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BRICS: realistic alternative with a stuttering motor

BRICS has recently lost some of its previous dynamic. This is partly due to reduced economic growth, compared to the previous phenomenal growth rates. In the case of Russia it looks like a dramatic economic crisis in 2014/2015; the other four BRICS members are experiencing slower growth. It seems their economic motor is stuttering. A second reason might be the persistence of violent international conflicts (Ukraine, Syria, Iraq); a solution is not in sight and the crisis management between the West and BRICS countries, first of all the two UN Security Council members China and Russia, does not function at all. Nevertheless, BRICS will remain an important player in the global economy and a shaper of global norms in many multilateral forums.

The Club Model: Heterogeneous and Homogeneous Interests and Values

The heterogeneity within the BRICS group has often been described: Democratic and authoritarian governments cooperate in this arrangement. Their economic weight is extremely uneven. Russia and China are not really forthcoming in assisting Brazil’s, India’s and South Africa’s ambition to join the exclusive high-table of the UN Security Council. At best, they offer lukewarm diplomatic language. Competition and conflict between China and India restrain bold global initiatives in many arenas. African and Latin American countries welcome China’s extraordinary investments in these continents – but with suspicion. The list can be extended.

The five unequal partners chose a club model as their modus operandi. They look for areas of common interest and consensus without deciding along majority rules and without necessarily finding compromises. All of the five self-confident governments give priority to domestic issues over club solidarity and orient their foreign policy on perceived national interests.

The driving force for BRICS is their criticism of global power relations, first of all disapproval of the rules of the international financial institutions, International Monetary Fund and World Bank (IFI’s). The Western dominated voting rights and the intransparent selection of the management in these institutions that is arranged behind closed doors between the US and the EU is the bone of contention. According to BRICS, they and the present world order are undemocratic, unjust, unequal and not based on the rule of law.

An Anti-hegemonial Project

BRICS demands different structures for global decision-making and criticizes existing rules. BRICS countries, to different degrees, consider the Western liberal narrative on democracy, human rights and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) as an attack on their sovereignty and territorial integrity. India’s attitude is very interesting. It positions itself somewhere in the middle between rejection and endorsement. It seeks both to promote human rights and defend sovereignty. The Indian government has serious reservations against the practice of humanitarian intervention and India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Hardeep Singh Puri said during the Libya crisis: R2P “cannot turn out to be a tool legitimising big power intervention on the pretext of protecting populations from the violations of human rights and humanitarian law.” In this regard BRICS pursues a typically “Westphalian” notion with sacrosanct state sovereignty and non-interference into internal matters. Thus, sanctions as well as interventions are seen with great suspicion and distrust.

The BRICS countries criticize Western double standards, especially those in the US, in the face of torture practices, Guantanamo, racism at home and their global spy network encroaching on civil liberties. Can BRICS use its political clout to enforce a more emancipatory multilateralism in global structures? Especially China and Russia want to break the US hegemony, but also the other BRICS countries defy US dominance. Each of the five BRICS governments has an interest to remain strategically autonomous vis-à-vis the United States.

The most important aspect of BRICS’s cohesion is its geo-political outlook. BRICS pursues an anti-hegemonial notion based on classical geo-political power politics and relations of military strength, economic performance, diplomatic and political influence and on soft power (like cultural attractiveness). But the emphasis on the military footprint is another issue of contention within BRICS. India certainly is concerned about Chinese military ambitions and even flirts with Washington in hedging in China.

South-South Cooperation

The foundation of the New Development Bank and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement are sincere steps in creating alternatives to the Washington based IFIs and regional Development Banks. These development initiatives of BRICS have the potential to both hasten IMF and World Bank reforms as well as offering new options for developing countries. BRICS can act as donor, emphasizing South-South solidarity and representing the interest of developing countries in the global North-South division. But not only BRICS has ambitions to shape the global rules of the game. There are other emerging powers with ambitions of global reach. In other areas, as for example climate change, BRICS countries with their growing industries pursue other aims than those developing countries that are already affected today.

An Emerging Reformed Global Order: Making the Rules?

The determination of BRICS has called a number of the established rules and norms into question. The cement that binds BRICS together is their realization that they have jointly more influence than each of them alone. But the differences among them make it difficult to form a united front. The aim is a new balance of the global order, a change of norms. BRICS does not want to be patronized any longer in the manner as it was done after the end of the Cold War. They want to be the shapers and makers of global norms.

BRICS aspires a stabile, predictable order with agreed rules and norms, based on mutual respect and recognition of divergent political systems and different stages of development. However, the way to implement such a new system is a long one. As can be illustrated by the BRICS approach to R2P and the lack of solutions for present violent conflicts and looming wars. BRICS is able to articulate its displeasure about the still dominant approaches, but, so far, is unable or unwilling to formulate and lead an alternative method.


This blog post is published as part of a collaborative partnership between SIPRI and Economists for Peace and Security (EPS).