The 15th BRICS summit took place in the midst of a tumultuous, almost entropic period in international politics, characterised by the end of the pandemic period, the accentuation of divergences between China and the US both discursively and in practice, as well as the confrontation between some members of BRICS and the West in Africa and conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine + the West, all of which have accentuated geopolitical trends in a seemingly irreversible direction. In 2023, when each barrel of oil counts from the perspective of a possible superpower confrontation, be it soft power or hard power, BRICS decided to invite Argentine, Egypt, Ethiopia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to join the group, against a general backdrop characterised by numerous debates on enlargement that emphasised the idea that BRICS member states are divided between different interests, and that they face structural problems that make the adoption of a common currency, unfeasible.
Noting that Johannesburg II Declaration1 is a comprehensive compilation of positions approved by all BRICS members, I would like to stress what BRICS stands for. And the preamble summarizes this brilliantly in the second article: “BRICS spirit of mutual respect and understanding, sovereign
equality, solidarity, democracy, openness, inclusiveness, strengthened collaboration and consensus”, “…three pillars of political and security, economic and financial, and cultural and people-to-people cooperation… promotion of peace, a more representative, fairer international
order, a reinvigorated and reformed multilateral system, sustainable development and inclusive growth”. Among other very precise requests, Article 7 of the Declaration specifically calls for a “comprehensive reform of the UN, including its Security Council…”, while mentioning issues
related to World Trade Organization (WTO) or International Monetary Fund (IMF) in other sections, among others.
While the declaration mentions UN Charter and its principles as the core of international cooperation, indicating clearly that BRICS is not against an international order based on well-established principles, the deficiencies suggested by the demands from this document are striking and reveal realities representative for billions of people living on this planet. Terms and expressions like “multilateralism”, “fulfil human rights in a non-selective, non-politicised and constructive manner and without double standards”, “legitimate aspirations of emerging and developing countries”, “open, transparent, fair, predictable, inclusive, equitable, non-discriminatory and rules-based multilateral trading system” make us wonder what did the international system achieved after 1945. Avoiding a full-scale nuclear confrontation has been been achieved, and this is a success, but apart from this, how did the world progress as a global community?
Former colonies, in the sense of imperial colonialism that ended gradually starting with the 19th century, received their independence, but did not develop economically as to compete with formal colonial powers. Poverty and hunger were limited, but were not abolished. In theory, finance was
free for every country to sovereignly control, but in practice the dollar dominated global investment and trade. International peace was relatively well upheld, but large-scale conflicts like the ones on the Korean Peninsula, in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, among others, were not avoided or briefly settled. Western Europe enjoyed a relatively stable peace, as the American-led Euro-Atlantic security block kept pushing eastward and mobilized all countries towards what was described as a historically just cause. Until recently, most countries on the planet accepted the monopoly of American computer and smart-phone operating systems, search engines and social media platforms.
From an ideological perspective, waves like neo-liberalism led to various outcomes. For example, some privatizations led to artificial price increases for utilities, forcing states to buy them back at higher prices from questionable companies. Furthermore, pyramidal structures of contractors, subcontractors in various fields, channelled public funds on islands most people have not really heard about. Large oil companies gathered billions of dollars by selling oil, gas and their by-products and expect societies to mobilize further funds now in order to tackle climate change. Some
of the countries that are strongly impacted neither cashed in for oil, nor did they use it to develop societies. All in all, the question raised by BRICS is whether the world developed fairly and equitably for most if not all nations around the globe? Developed nations, or more precisely rich interest groups from the so-called developed nations, would probably promote the idea that the world developed well, but this can be improved in the
Developing nations, that possess large natural resources but are forced into arrangements that prevent them from competing with established economies, are saying that there is an acute need to improve fairness related to international relations. Initiatives like the Non-Aligned
Movement or BRICS have been continuously seeking to overcome monopoly in various fields, stand against colonialism or modern forms of large-scale control and promote what they consider a more equitable international system.
The US and its allies, back then not including Germany and Japan, managed to win WWII and immediately prepared for the next one against the USSR. The question raised by emerging countries is whether this should still be paid for at the same level it used to be. Although the US
easily instated the Bretton Woods system from a winning position back in 1945, it does not control the same ratio of oil and other resources as it used to.
At the same time, our lives transformed in a way that almost escaped our scrutiny: while we benefit from theoretically huge advantages of digitalization and the internet, we lost our control over what used to be considered personal opinions and conversations, privacy, helping a small number of big corporations to multiply their market value. They use this wealth to finance communication channels to further advance their wealth and convince us that we are heading in the right direction. Which we probably are as a whole, but not each and every one of us at the same speed. From this perspective, I would like to point out that neither America nor Europe enforced legislation at the level of China’s legislation for algorithms and Artificial Intelligence. There is no perfect system, but this is not the question: the question is which system, or elements of a system are more
equitable on long-term, while not sacrificing core values and security of a society? Do we really need to eat bread with insect-flour to save the planet, while some power centres deploy large military assets and consume loads of hydrocarbon for classical armed conflicts?
Should we BRICS or not BRICS? BRICS is already BRICSing I would argue, and there is no guarantee that they will achieve all the goals they mention. There is also no guarantee that the goals will remain as they are stated now. India is not planning to use Belt and Road Initiative
infrastructure as of now, and hopes to deal with all power circles at its own interest, as well as Brasil in certain degree. Iran joins BRICS with the stated aim of de-dollarizing and escaping international isolation as many countries see the effect of financial sanctions on their long-term
development, while Egypt strives to reach a favourable agreement with Ethiopia on access to the Nile water under international law. But what about the UAE, given its relations with Israel and its presence in Africa, where it makes a special game?
BRICS is not United Nations, it is not NATO. They are not looking at history in order to try t undo facts, but to define a new development path that is not in line with the 1945 global arrangements. They will probably not approach world affairs in the same way the US and its allies did, hence thinking barriers have to be surpassed and efforts have to be carried out in order to better understand a more complex, dynamic and, as of now, potentially realistic alternative to the traditional post-1945 perspective that will or will not rely on the achievements of the 20th century.
Despite divisions among the BRICS members, there is an emerging consensus that the international order is not working and a new one is needed: whether BRICS will be the organisation that will recalibrate the international political situation, it is still too early to predict, while -as the previous speakers already mention, BRICS is still a process, not a product. In my view, for now Africa is the beginning or the end of the challenge for what BRICS wants to be as a product. Time will tell.
About the author:
Prof. Ecaterina MATOI is the Program Director at the Middle East Political and Economic Institute