2001 by a prominent economist from one of the most powerful financial institutions in the Western world, Goldman Sachs. It initially intended to refer to four emerging countries that had enormous potential for economic growth and constituted excellent business opportunities. Only later, in 2006, did the representatives of these countries meet, during the General Assembly of the United Nations, in New York, institutionalizing the acronym BRIC. Between 2006 and 2009, high-level meetings took place, reinforcing mutual cooperation. In 2009, the constitution of the new grouping was finally officialized and the following year South Africa was admitted, giving the grouping the new name of BRICS. Since then, annual summits have been held with the presence of the leaders of the five member states, with the 2020, 2021 and 2022 summits being held by videoconference due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The summit that just took place in South Africa was the first in a face-to-face format after the pandemic. There has been, since the beginning of the constitution of the group, a growing interest of other States in joining. The only enlargement of the group had occurred with the entry of South Africa, in 2010, as we have already seen. Now, after this decision taken at the Johannesburg summit, the group more than doubles its members, rising to 11. Many other countries will have to wait for the next enlargement, with more than three dozen already expressing that intention; among them are, for example, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Algeria, Cuba, Bolivia or Kazakhstan, among others. Apparently, the acronym that names the group will remain, but its importance and its weight in the international system will naturally increase.
A diverging path
This group is home to two States that, in one way or another, have contested the so-called International Liberal Order, namely Russia and China. Also, Brazil and India, especially under the leadership of Lula da Silva and Narendra Modi, have advocated a reconfiguration of the multilateral system, for example, in the Security Council of the United Nations, where both would like to be permanently represented, or suggesting a change to the current statutes of the Bretton Woods institutions, or the trade regime of the World Trade Organization, among other claims. The group created the NDB – New Development Bank, in 2015, whose current president is Dilma Rousseff, former Brazilian leader, with the unspoken aim of being an alternative to multilateral financial institutions, namely the IMF and the World Bank. The BRICS have been taking a critical stance towards the International Liberal Order which, according to them, unfairly protects the interests of Western countries to the detriment of the Global South. These divergences with the Global West became more notorious after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
These countries have resisted applying sanctions to Russia and refuse to align unequivocally with the votes in the United Nations General Assembly, which condemn Moscow. Brazil’s position, namely after the election of Lula da Silva, has been particularly criticized, due to the latter’s refusal to follow, bluntly, the positions of NATO and the European Union. South Africa has also been criticized for inviting President Putin to this summit (which he did not attend for the reasons explained above) and for having participated in joint military exercises with Russia and China, on the occasion of the first anniversary of the Russian invasion to Ukraine. The reactions of the United States of America and the European Union to this summit and to the announcement of the group’s expansion to 11 countries, including Iran, could not be more revealing of the discomfort that this decision has caused. The White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan attempted to play down the bloc´s expansion plans and some EU politicians warn that the European Union now faces a tremendous challenge.
A challenge or a real multipolar international system?
The attempts that European and North American policymakers have made with the aim of diminishing and not giving much importance to this group, in particular, and to the Global South, in general, may not be the best option and eventually it may even be a very serious mistake. The BRICS alone, in their current configuration, already represent 46% of the world’s population and about 35% of the world’s current GDP. In terms of purchasing power parity, the BRICS economies are estimated to be collectively larger than the aggregate economy of the G7 countries. With the announced accession of these new six members and the foreseeable future accession of many others, a significant part of which have the highest economic growth rates in the world, a significant change of forces in the international system is foreseen. Eventually the G7 and G20, which are largely dominated by the Global West, will lose their current relevance and consequently we will see an erosion of Western dominance.
There will also be significant changes in political terms, since nowadays one of the main criticisms of these countries is Western “arrogance” in trying to impose a socio-political model that is openly contested by many of them. The so-called Washington Consensus is progressively being replaced by the Beijing Consensus with all the consequences that this entails. The Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, in a speech to the media at the recent BRICS summit, has already announced that we are entering a multipolar world and that international institutions, namely the United Nations Security Council and the of Bretton Woods, need to be updated for the realities of the 21st century. He stated: “The Security Council, the Bretton Woods system, and other International Organizations, reflect the world of 1945, when many African countries were still part of European empires. (…) The world has changed – and so, global governance must change with it. It must represent today’s power and economic relations and not the power and economic relations of 1945”.
It is notorious and usual that those in a position of advantage significantly resist changes that could affect that situation. Hence, the Global West has been resisting these changes or facing them with some skepticism; however, it is always better to accept a gradual change, which is unavoidable, than a radical change, undesirable in every way. The defense of a democratic and liberal model is compatible with the acceptance of eventually alternative models – just as in a pluralistic society several very different ideologies coexist – without having the temptation to consider that our vision of the world is “better” or “superior”. for this or that reason. The international system is inevitably in transition, and to quote António Guterres: “If we are not able to reform our institutions to make sure they reassume a truly universal character, we risk fragmentation, and fragmentation can be one day a factor of confrontation”.