• Pursuing equilibrium in global dynamics: BRICS and the quest for a balanced world order

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent statement echoed a collective longing for a more balanced global order, one free from global powers. This sentiment resonates among the BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—a group united by shared economic interests rather than a formal alliance. The annual gatherings of BRICS leaders and the establishment of their development bank a decade ago underscore their desire to shift global dynamics, even within the confines of a US-dominated financial system.

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South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa

Though these efforts have often appeared symbolic, their potency is undeniable. A telling sign is the eagerness of around 40 nations to join BRICS, a testament to the widespread yearning for a multipolar global landscape. This aspiration has gained traction amidst critical geopolitical junctures: the West’s alignment against Russia in the context of the Ukraine crisis and the intensifying rivalry between the US and China, which hints at the contours of a new Cold War.

In examining BRICS, some scholars find echoes of the Non-Aligned Movement that emerged during the Cold War. The Bandung Conference of 1955, which brought together Asian and African nations in Indonesia, sought to transcend the binary power competition between the US and the Soviet Union. Patrick Heller, a sociologist at Brown University, sees similarities between that historical movement and the anti-colonial stance that persists among BRICS nations. These countries, disillusioned by Europe and the US’s prolonged dominance, seek to forge their path toward a more equitable world order.

Yet, the journey towards dismantling historical hierarchies is far from straightforward. Each BRICS member faces economic deceleration, and unlike the Non-Aligned Movement, these five countries appear to lack a unifying ideological or political foundation. Nonetheless, the collective potential of these nations, representing over 3 billion people, hints at an influential consortium if their individual strengths converge.

However, the deep-seated divisions between Russia and China, and between India and China, present significant hurdles. Moreover, the paradox arises from Russia’s ongoing war with Ukraine, leading to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s absence from the summit due to potential International Criminal Court charges. As Russia’s military actions in Europe and China’s cold war-like rivalry with the US intensify, the BRICS platform’s relevance seems to wane. It risks being perceived as a mechanism for US adversaries to cement alliances with middle powers rather than crafting an alternative global vision.

The BRICS countries aspire to present an alternative world order, but the path forward remains uncertain. The desire for such a paradigm shift is palpable, and it is a reality that the Biden administration must confront. The question is whether BRICS can surmount internal divides, navigate geopolitical complexities, and offer a compelling alternative that challenges the existing order.

The BRICS countries’ collective longing for a more balanced global order reflects a broader desire for a multipolar world. Despite their differences and limitations, the symbolic weight of their efforts is notable. As geopolitical dynamics shift and major powers engage in rivalries, BRICS emerges as a potential alternative. However, challenges within the consortium and external conflicts pose obstacles to a unified vision. While the path ahead is fraught with uncertainties, the aspiration for a new world order is a reality that global leaders must grapple with.

  • BRICS in a changing world: unity, diversity, and global governance

In 2001, Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill introduced an acronym that would reverberate through the realms of economics and geopolitics: BRICs, representing Brazil, Russia, India, and China. At the time, these nations collectively accounted for only 8 percent of the global economy, yet their rapid ascent was undeniable. O’Neill’s notion was rooted in the potential investment opportunities these emerging economies presented, and their growth posed poignant questions about global governance dynamics. He foresaw the increasing economic weight of the BRICs, particularly China, and the consequent impact on global fiscal and monetary policies.

2018 BRICS summit 6 Future Headlines
BRICS Summit 2018

This conceptualization of BRICs is a snapshot of a different era—one before China’s World Trade Organization accession in 2001, before Xi Jinping assumed leadership, and when a prevailing US consensus believed that China’s economic advancement would inevitably lead to democratization. During this time, there was also a semblance of optimism surrounding Russia under Putin. However, these early perceptions have transformed considerably in the ensuing years.

Over time, the BRICs evolved into BRICS, with the addition of South Africa in 2010. This informal association of countries gained renewed significance following the global financial crisis of 2008-2009. This crisis, originating in the US housing market and spreading to European contexts, had ripple effects on economies across the Global South. Although the five countries now constitute a larger share of the global economy than the G7 group of advanced economies, their developmental trajectories have been uneven and divergent.

The question of whether BRICS can rival the G7 comes to the fore. Patrick Heller, a sociologist at Brown University, pointed out that the G7 nations share commonalities such as democratic systems, large developed economies, and dominant roles in global governance institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), and patent agreements. These attributes confer considerable advantages within the international economic system.

The BRICS countries, on the other hand, grapple with concerns about their sovereignty and underrepresentation in international institutions. Their pursuit of alternative financial centers and dissatisfaction with the existing global governance landscape, including the WTO, IMF, and World Bank, underscore a desire for a multipolar world less dictated by the US dollar’s influence.

Yet, the potential for unified action among the BRICS nations faces internal challenges. The individual dynamics and economic realities of each member often limit the potential for cohesion. Brazil, led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, navigates democratic progress while addressing the aftermath of a January 6-style attack on its capital and the ramifications of the isolationist foreign policy espoused by former President Jair Bolsonaro. Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict, which has inflicted economic damage and triggered US-led sanctions, raises further questions about its unity with the BRICS bloc. India, while experiencing democratic regression, navigates complex relations with both Russia and China, making consensus challenging. China’s own economic struggles coincide with its pursuit of geopolitical alliances amid the backdrop of intensifying rivalry with the United States. Lastly, South Africa, advocating for a new non-aligned movement, faces internal economic and democratic concerns.

O’Neill, reflecting on his 2001 formulation, acknowledges that the world’s longing for a counterbalance to the “Americanization of the world” drove the concept of BRICS. He envisioned a global order where diverse ideologies, cultures, and political systems coexist harmoniously. However, the progress towards this vision has been limited. The unity of diverse nations under the BRICS umbrella remains elusive, constrained by internal complexities, global power dynamics, and economic challenges.

The trajectory of BRICS has been marked by aspirations, challenges, and evolving global dynamics. While BRICS emerged as an emblem of emerging economic powers, its potential as a counterbalance to the G7’s dominance remains uncertain. The differences between the member countries, both in terms of internal dynamics and relations with global powers, pose substantial obstacles to a unified agenda. The original hopes of BRICS representing a diverse yet harmonious world order have yet to be fully realized. As we navigate the complex landscape of a changing world, the pursuit of an equitable global order continues, but it remains a formidable journey.

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  • BRICS: Shaping global dynamics and challenging the dollar’s dominance

The BRICS summit has recently taken center stage, drawing attention not only to the aspirations of the member countries but also to the global implications of their discussions. While BRICS may not currently stand as a cohesive alternative to the US-led global economy and the unyielding supremacy of the US dollar, the summit’s deliberations and the very interest it attracts signal a potential for leveraging change over time.

Among the topics dominating discussions is the prospect of expanding the bloc. Numerous countries have expressed their eagerness to join BRICS, a testament to the grouping’s perceived significance. Although expansion may not be imminent due to reservations from influential members like India and Brazil, the very interest from countries across the globe underscores the relevance and appeal of the BRICS framework.

Another noteworthy development is the notion of a shared currency for the BRICS nations. While this concept realistically requires years of deliberation and planning, the mere prevalence of discussions on this topic ahead of the summit reveals the deep-seated wariness some nations harbor towards the US dollar. This skepticism arises in the backdrop of US-led sanctions that have wielded punitive consequences and unexpected ripple effects, even as the US remains dominant on the international financial stage.

In terms of practical initiatives, the New Development Bank has gained traction as BRICS’ response to the World Bank. Although its subscribed capital of $50 billion is relatively modest compared to the World Bank’s annual commitments, the New Development Bank has attracted interest from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bangladesh, and the United Arab Emirates. This institution stands as a tangible endeavor through which BRICS countries can assert their vision of a more balanced global order.

It is imperative to acknowledge that the current global landscape is marred by the ongoing tensions between the US and China. The ramifications of these geopolitical rivalries may carry more significant consequences for the international economy and politics than the outcomes of the BRICS summit. The US, in response to these tensions, is deepening its engagement with key Asian partners like Japan and South Korea, underlining a strategic bid to counterbalance China’s influence.

Conversely, China is strengthening its informal alliances and engagements, as evidenced by the clamor of numerous countries to join BRICS. The multipolar dynamics of global politics and economics are compelling China to seek partners, and the BRICS platform presents an opportune space for such alliances to flourish. This strategic intent aligns with China’s ambition to lead the rising Global South, a role that India may contest, given its aspirations to influence this sphere as well.

The US’s proactive efforts to strengthen ties with India, as demonstrated by President Biden’s state dinner for Prime Minister Modi, reflect a strategic response to the evolving geopolitical landscape. The Biden administration is keenly aware of the significance of the BRICS grouping and the dynamics it represents. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s emphasis on the administration’s engagement with BRICS leaders underscores the diplomatic outreach aimed at navigating this shifting terrain.

Nonetheless, the US’s stance in downplaying the importance of BRICS may be shortsighted. Aude Darnal’s assertion that the interest shown by numerous Global South countries to join BRICS is a significant global indicator resonates deeply. This interest signifies an evolving trajectory that merits careful consideration. Dismissing BRICS’ potential impact would overlook the evolving narrative and the geopolitical realities that underpin it.

While the BRICS may not presently constitute a fully formed alternative to the US-led global economy, its discussions and the interest it garners reflect the broader global sentiment for change and the aspiration for a more balanced order. The intersections of global power dynamics, economic ambitions, and geopolitical rivalries all converge in this discourse, setting the stage for a nuanced transformation of the international landscape.

Reporting by Sarah White