BRICS showed it’s little more than a meaningless acronym

The summit broke up with BRICS enlarging their membership roster. (AFP)
The summit broke up with BRICS enlarging their membership roster. (AFP)


  • Its expansion can’t hide how hollow this grouping has turned out

The 15th summit of BRICS countries, which was held in South Africa, received unprecedented international attention. Some commentators even invoked the Bandung conference of 1955, where leaders of India, China, Indonesia, Egypt and Yugoslavia launched the non-aligned movement (NAM). It seemed as though another generation of leaders, this time from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, were building an alternative to the US-dominated global order.

As it happened, their doings and sayings ranged from the semi-farcical to the meaningless. According to a leading South African news website, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi refused to leave his aircraft on arrival in South Africa because the host, President Cyril Ramaphosa, wasn’t at the airport to welcome him. China’s Xi Jinping inexplicably failed to deliver a scheduled speech at an opening event where the other leaders spoke, including Russian President Vladimir Putin on video link.

Putin, who didn’t travel due to fear of arrest for war crimes, unsurprisingly blamed the West for his war in Ukraine. Xi’s speech decried a country, unnamed but recognizable, that is “obsessed with maintaining its hegemony" and obstructing China’s rise. Much agitated talk, notably from President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, of de-dollarization and an alternative BRICS currency came to nothing.

The summit broke up with BRICS enlarging their membership roster. The group will now include crisis-roiled Argentina and Ethiopia as well as oil-rich Saudi Arabia and, until very recently, the latter’s enemy, Iran. There is still no clarity about what alternative institutions it plans to build. A scheduled news briefing that might have helped clarify this was cancelled on Wednesday in order to give, Ramaphosa claimed, journalists “rest."

What then should we make of a group that started life as a casual acronym coined by a British economist at a US securities firm to pitch investments. Rather, how can we avoid exaggerating the importance of BRICS as a counterweight to the decades-old US-led global order?

To be sure, a rebalancing of the West’s geopolitical and economic power has been overdue for more than a century. But a generation of Western journalists and commentators are prone to over-interpret this basic historical dynamic.

Two global conflagrations and the destruction of European empires gave the US its hegemonic position. But the West’s Cold War with the Soviet Union, and eventual triumph, distracted it for too long from the more consequential event of the 20th century: decolonization.

Once liberated from commodity-extractive and coercive trading relationships with Western nations, Asian, Latin American and African countries were always likely to regain some of their old wealth and power. The dollar was fated to lose some of its global potency. And large countries such as China, India and Indonesia could no longer be denied certain comparative advantages in the age of globalization.

That said, BRICS is no NAM. Leaders of India, Egypt and China back in the 1950s had newly emerged from anti-colonial and national-liberation movements. They sincerely wished to build a global system for equitable economic growth. Actual blueprints, such as the New International Economic Order, came out of their efforts. In contrast, the assortment of autocrats, demagogues and other leaders that held forth in South Africa have neither the prestige nor the foresight possessed by the delegates at Bandung. In fact, they seem to be learning on the job, improvising their way through an increasingly precarious global environment.

Indeed, the ‘vision’ that BRICS countries, including its newest members, have in common, amounts to little more than a cynical expediency: to increase their bargaining power in the trade, technology and military deals that they will continue to vigorously pursue with the US and Europe.

It can’t be otherwise. Take, for example, India: the country needs cheap manufactured goods from its strategic rival China, cut-price oil from Russia, military hardware and technology transfers from the US and Europe, and investments from the UAE. Accordingly, it cannot but have a foreign policy that’s hedged against binding commitments to this or that country or bloc in a multipolar world.

Nor can it plausibly claim, while banning rice and sugar exports, to lead the Global South. China’s better credentials in this regard are also fading as it scrambles to contain a mounting economic crisis. Perhaps, we won’t have to wait until a bigger summit of BRICS, scheduled to be hosted by Putin in Russia next year, to notice the gaping void of meaning at the heart of an expanding acronym. ©bloomberg

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