The BRICS: fallacy or changing the global order?

22nd March 2016
The BRICS Fallacy, an article by Ana Palacio recently sparked an online debate. Dr Palacio was unconvinced that the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) – as a grouping of countries with a shared agenda which challenges Western hegemony – will realise this agenda and meet their full economic and political potential. She argues instead that “the international order is at a crossroads [and] needs the US to guide it”. Ahead of China assuming the G20 presidency, and the New Development Bank preparing to issue its first loan in 2016, four experts from the US, Germany and South Africa share their views on whether or not Palacio is right to dismiss an over-zealous focus on the BRICS.

BRICS flags

Photo: flickr/GovernmentZA

Winslow Robertson, Founder of Cowries and Rice and SinoAfrica expert

The “boom or bust” narrative regarding the BRICS is just as fascinating a discussion as the countries themselves. A Goldman Sachs-inspired economic constellation is often conflated with a pseudo-Third Worldism (with Russia as a member!), and all the political undertones that implies. It is not enough that the BRICS have large economies: their economies must mean something, so why not assign that meaning to a change of the global political order?
The BRICS can only be rising or imploding, with a corresponding loss or gain from the United States. I find this discourse does more harm than good, because it obfuscates more than it reveals in terms of global politics. It takes a complicated international order and turns it into a sport, pitting the BRICS versus the United States in a never-ending game of scoring points in international media. The breathless pronouncements about how the BRICS bank will fundamentally change lending and change the center of financial gravity from Bretton Woods institutions to Shanghai, only to be eclipsed by the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, illustrate that tendency.

A more important question is whether the BRICS are affecting the decision-makers of their constituent countries. Is China operating under the aegis of the BRICS in regards to the South China Sea? Did Russia consult the BRICS before involving themselves in Syria? Is South Africa getting support from the BRICS as a whole as its economy contracts?

If the BRICS themselves are not an institution or a reliable geopolitical bloc, why do we ask if they are changing the global order?

Sven Grimm, Senior researcher at the German Development Institute working on Rising Powers and Africa

Is Ana Palacio right when she sees an end to the discussion on rising powers? Indeed, the BRICS and the hype around them might be in trouble – and the hype will not be missed. Yet, are Brazil, Russia (an obvious misfit in this supposedly “Southern” club), India, China, and South Africa all?! Take, for instance, Mexico or Indonesia and Colombia or Nigeria. These and others are also actors of increasing regional and global importance. From the perspective of work at DIE, what defines a “rising powers” is its increasing importance for managing global commons – like our oceans – and for global public goods, such as a healthy environment, a stable financial system or peace and security. A crucial element in our perspective is that the action – or inaction – of rising powers affects the development prospects of other states. Rising Powers can have direct impact on the development of others – via their investments in other developing countries or aid they provide to these states. Rising Powers also affect others’ developments with their inaction – if, for example, they do not (sufficiently) address their greenhouse gas emissions or if they do not consider the needs of other developing countries in their trade system.

The size of their respective economies is one aspect that makes rising powers important for global solutions. The pure emphasis on economic growth, however, is falling short of much of their actual importance. This is why I avoid the somewhat limiting term “emerging economies”. Even if some rising powers face slumps in their economy, they remain important for global solutions. Sure, in some (economic, geopolitical) aspects, rising powers are also competition to so-called Western countries. Understanding the rise of Brazil, China, India, or Indonesia as competition only, however, misses the point. International development is not a zero-sum game where one loses what the other one gains. The world is polycentric – not multipolar, which sounds like adversaries. In an interconnected world, we have to choose our partners according to common challenges that require solutions.

BRICS is the whole of Multipolarism – The fallacy, by Sanusha Naidu and Edwin Rwigi 

Sanshu and Edwin consider Ana's opinion alongside a second article, BRICS in Danger of Collapsing as members fail to cohere, published in the South African daily newspaper, The Business Day.

They argue that "The authors, Daniel and Virk, highlight economic disparities between the five countries as well as their inconsistencies when it comes to global governance frameworks in areas such as the Responsibility to Protect. The authors conclude that the “different priorities and expectations of the [BRICS] could weaken their collective endeavor of creating a democratic and equitable world order.

Both commentaries are indicative of the growing obsession with the BRICS. But this preoccupation with the BRICS also speaks to the fact that the continuous critical reaction to the BRICS is suggestive of the fact that the BRICS is seen as something more of a concern to be dealt with. This is where the fascination with the BRICS needs to be contexualised in global realities."

Read the full article: BRICS is the whole of Multipolarism – The fallacy,

Sanusha Naidu and Edwin Rwigi are manager and officer of Fahamu's Emerging Powers in Africa Project. The views expressed here are in their personal capacity.