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Can BRICS challenge the Western order?

August 23, 2023 at 2:32 pm

Delegates walk past the logos of the BRICS summit during the 2023 BRICS Summit in Johannesburg on August 23, 2023 [GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images]

An enduring quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet encapsulates a conflictual tension between reality and uncertainty: “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” These words gain even more currency in today’s discussions surrounding the organisation of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) and the Western-led international order. The summit takes place from 22-24 August,  with one empty chair due to the international arrest warrant against the leader of one of the members, Vladimir Putin.

Before every BRICS summit, a recurring view gets traction: the potential of this group to offer an alternative to the dominating Western-led global order. Delving into historical gross domestic product (GDP) data, often juxtaposed with the comparison of member countries with the Group of Seven (G7) or Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), those who bet on the BRICS’ future fuel even more speculation about the upcoming rise of these developing economies. At one juncture, rumours of a common currency were circulating, although it was underscored that such deliberations would not take centre stage at the forthcoming summit. The threshold is low, indicating the focus is on localised transactions.

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The rise of the BRICS media narrative is rooted in the never-ending anti-Western sentiments of some political figures within BRICS. Nevertheless, despite the antagonistic rhetoric, a long queue of hopeful candidates still aspires to get portions of the financial pie.  Uruguay, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bangladesh already participate in the New Development Bank (NDC), seeking commercial opportunities from this inter-governmental organisation. But can BRICS genuinely challenge the established Western-led rules, as disputed? A succinct yet resolution response beckons: very unlikely.

A group of different voices

Woven with a tapestry of divergent interests, the BRICS grouping is a curious ensemble within the Western-dominated global economic paradigm. Its raison d’être ostensibly extends beyond economic cooperation, to encompass the cultivation of a nuanced anti-American consciousness. Yet, herein lies a paradox: discordant aspirations simmer beneath the surface of this collective organisation, eroding every semblance of commonality. One might posit that diversity is not problematic, per se but, in the international arena, the need for a more abrasive glue is a necessary condition for the success of such alliances.

In essence, BRICS is akin to a patchwork of nations more united in their disparities than their commonalities.  Delving into various potential scenarios, a conspicuous truth emerges. Take, for example, the aspiration harboured by numerous emerging economies to share in the BRICS fold; even on this matter, the notion of a cohesive front seems elusive. China and Russia unfurl the banner of anti-American sentiment, envisaging expansion as a conduit to foster a counter-balancing coalition worldwide.

READ: BRICS expansion hopefuls seek to rebalance world order

Paradoxically, the ambivalent position of India within this union conveys a different narrative. Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s India cannot afford the luxury of unequivocal anti-Americanism. For Modi, the US is more than just pecuniary gains; it intertwines with intricate geopolitical engagements. It is pertinent to remember that India shares a convoluted history of territorial disputes with its commercial partner, China. Thus, while the maxim extolling the virtues of diversity echoes in diplomatic corridors, the unvarnished truth is this: when contemplating the unrelenting complexities of the international stage, such platitudes find themselves relegated to the periphery.

Ideas matter

While appearing to strive for an inside-out capture of the existing system, there is a need for these actors to possess enough awareness to calculate the associated risks. Establishing an international order is not just about material capabilities; a profound ideational foundation must also exist. Despite its many flaws, the Western-led system is based on shared values, including a liberal package encompassing the rule of law, democracy, liberties and individual rights. If an alternative is sought, it has to extend beyond merely focusing on commerce and paying some lip service to the causes of the Global South.

Similarly, another question is: who among the BRICS qualifies for the role of leader in the future? In such a situation, one would assume that China would not easily relinquish this privilege to India, or naively think of sharing such a position. Likewise, India would not nurture the idea of ​​being sidelined. Let us entertain the idea that China gains leadership; what ideational alternative could it lay for a global order? Concepts derived from Confucianism or Chinese President Xi Jinping’s frequent notions of harmonious society, or socialism with Chinese characteristics? While nothing is wrong with these principles, they are not necessarily shared by the rest of the world.

FACTBOX: What is BRICS and who are its members?

Hence, despite recurrent commitments to the UN Charter, for China to have pre-eminence within the system, it has to have more power of attraction in terms of ideology. Considering present conditions, this endeavour is still a distant possibility.

The Western-led international system is facing discontent, sharp inequalities and structural imbalances due to a lack of fair representation in international bodies, like the United Nations Security Council. However, the solution can be sought by reforming the system and not necessarily dismantling it, replacing the hitherto established order with a new one with even more discrepancies and complications than opportunities.

Lastly, BRICS is a product of the existing system and acts within its porous contours. To different degrees, all members benefit from the structure and capabilities of the system and have no genuine interest in, or willingness to challenge it, at least for the foreseeable future. They know reality well and have neither the will nor the capability to overpower it.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.