As the BRICS summit gets underway in South Africa, it is worth remembering that there is perhaps no other grouping in which the gap between aspiration and reality is as wide as in this one. The BRICS was born in a moment when a particular configuration of the global order seemed possible. At its most ambitious, it was meant to be an ideational challenge to the way in which the global system thought of development and the rebalance of power in the international system. Now the same argument is being used to advocate for an expansion of the BRICS to create what Cyril Ramaphosa called a “common desire to have a more balanced global order.” But what is left unsaid is “balancing against whom, and for what?”
The BRICS was always going to be a challenging grouping, since there was nothing organic to hold it together. It had no common enemy, except a vague desire to balance the West. It had no commitment to common political values. It positioned itself as a grouping for development, without specifying any real alternatives to the current global system. Its first summit was held in 2009, at a moment when the world thought the collapse of western economies was imminent. So long as the BRICS countries did not themselves have deeply conflicted interests, it served as an alternative mode of socialisation, both of leaders and publics, in a way that was not focused on the West. But at this historical juncture, the lack of an organic function is coming to haunt the BRICS.
The rebalancing against a dominant developmental order designed by the West is an important feature of global politics. But it has been complicated by several developments. First, the demand for rebalancing is now, arguably, directed as much against China, as anyone else. Post 2009, for a moment it seemed the rest of the world would want to both strategically and economically rebalance the West. But now the logics of strategic and economic rebalancing are pulling in different directions, drawing many countries closer into the orbit of the West. Arguably, the strategic rebalancing against China is at least as much a concern for the developing world as rebalancing the West.
The developmental vision of the BRICS is woefully underdeveloped. Initially, it was directed against the asymmetric bargaining power of the West, particularly in the development space. That rationale still retains some sense. It may have been given more urgency by the West’s full-blown display of narcissism during the Covid crisis, and the unilateral weaponising of the world economy in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So the rest of the world is better off hedging on currency and other institutional options. If this is the rationale for the BRICS, then the case for expansion is strong.
But there are limits to how far it can go in its current state. For example, on the currency issue, it is not clear that it is in the interests of most BRICS countries to strengthen the status of the renminbi beyond a point. The BRICS could be a good champion for indebted developing nations, arguing, as India is, for systematic debt relief. But China is as much an obstacle to a global settlement of this issue as anyone else. Now that the world trade and supply system is unraveling, in part because of unilateral actions by the big powers, the BRICS are not emerging as a voice for an open trading system — something from which all of them benefited in the early part of the century. Ironically, South South cooperation also depends fundamentally on an open trading system which none of the BRICS countries are now committed to. Another area of South South cooperation could have been research and innovation. With the exception of China, most BRICS nations are cutting down spending on research as a percentage of GDP. Rebalancing without research innovation is peddling illusions.
Countries like India have potentially interesting developmental solutions to offer. But the BRICS Bank was narrow in its focus. And the ultimate irony is that even a capital flush bank, created in another context, the AIIB, is actually piggy-backing on World Bank projects. The BRICS’s attempts to create alternative institutions like a credit rating agency have faltered. So much for alternative development visions coming from this rebalancing. Indeed, when the BRICS came together in 2009, there was still some sheen on each of the BRICS countries. China was seen as an alternative development model; now countries are looking to leverage it, but they don’t see it as a model. India seems to have decent growth prospects, but its democratic credentials have eroded; South Africa is close to an existential legitimation crisis, and Brazil’s trajectory is less secure than it looked 15 years ago.
Climate change is the single biggest challenge of our times. There is not much of a developing countries coalition that has managed a massive push towards climate financing for these countries. Ironically, the fate of the world on climate change now does not rest on the successful outcome of a “rebalanced” negotiation between North and South. It actually, for the moment, rests on mostly unilateral innovations in the US and China. Most of the institutional mechanisms — re-envisioning development, multilateral cooperation, climate financing — have not got us anywhere near where the world wants to be in terms of combating climate change.
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So the world is on a wing and a prayer, hoping that some form of techno-solutionism of Chinese innovation or the Inflation Reduction Act in the US, will drive down the cost of climate change relevant technologies. But that makes the prospect of rebalancing power towards the rest of the developing world harder.
The BRICS’s self-justification as a form of rebalancing is fighting yesterday’s battle. It is still a useful forum for socialisation. It also gives diplomats shadow-boxing matches to play on prestige, while crises go unsolved. Great power competition is now putting world peace at risk in a way not seen for decades. The BRICS is often compared with Bandung. But this comparison is inept.
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When the non-aligned movement was created, its explicit function was to try and prevent the world from blowing up in the face of great power military and ideological competition. What the world needs at the moment is more rebalancing against both the US and China, something that throws cold water on their brinkmanship. The BRICS is turning out to be a symptom of global dysfunction, not a potential solution.
The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express
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