/ 24 August 2023

Deciding Brics’ purpose will determine its future

Graphic Tl Brics2 Page 0001

Trying to write the “first draft of history” is rarely easy, even for the imprudent, and seldom wise. Discretion should be the better part of analytical valour. But sometimes you’ve got to go big, or go home: the Brics summit is more likely than not, in the fullness of time, to be recognised as momentous milestone in the re-alignment of geopolitical forces and institutional architecture. 

How so? Obviously, in economic as well as political terms the world has gone through a period of intense change over the past three decades. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama (in)famously declared it to be the “end of history”. (In fact, it was a bit more nuanced and complex than that, but it’s the bit everyone remembers). Meaning that “liberal democracy” had prevailed, and that a glorious new era of economic globalisation would sweep all before it. 

It did and it didn’t. Economically, the distinction between rich and poor countries has become fuzzy to the point of being meaningless. Many of the poorest people in the world live in “rich” countries. China can certainly no longer be sensibly described as a “developing” country. 

And therein lies the irony. This economic globalisation, which was supposed to be a permanent extension of Anglo-American capitalism, created — as Marx might well have predicted — the seeds of, if not its own destruction, then at least a new order that would challenge its dominance. 

Brics is one major symptom of this. The combined GDP of the five Brics countries is well on the way towards catching up with that of the G7 “Western” bloc. 

That is one starting point. The other is more political. Countries in the global south have long felt excluded from global governance and decision-making — the composition of the P5 (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council) is the most obvious example, China notwithstanding. But they did not have the power to press their case.

Now, perhaps, they do. At the very least, Brics is likely to establish itself as the global south alternative to the G7 — a counter-balance in the global institutional architecture. (With the addition of six members, we might also consider going with a similarly succinct styling, say, the B11.)

Whether this will be helpful to humanity in terms of tackling the most pressing concerns, such as climate change, remains to be seen. But at the very least, it will provide global south countries with an aperture for their frustrations and demands. It may reduce the influence or significance of the G20, or it may render it more important, as the meeting place for negotiation between the two blocs. 

So, Brics has regained its mojo. Big time. Many countries would like to join it. They see it as a club on the rise, with potential and meaning; a place where they can be included and not excluded. 

Much of this shift has been propelled by Russia’s war in Ukraine. The West’s stance has irritated many members of the global south, who resent the inconsistency in the application of the “international rule of law”. 

But that sense of injustice is not confined to Ukraine, but also fuelled by the way in which rich, Western countries handled the Covid-19 crisis and the roll-out of the vaccine — which exposed global inequalities, and the underbelly of naked Western self-interest. 

Brics, then, is already more relevant and more powerful. It is on the rise. 

What might deflate the sense of ambition (and hubris) emanating out of Sandton this week? 

One reason is the diversity of interests within the core group. There is as much that divides the group as unites it. From the South African perspective, for instance, it stands out as the only member with a clear path ahead of it as a secular, liberal democracy. (The evangelism of Brazil is debatable; Argentina may well embrace a libertarian president in its elections in October, and India has long drawn criticism for its Hindu nationalist nature, the increasingly illiberal tenor of its political leadership and culture, despite its long-standing democratic robustness.)

Deciding on whether to increase membership was the most potent issue to be decided. The lesson from other multilateral bodies is that you have to grow carefully, making sure that there are sufficient ties, common strategic interests and similar sized economies — the main obstacle to economic integration in Africa. 

The European Union, for example, was successful because the original member countries were of similar stature and economic size. Only once it started to grow fast and include countries with very different, and weaker, economies did the political project start to falter.

So, Brics will need to tread carefully. If it tries to run before it can walk, it may well stumble. 

Determining Brics’ purpose will be critical to the sturdiness or otherwise of its foundations. That in itself will be a challenge to the leaders. The existential question is acute: is Brics a political formation or an economic one, or both? 

The character and sense of strategy (or lack thereof) of the five leaders matters. It’s unlikely that the sense of current momentum could have been accomplished had Jair Bolsonaro not lost the election in Brazil to Luiz Lula da Silva last year. Similarly, next year, elections in South Africa, and especially India — the real rising power in the bloc — will matter greatly to the Brics’ future trajectory. 

This suggests that Brics is not yet institutionalised. It remains a quirk of history that could yet turn into something much more substantial. 

South Africa is fortunate that by virtue of the accident of history it is hosting this Brics summit at this particular time. The Sandton Declaration — or whatever piece of paper emerges — could enter the pantheon of global history. But only if the five leaders can exercise astute judgment about the scale and speed of Brics ambition — and its core reason to exist.

Richard Calland is director of the Africa Office of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

The views are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian