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How does BRICS challenge the prevailing international order?

As the 15th BRICS summit occurs next week, the Council on Geostrategy asks six strategic experts to explain how the group challenges the prevailing international order

Malte Brosig, University of the Witwatersrand

After the hype of rising powers at the beginning of the millennium, the BRICS group experienced a phase of lower growth rates and domestic challenges. This turned around opinions on the prospects of the group having an impact on global order. In fact, neither the World Bank nor International Monetary Fund or United Nations Security Council underwent substantial reforms. However, mostly unrecognised by international commentators, BRICS developed into a robust framework for cooperation with around 130 meetings a year solidifying cooperation among its members. BRICS provides value first of all for its members.  

With Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the group has been put to the test. Are the flowery declarations referring to non-intervention and territorial integrity worth the paper they are written on? In any case, the war once more demonstrates how BRICS are attempting actively to shape the international order. No BRICS member openly criticised Russia for its behaviour, which comes close to tacitly accepting Russia’s action. BRICS members also have not followed Western sanctions and attempts to isolate Russia. The narrative of an expansionist Russia is not uncontested in BRICS countries. Instead, Western sanctions alerted BRICS members to their own vulnerabilities. Discussions on de-dollarisation and extending the group have gained track.

Klaus Dodds, Royal Holloway University

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine brought to the fore pre-existing tensions with Arctic governance. Russia had already pivoted towards the People’s Republic of China (PRC), India and others for essential investment, technology transfer and market share following the sanctions imposed on it post-2014. And today, in enabling the development of its vast north, Russia remains dependent on external partners.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2022 provoked the remaining Arctic states (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the United States(US)) to suspend collaboration under the auspices of the Arctic Council, coincidentally at the time when Russia was its chair. Half of the Arctic region is Russian and without Russia’s participation others, notably the PRC, have argued that the Arctic Council is not legitimate. 

The BRICS countries have proven their worth to Russia when it comes to the Arctic. The PRC invests heavily in Arctic energy projects located in Russia; India is the largest buyer of Russian oil; Brazil has been ambivalent about Putin’s aggression (and expressed interest in becoming an observer to the Arctic Council) with South Africa remaining officially ‘neutral’, and continuing to collaborate with Russia on Antarctic matters. One obvious area of interest for Russia if collaboration within the Arctic Council was to be restored would be to widen the pool of observer states, perhaps to include all BRICS nations.

Mark Galeotti, Council on Geostrategy

In many ways, the whole notion of the BRICS – insofar as it has any real organising principle – is that these are outsiders wanting to be insiders, and if they cannot have a seat on the existing top table, they will establish their own. However, it is a sign of the limitations of ‘BRICS’ as a concept that between the five members there are fully three alternative perspectives. Russia is a declining power that wants to regain its old status. The PRC is a would-be new hegemon looking to create a new order. The other three would actually rather like to be on that top table, and see this more as an intervening step.

So BRICS does not so much challenge the status quo as reflect its limitations. Nations rise and decline, and so long as the ‘international order’ looks like a comfortable, Western-shaped one designed to keep interlopers out, then by definition it will be challenged. However, most of the BRICS nations do not want it destroyed, they just want their place in it and their own interests protected.

George Magnus, China Centre, Oxford University

The BRICS meeting in Johannesburg next week brings together a disparate group of incumbent and would-be countries that have next to nothing in common economically. But many have a stated, or theoretical, political aversion to the US dollar. They are expected to discuss deepening the use of their currencies in trade, and conceivably the creation of a common BRICS currency. Yet what appears to be a potential threat to the US dollar-based global monetary system, is all political rhetoric and lacking in substance.

BRICS is about the PRC, which accounts overwhelmingly for the BRICS share of world population, Gross Domestic Product and trade. In fact, the BRICS as a whole could not look less like an optimal currency area in which markets and regulations become integrated, something which economists regard as essential for a joint or common currency. With additional members, BRICS would become more diverse but also more dysfunctional as an economic bloc. 

Some have suggested a BRICS currency might be backed by gold, and used widely for trade. But what matters is not the currency in which invoices are paid for expats and imports, but the one in which balances accumulate as a result. This requires someone to have deep and broad capital markets, trust, the rule of law, a freely convertible currency and pooled reserves. It certainly is not the PRC, and the rest disqualify themselves for various reasons. In the end, they all need US dollars and access to US capital markets, regardless of policies or sanctions.

Jagannath Panda, Stockholm Center for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs

BRICS as a grouping of emerging economies which represent more than 40% of the world’s population by its very existence challenges economic and political governance systems led by Western nations. As the existing order lacks diverse representation, BRICS serves as an alternative economic and governance platform which seeks to create momentum toward a more equitable multipolar order. Yet, this powerful political symbolism has not translated into achievements commensurate with the group’s ambitions. Though establishing a multilateral development financial institution (namely the New Development Bank (NDB)), coalescing the emerging world into a distinct political identity, and looking to develop alternative ways of economic cooperation are certainly laudable results.

As the battle lines between the US, its allies and partners, and the PRC/Russia have hardened as a result of Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine, there has been increasing interest from outsiders wanting to join the PRC-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and BRICS. When more than 40 countries express interest in joining a forum like BRICS, the world needs to take notice. Worryingly, however, in these forums, due to Russia’s current pariah status, the PRC’s clout has grown. Yet internal dissonance, especially due to the PRC’s clear aim of expanding its geopolitical influence in the non-Western world and India’s rejection of a PRC-dominated BRICS, will make expansion difficult – especially the indiscriminate kind.

Nonetheless, the proposed expansion of BRICS will not lose its shine just yet. Firstly, this is because the geoeconomic might of a well-thought-out expansion would be significant, even as plans to create a fairer monetary system may not be feasible right now. Secondly, the political implications of BRICS as a multipolar, better-represented, consensus-based forum cannot be cast aside easily.

Eerishika Pankaj, Organisation for Research on China and Asia

BRICS presents a noteworthy challenge to the established international order as its members pursue alternative pathways and mechanisms for international diplomacy and finance to the established ones. There are four key ways in which the BRICS countries do this.

First, BRICS seeks geopolitical alignment by advocating for a multipolar world, and uses cultural diplomacy and the projection of soft power in its quest to become more influential. Secondly, traditional power structures within international financial institutions are also challenged via, for example, the establishment of the NDB. Further, although no BRICS member is trying to export its domestic system, the exhibition of diverse developmental trajectories, such as the PRC’s state-led capitalism, challenges the appeal of liberal-democratic models. Finally, BRICS champions reform which questions the legitimacy of global institutions, such as the G7, which have long upheld the status quo.

The question, however, is whether a group of emerging nations which share a preference for a multipolar global framework and some grievances about the prevailing international order is enough to establish BRICS as a coherent and pertinent geopolitical bloc. BRICS nations are a heterogeneous composition, marked by diverse civilisational and cultural contexts. Consequently, the assumption BRICS could transform the international order encounters challenges, particularly given the divergent anticipations harboured by BRICS members concerning exactly what this new world would look like. For instance, India and the PRC have conflicting interests and visions concerning the future of Asia and, by extension, the broader global order. Hence, while BRICS presents a forum for challenging the prevailing order, its effectiveness in steering substantial shifts remains contingent on reconciling the divergent expectations held by its member states.

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