How BRICS Countries Help to Define a Truly New World Order

How BRICS Countries Help to Define a Truly New World Order

How BRICS Countries Help to Define a Truly New World Order

Its upcoming summit will reveal its growing power.


June 18, Washington, D.C.—The international grouping known as BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa—has maintained a generally low profile on the world scene since its founding in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008–09. But last year, the combined economic output of the five BRICS members, measured in purchasing power parity, for the first time exceeded that of the US-led G7. And this year, BRICS is poised to move to a much more powerful role in world affairs: It looks as if 13 significant other nations from the Global South, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, may be admitted to the grouping at its upcoming summit, slated for late August in South Africa.

The current vitality of BRICS starkly highlights the failure of Washington’s push to strangle Russia economically and politically in response to Moscow’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. It also, more broadly, indicates that the domination that a handful of Western nations have exercised over global affairs for 500-plus years is now giving way to a very different, much less white-dominated world.

Three key developments underlie the current growth of the group’s heft. One is the anger that nations of the Global South felt at the way Western nations monopolized access to medical supplies and key patents during the fight against Covid. Another is the success in last November’s Brazilian elections of former president Lula da Silva, which ended the four-year rule of right-winger Jair Bolsonaro: With Lula’s victory, Brazil resumed its commitment to the development-focused and South-oriented policies that have always lain at the heart of the BRICS venture.

The third root of the group’s current vitality is the strong global backlash to the economic sanctions that President Biden imposed on Russia last year. Over recent decades, economic sanctions have been one of the first tools US leaders have used in response to foreign-policy challenges. In the vast majority of these cases—from the sanctions put on Cuba in 1959 through those put on Iraq in the 1990s, or those kept on Iran, Venezuela, Syria, or Afghanistan until today—these sanctions have hurt ordinary citizens very badly while entrenching the hold on power of the governments that US leaders said they wanted to reform or overthrow. (Go figure.)

In the present century, the list of countries whose leaders and national institutions are on Washington’s “Team Sanctioned” has grown ever longer. In 2018, President Trump slapped trade tariffs on China, which thereby became the founding member of “Team Tariffed.” President Biden has kept those anti-Chinese tariffs in place, while also adding sanctions on several Chinese state entities.

Then, in early 2022, Washington abruptly added Russia, which has a large and robust economic base, to Team Sanctioned. That step paradoxically boosted the efforts that the sanctioned and tariffed nations had long been making to find alternatives to the tools that Washington has used to enforce its sanctions. The period since February 2022 has seen a rapid rise in the use by these countries’ traders of currencies other than the dollar to denominate their sales of oil and other commodities. (Welcome to the rise of the petroyuan!) We have also seen big steps by policy-makers from Team Sanctioned and Team Tariffed in developing payment systems other than the SWIFT mechanism that has long been one of the major tools Washington has used to implement sanctions.

The founding impetus for the BRICS grouping was always, from 2009 on, to build economic coordination among its members. That impetus came into full play after Washington’s broad 2022 expansion of sanctions against Russia. But China has also been eager for some years to have its BRICS partners back up the increasingly successful political diplomacy it has pursued in several parts of the world. Back in March, China achieved a huge diplomatic coup when it unveiled a rapprochement between longtime US ally Saudi Arabia and US target Iran that it had been quietly working on for many months. That breakthrough has already resulted in some valuable steps toward de-escalation in West Asia (the Middle East). It also drew those two countries and the United Arab Emirates, a key Saudi ally, more closely toward the non-US trading system being established by BRICS.

Hence the presence of those three countries’ foreign ministers at the BRICS meeting in Cape Town in early June. And hence the likelihood that these three countries will be among those admitted to full membership of BRICS this August.

Officials in the existing BRICS countries have been generally tight-lipped about which countries will be joining the bloc as it expands, and when. U.S. News & World Report names 10 countries besides the three named above that were represented in-person or virtually at the Cape Town meeting, and that may well be admitted to BRICS this August.

The whole of the statement that the BRICS foreign ministers issued at the end of their Cape Town summit is worth reading. It provides a rich picture of the bloc’s concerns and values, stressing that its work is based on “the three pillars of political and security, economic and financial, and cultural and people-to-people cooperation.” The statement includes several denunciations of “unilateral economic measures” (the UN’s code word for US sanctions).

The ministers made clear (Item 18) that they did not have a unified position on the Ukraine crisis. But they “noted with appreciation relevant proposals of mediation and good offices aimed at peaceful resolution of the conflict through dialogue and diplomacy.” They also called for the full implementation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

BRICS is a young and distinctive type of grouping in world politics. All its member nations (except Russia) have deep, vivid memories of the harms their peoples suffered during earlier centuries of white, Western rule over their countries. In that, they are similar to the Non-Aligned Movement of the 1960s. But the BRICS leaders are different from the NAM’s in that they do not seek to define themselves primarily in relation to the world’s large military blocs. Instead, they define their interests and goals in primarily economic terms, sidestepping as much as they can the matter of military alignment or nonalignment. (They showed that in the agnosticism they expressed in Cape Town on the issue of the war in Ukraine.) Indeed, though Washington likes to count existing BRICS member India and several of the candidate members among its allies, most BRICS members and candidate members see little problem in having Russia continue to be one of the bloc’s core members.

The current BRICS members represent more than 40 percent of global humanity. That proportion looks set to increase, perhaps dramatically, over the months ahead. (The population of majority-white countries today amounts to less than 12 percent of the world total.) Over the past year, BRICS members, like many other nations of the Global South, have shown themselves capable—to an incomplete but unexpected extent—of resisting the pressures Washington has exerted to have them line up behind its anti-Russian agenda.

Now, as the size and heft of the BRICS bloc seems set to expand further, this expansion will have growing effects on the texture of global politics, in two main ways. First, as we can see in the way BRICS itself has developed, the world they want to build is one in which the shared development of economic ties and infrastructure proves important than military blocs or attempts at military dominance. Second, it will be a world with a broader, more interwoven distribution of decision-making power, in place of the “angular” (bipolar or unipolar) power structures that have dominated world affairs since 1945.

The coming weeks will see two notable summit meetings of global leaders. In July, the leaders of the NATO countries will meet in Vilnius, Lithuania, where they will assess the results of their campaign to support Ukraine in its war against Russia, and wrestle with the issue of how and when to implement their longstanding (but vague) promise that Ukraine will be offered NATO membership at some stage. In August, the leaders of BRICS—including, most likely, Russia’s President Putin—will be meeting in South Africa, where they’ll be reviewing their organization’s path forward and quite possibly admitting some significant new members. Both gatherings will have significant impact on the global dynamics of the coming decades. But the one in South Africa looks set to be the more momentous.

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