Global Agenda

Is the definitive end of the unipolar world approaching? BRICS, a group of nations from the Global South, is trying to compete with the West

Bianka Niňajová

The geopolitical bloc comprising major emerging economies, known as BRICS, has successfully concluded its 15th consecutive summit, commencing on August 22. Key representatives from Brazil, India, China, Russia, and South Africa convened in Johannesburg, South Africa. The primary focus of the three-day negotiations was to reshape the global order and amplify the influence of the BRICS bloc. This in-person meeting, the first since the 2019 pandemic outbreak, was attended by the leaders of all nations except Russia. However, Vladimir Putin addressed his allies solely via video conference. Moscow’s decision was prompted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) charging the Russian president with war crimes in March related to the abduction of Ukrainian children from occupied territory. Since South Africa is a signatory to the ICC treaty, Putin’s participation in the summit could potentially lead to his immediate arrest, based on an issued arrest warrant. Nonetheless, it remains uncertain whether South Africa will adhere to the ICC’s directives. Historically, the African nation has maintained a neutral stance towards Russian actions in Ukraine, though it is perceived as a Russian ally in the Western world. Consequently, the Kremlin opted to send the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, to Africa, who characterised Western actions and the current sanctions imposed on Russia as ‘financial blackmail’. Notably, none of the BRICS member countries have publicly condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine, further dividing the global community. One potential reason could be Russia’s hosting of next year’s BRICS meeting.

A persistent aversion towards the West and the rejection of Western values and ideals have been the driving forces behind the BRICS alliance since its inception. The original acronym, BRIC, was coined by British economist Jim O’Neill in 2001 to encompass Brazil, Russia, India, and China. The formal alliance was established in 2009, initially featuring a quartet of nations with growing economic influence and the potential to become major global players in the future. In 2010, South Africa joined the group, prompting the change from BRIC to BRICS. Following this year’s three-day summit, BRICS reaffirmed its openness to new members and its readiness to construct a more robust coalition of developing nations, better representing the interests of the Global South. Over 40 countries have expressed interest in joining the alliance, with 23 submitting formal applications. In a statement during the summit’s final day, the bloc announced its acceptance of six new members: Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Ethiopia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Consequently, BRICS will encompass representatives from the Middle East and North Africa, regions hitherto unrepresented. Turkey and Algeria, though expressing strong interest in joining, have not yet gained acceptance.

The revamped BRICS+, comprising 42% of the world’s population and 36% of global GDP, is a formidable entity on paper. China has ascended to superpower status and plays a pivotal role in the international arena. India is poised to become the world’s fastest-growing economy this year, positioning it as a potential future global power. Despite facing economic challenges in recent years, Brazil and Russia continue to wield significant international influence. With the inclusion of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran, the bloc will also encompass the world’s three largest oil producers. Since its inception, the BRICS has served as a platform for major developing nations to augment their global influence commensurate with their economic growth, challenging the prevailing Western-dominated world order in favour of a multipolar system. In this understanding, BRICS was created as a counterpoint to the already existing G7 association, a group of the seven most advanced democracies in the world. Notably, one of BRICS’ major achievements was the establishment of the New Development Bank, conceived as an alternative to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The New Development Bank maintains a regional branch in each BRICS member state and extends loans in Chinese yuan, with plans to include Brazilian and South African currencies. The idea of ‘de-dollarizing’ the global economy and introducing a competing BRICS currency has gained traction. However, BRICS’ ability to compete with Western democratic coalitions hinges on its eventual direction. The future lies in two distinct visions held by China and India, long-standing rivals.

Should the group align with the Indian vision, it would prioritise increased cooperation among developing nations and seek engagement with the Western world. Collaborative discussions could aim to reform the international economic and financial system while addressing global challenges such as the climate crisis and its ramifications. This alternative appeals particularly to countries willing to reshape the current world order without aligning directly with the United States of America. Conversely, if China’s vision prevails, the bloc could evolve into a platform primarily focused on an anti-American agenda. Nevertheless, Western nations must remain attentive to the perspectives of developing countries and avoid disregarding their unique worldview.

However, for the time being, experts concur that BRICS does not pose an immediate threat to liberal values and the democratic world order. A complete overhaul of this world order is not anticipated and BRICS may function more as a complement to the existing global system. Anti-Western sentiments alone may not suffice to consolidate the BRICS block. Even with only five members, the group comprised a diverse array of countries with conflicting interests. These differing priorities among individual members constitute the second significant impediment to the alliance’s development. Tensions and longstanding disputes persist, even among new members. Iran, for example, has a territorial dispute with the United Arab Emirates over three islands. Egypt opposes the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile River, which could reduce water levels and pose a risk of water scarcity for Egypt. Furthermore, tensions exist between Saudi Arabia and the UAE regarding the situation in Yemen.

As the group expands, these disparities may widen, making consensus and determining the bloc’s future direction increasingly challenging. Some contend that the alliance serves as a vehicle for the most powerful nations to advance their individual interests. While South Africa, Brazil, and India seek to get a better terms in the global arena, China is using BRICS to enhance its global ambitions. Nevertheless, in general, BRICS represents a vision of a multipolar world, departing from the unipolar world order dominated by the United States.

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This brief is supported by

NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division

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