The formalisation and institutionalisation of enhanced cooperation between the BRICS countries was always mired in controversy as some questioned the viability of the partnership based on the differences of the BRICS countries. However, what is clear from the recent BRICS Summit in Ufa is that despite the steady flow of criticism and sometimes ridicule levelled against the grouping, it has slowly sought areas of common interest while carefully avoiding matters of disagreement. They may not appear a coherent grouping to the outside eye, but the Ufa declaration, coupled with the Memorandum of Understanding on the New Development Bank, and the newly adopted Economic Partnership Strategy show tangible signs of a movement away from rhetoric towards operationalising the partnership. The following analysis uses the contents of these documents and agreements to take stock of what took place in Ufa and what it means about the nature of the partnerships being carved out by the BRICS group of countries.
While some have simplistically seen the growing ties as an anti-Western alliance determined to turn the international order upside down, a closer look at the various documents adopted shows a more pragmatic partnership not driven so much by an attempt to overturn the post-1945 global arrangements which have seen Western nations at the helm of global politics, but by a desire for more recognition of their position and importance in a increasingly multipolar world order. This is plain to see in the BRICS economic partnership strategy document, which states that among the basic principles of the joint strategy is their ‘recognition of the multipolar nature of the global economic and financial system.’
What is evident is that despite consistent attempts to reform international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), the BRICS are not about to abandon the post-1945 global order but instead seek to reform it in line with contemporary realities in the distribution of global power. Indeed they have been among the greatest beneficiaries of existing institutions such as the United Nations (UN) and World Trade Organisation (WTO), a point that consistently comes across in the Ufa declaration and BRICS Strategy document. Rather than seeing these nation states as seeking to overturn the international order, it would be more appropriate to see them as gradual global reformers, especially since they have arguably been among the staunchest defenders of the UN system and its multitude of institutions and agencies. Thus, whereas some tend to see emerging powers as natural opponents of the status quo, in reality these nation states seek to maintain the status quo in some areas while seeking reforms in other areas.
Indeed while the Ufa declaration states that ‘China and Russia reiterate the importance they attach to the status and role of Brazil, India, and South Africa in international affairs and support their aspiration to play a greater role in the UN,’ the statement is far from an actual endorsement of a restructuring of the Security Council. Principles of sovereign equality and respect for the domestic affairs of nation states are thus a recurring feature of the joint statements prepared by BRICS heads of state, which often criticise Western countries for breaking these traditional laws in the international state system and moving away from multilateralism by undermining the World Trade Organisation through free trade agreements such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which both exclude the BRICS economies and most developing countries.
While not overturning the existing order, the BRICS countries have evidently lost patience in the willingness or capability of the West to incorporate them further into key decision making on global financial governance. This explains their statement in the Ufa declaration which reads ‘[we] remain deeply disappointed with the prolonged failure by the Unites States to ratify the IMF 2010 reform package, which continues to undermine the credibility, legitimacy and effectiveness of the IMF.’ These reform efforts have been conducted simultaneously with efforts to strengthen the G20 as an institution at the centre of coordinating global governance efforts.
What is clear is that interests, and not a similar political ideology or world view is what brings the BRICS together. As long as their interests converge on major global issues, the BRICS will continue to enhance cooperation through the pragmatism on display in Ufa and previous summits. It should thus not come as a surprise that the BRICS countries oppose a unipolar world while seeking to usher in a multipolar world acknowledging their presence and able to keep the United States and its Western allies in check.
This does not amount to an undermining of the international order; however, as seen by the United States’ attempts to discourage various actors from joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the US continues to find it difficult to accept a leadership role for nation states outside the traditional Western alliance. As noted by Oliver Stuenkel, ‘[b]eing part of both US and Chinese led institutions is likely to provide Brasilia, Delhi and others with flexibility and room for manoeuvre and may help them increase their bargaining power in existing structures.’
While it may indeed be misleading to argue that current actions are aimed at fundamentally overturning the international order, one should not be blind to the reality that it is the distribution of power and the manner in which it is wielded that lies at the heart of various initiatives by the BRICS countries. In taking stock of the recent Summit, it is evident that while one may not speak of a BRICS world order or world view, it is safe to say that a multipolar world order is increasingly gaining momentum as BRICS countries affirm the US led world order on the one hand, while simultaneously building parallel yet non-confrontational institutions. As Fyodor Lukyanov puts it, ‘The BRICS may be non-Western but they are not anti-Western.’ This indeed is an important distinction.
Dr. Philani Mthembu is Senior Researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue and co-founder of the Berlin Forum on Global Politics. Unless stated otherwise, the views expressed in this article are solely his own.