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BRICS in search of identity

As the 4th BRICS Leaders’ Meeting gets underway in New Delhi at the end of this month, a tone-setting forum of academics from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa issued a declaration that, among other things recommended: “BRICS must evolve a platform for creating contextualized multilateral policies, and by mutual consultation develop viable and credible mechanisms to respond to local, regional and international political and social turbulence such as the events being witnessed in West Asia and North Africa…”

Recognising that: “The increasing involvement of non-state actors and the dilution of non-interference are dual challenges that need to be met. Appropriate policies consistent with international law need to be studied by BRICS academic institutions.”

Whether, at the official level, any of this unsolicited advice is taken on board, the sentiments expressed in these recommendations reflect the extent to which the global economic agenda of BRICS has gravitated in an increasingly political direction. The main motivation behind the launching of BRIC (without South Africa) in 2009 was the increasing assertiveness by China and Russia in pressing for movement away from the US Dollar as the world’s reserve currency.

Coming in the wake of the global financial collapse of the 2008 and the discrediting of western capitalism, this political move against the dollar led the way for the BRIC quartet to begin articulating a more confident voice for emerging economic powers and developing countries; in the wake of the financial-induced collapse in the US and Europe, that voice has insisted on change in global economic governance, including reform of the Bretton Woods institutions, an end to the leadership monopolies of Europe and America over the IMF and World Bank respectively.

The momentum of international politics flowing from the economic downturn in the ‘global North,’ propelled China, perhaps more quickly, into a global leadership role than Beijing desired. But as the putative leader among emerging powers, China’s ascendance has tracked the rise of BRIC, turned BRICS with South Africa, as the leading ‘caucus’ within the global economic governance domain of the G20; the G20 eclipsing the G8. But how this BRICS leadership role as the counterpoint to the G7 (without Russia) and the OECD is to exert its influence is yet to achieve clarity.

The fact that the BRICS were not ready to insist on a candidate to succeed Dominique Strauss-Kahn at IMF and will likely acquiesce in the US choosing an American to succeed fellow American  Robert Zoellik at the World Bank belies a more gradualist agenda. That said, BRICS has tended to emphasize its niche as a grouping preoccupied with global economic governance and development finance and investment; flowing from the Sino-Russian initial challenges against the US Dollar, the mobilizing of an alternative international capitalist system of non-western emerging markets and developing economies is the aim of BRICS. In this respect, BRICS has begun succeeding in achieving a more clearly resolved identity of multilateral utility.

It remains to be further clarified how this alternative economic system of emerging capitalisms will manifest itself. Will it move in a ‘decoupling’ direction which may, in any case, be impossible given the increasingly integrated interdependence of the global economy? Or become an autonomous but complementary and supplemental component of the incumbent system?

What kind of geopolitical and geoeconomic dynamics will emerge as the underpinnings of a ‘BRICS system’ remains to be determined as well. For example, this incipient system is taking shape on two tracks: one revolving around the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) led by China and Russia with India as an observer; the other, the more globalized BRICS ‘caucus’ within which is nested a potential southern hemispheric system revolving around the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) Trilateral Dialogue Forum.

There seems to be something of a ‘tug-of-war’ between Moscow and Beijing over how the financial terms of reference of economic relations within the SCO will shape up as Russia seeks to reconsolidate regional hegemony within the Commonwealth of Independence States (CIS) while moving closer toward an energy security-based partnership with a resurgent Germany within an ailing Europe. Within BRICS there is a discernible debate emerging over how and at what pace the BRICS Banking Mechanism will assume a more coherent shape.

China seems more focused on internationalizing BRICS currencies, especially its own within an intra-BRICS currency payments framework; India, more focused on institutionalizing an inter-BRICS developmental financing and investment agenda in the form of a ‘South-South Development Bank.’ As for South Africa, Tshwane-Pretoria will have to sort out how these diverse agendas can optimally add value to Africa’s surging economic growth as well as benefiting its own domestic growth and development agenda; how BRICS financing can propel African regional and continental integration through emphasizing infrastructural development.

But intruding on the BRICS economic and development financing agenda is an inconvenient challenge of global and regional security. Here, international political and diplomatic imperatives with manifestly geopolitical overtones are intruding on the BRICS global economic governance and developmental agenda. This was not suppose to be the case.

However, the historic conjuncture of all five countries (permanent and non-permanent alike) sitting on the UN Security Council in 2011 at a time of the bursting forth of a transnational democratic revolution in the Arab world forced onto the BRICS agenda issues that China and Russia especially would have preferred to keep on the backburner. Deviating from the economics of global governance, these issues strike at the heart of devising a compelling norms and values alternative to western-backed ‘humanitarian’ interventions in conflict situations between popular opposition forces and incumbent regimes.

Whether this is possible or not, BRICS, at both official and non-official levels feels compelled to strike some sort of balance between interventionist impulses and preferences for ‘non-interference.’ The fact that this dilemma presented by upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa has shattered geopolitical alignments between Moscow and Beijing on the one hand and much of the Arab world, while also splitting the South, has reinforced insecurities that ‘winds of change’ from these upheavals might trigger similar strivings in China and Russia. After all, the popular Russian all-female punk group ‘Pussy Riot’ lyrically intones: “Egyptian air is good for the lungs! Lets make Tahrir in the middle of Red Square…”

By the end of 2011, stirrings of ‘regime change’ against the second coming of a Putin presidency were palpable as was political unrest in the Chinese village of Wukan. Wukan was becoming symbolic of possible oppositional yearnings catching hold in China. Bo Xilai’s ouster from the leadership echelons of the Chinese Communist Party amid warning by outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao that political reform is needed to ward off any possibility of a return to ‘great proletarian cultural revolution’ chaos are yet other indicators. Since similar winds of change are blowing in the west, a principle of convergence might be articulated around a concept of maximum popular participatory governance transcending political systems. Can/will BRICS articulate such a principle? 

At the international security level, Brazil has taken the lead within BRICS in devising a ‘Responsibility While Protecting’ (RWP) nuance to the ‘Responsibility to Protect,’ the latter principle rationalizing momentum within the west and parts of the Arab world for interventions in Libya and Syria-type crises. Where the BRICS countries may have an opening in redefining the moral as well as the political terms of intervention is in honing in on a major problem area of the western-Arab League approach to the ‘Arab awakening’: their tendency to politically endorse democratic oppositions in a manner that encourages them to make ‘regime change’ preconditional to negotiating and end to violence and toward political settlement. Overcoming this impulse might open the way for diplomatic convergences wherein incumbent repressive regimes become susceptible to external pressure to end violent crackdowns on the opposition.

In the final analysis, the eclipsing of the ‘non-interference’ principle in BRICS peace and security diplomacy is unavoidable. In today’s world of 7 billion human beings (going on 9 billion by 2050), ‘non-interference’ is not an option. Everyone interferes in everyone else’s affairs whether they want to or not. This is the bottom-line challenge to the aspirational intentions of BRICS in articulating an authoritative voice on the security dimensions of global governance.      

Francis A. Kornegay Jr. is a senior research associate with the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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