Whenever I am asked to describe the international entity known by the strange name of BRICS, I start with a different answer. I do not understand what formally (or, perhaps more importantly, informally) unites Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. I can say more about why they have little in common, but once BRICS becomes a reality in international politics, it is not for nothing. Today, though, BRICS is becoming attractive for one politically piquant reason, but more later.
So, what do these countries have in common, and what are the benefits?
The four-nation community was founded in 2006, and the first BRIC summit was held in 2009. South Africa subsequently joined the group, changing its name to BRICS. Today, there is more and more talk about further enlargement – there are already a dozen potential candidates – but this is a very separate topic; it is difficult to define the criteria for enlargement when the criteria for existing membership are unclear. The talk about BRICS does not fail to point out that the organisation’s founding fathers saw the countries joining as fast-growing … economic giants, soon to become “soft power” best practices. A decade ago, somebody said that the BRICS countries would dominate the world in 2050. So the formal aim is to promote cooperation between its members in many areas such as trade, investment, finance, energy, research… Very positive.
BRICS is already called an international organisation in some documents, although so far, it is more like high-level meetings where the most important thing is an excellent ‘family photo’. In addition to the meetings of the countries’ leaders, there are meetings and consultations at the level of foreign ministers and working groups on ‘sectoral’ issues such as energy, trade, finance, etc. An attractive financial entity called the BRICS Bank (also known as the New Development Bank) is designed to finance infrastructure projects and sustainable development in the BRICS countries and other developing countries.
The basis for the economic talk is already there. Large countries, even if economically weak, can be surprising quantitatively. Without going too deeply into the figures, it is worth recalling that China is the most financially powerful BRICS country, India is a really fast-growing economy with a sizeable young labour force, Brazil is the largest economy in South America with impressive natural resources, South Africa is the only real (still) market economy on the ‘black continent’, and Russia … with all that Russia is. But this is something other than an economy.
With each of these countries boasting about their economic achievements and opportunities, one might ask: why do they need to be integrated with each other? Let us live in the present world order, and we will be fine. But something is wrong…
It turns out that it is not just the economy that matters in the lives of the BRICS; in fact, it may not be the most important thing. This is a moment of political psychology and culture – each country mentioned here is either dissatisfied with the current world order or feels wronged and unappreciated. So those who call the BRICS an alliance of the ‘misfits’ in the world or, in a way, of the ‘outcasts’ are not wrong. It is a segment of the world that ‘represents’ over 25% of our planet’s land area and over 40% of its population. These are countries that are either authoritarian or that are very dubious democracies. On many measures of the quality of the state – economic freedom, business opportunities, freedom of the media and all sorts of numerous human rights – they are closer to the end than the beginning, usually in the second 100 of the list. And those indicators are steadily getting worse. All countries have territorial disputes with their neighbours; all do not hide the idea that the armed forces are quicker than diplomacy to resolve all disputed issues. It is not for nothing that Russia is a nuclear-armed Nigeria, India, and China have their nuclear arsenals, and Brazil and South Africa have had (and perhaps still have) nuclear programmes (and possibly weapons themselves).
Some argue that the BRICS countries, whose average statistical population has neither a plethora of human rights nor any discernible wealth, are designed to ensure that the world finally belongs not to the elite of humanity but to the ‘little’, the ‘common’ man, who is not interested in big politics, high culture or any global affairs. This is a noble mission for the commoner. Finally, the whole world could live “modestly but surely”. The world’s future planners, who write various scenarios for the future, have this option of a global village with a dominant subsistence economy. If anyone wants this future, it differs from the BRICS who will create it.
Until a few years ago, the leaders of the five countries, meeting in one capital or another, were limited to a lukewarm declaration and a joint photograph. The political events of recent years have shown that the countries, each of them, see an opportunity to use this structure for their interests. There is much to be said about Brazil’s ambition to be the most important in Latin America, South Africa’s ambition to be the most important in the Black Continent, and India and China as the world’s largest countries and, indeed, as seriously conflicted countries, have their own regional and global interests. And all these interests are not entirely in line with the (still?) states and organisations responsible for the World Order. Given that the candidates include countries like Iran and Belarus, the “picture” is very peculiar.
The world needs to be reordered, but we need to know how because there is no joint plan for reordering the world. The BRICS are becoming a counter-cultural political organisation – on the one hand, it disagrees with the current world order, but it is not determined to dismantle it.
And finally, Russia. Problems in the war of aggression against Ukraine have forced Moscow to seek political allies and those who would allow Russia to circumvent the problems caused by sanctions and political isolation. The BRICS countries have emerged as potential “loopholes” for Russia to trade and, ultimately, to gain political support… after all, everything in the world is business. It was in Russia’s interest to do everything possible to turn the BRICS from a counter-cultural organisation into a natural alternative to the G7, to all the “world banks”, and to the other economic and political structures of the World Order. Russia today appears more interested than ever in the “bright” future of BRICS, in the interest of BRICS replacing, here and now, everything Western in the economic and political life of the world. Here, we see that Ukraine is only a tiny start on the road to real change.
Much can be written and said about how (in this context) a small country – Russia – is getting on with its more prominent partners. In short, it has been mixed. The partners say they understand Russia, but only up to a point, and the BRICS countries do not dare to give in to Russia’s call to disobey the world (after all, no one will punish!!!). It is still better to be friends with the West in many respects than to go to war.
A poignant indicator of all this policy is the BRICS summit to be held shortly in South Africa. Whatever happens, the leaders of this country have finally decided to obey existing international law. Russia’s Putin is not welcome in South Africa because, if he comes, he will have to be arrested on suspicion of war crimes.
By the way, some associate the BRICS abbreviation with… a brick. So, symbolically, it is a forbidden sign in Putin’s path, and the organisation remains on the outside, not the exterior, of the World Order.