A brick through the BRICS myth

By Babak Moussavi

The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) are said by many to be the new big thing in international politics, capable of replacing the power vacuum left after the collapse of the Soviet Union and restoring global balance to counter American hegemony. They are said to have growing economic and political ties, which some view as posing a threat to the liberal, capitalist, Western world order. Increasing trade and economic ties between them is said to be evidence that they are developing into a coherent bloc, with common collective goals and interests.

Are things really so simple?

Having attended a recent seminar on the topic of EU-BRICS relations, given by Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, a Polish Christian Democrat and MEP in the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), I can see that this view is not only held, but being pushed by some within the upper echelons of international politics. Dr Saryusz-Wolski has written a report on EU policy towards the BRICS, which he summarises here.

His basic argument seems to be as follows: The BRICS are a group of fast-developing, increasingly assertive nation-states that are beginning to realise that they have shared foreign policy goals and joint interests. These interests often conflict with those of the EU and other Western states. The BRICS are therefore becoming increasingly antagonistic towards the EU on the world stage, by developing a coherent foreign policy that stems from increased co-ordination on their part, as well as a dislike of their apparent marginalisation from international institutions (particularly economic ones). The EU must therefore develop a framework for dealing with the BRICS collectively at a formal level, and not adopt an “ostrich mentality” of burying its head in the sand to avoid a growing problem.

Dr Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, author of the report on EU-BRICS relations

Dr Saryusz-Wolski is right that some of these countries feel marginalisation in the institutions of global governance. But Russia and China are permanent members in the UN Security Council, along with only three other countries. And does apparent marginalisation anyway mean that they are now acting collectively against the West? The evidence he provides to conclude that the BRICS are becoming a coherent bloc is somewhat shaky, to say the least.

He first cites their abstention on the vote in Libya to support his claim that they are acting against the EU’s interests. Yet, both China and Russia have a permanent veto at the UN and could have blocked this entirely if they so wished. Moreover, Germany also abstained. Could it therefore be dubbed the BRICSG? This is patently absurd.

His second piece of evidence is that the BRICS blocked the climate change agreement in Durban. But this is hardly their doing alone. US intransigence on climate cooperation is well-documented. The argument put forward by China and India that on a per capita basis they pollute far less than the West is also something Dr Saryusz-Wolski ignores, for it is a principled reason for opposing the EU’s position, not merely a geopolitical one. It is antagonistic, but not antagonistic for the sake of being so.

Dr Saryusz-Wolski also considers “the regrettable long-lasting blockade of the EU accession to the UN General Assembly” to be an obvious sign of concerted behaviour. But again, this is not just a geopolitical act. The UN is currently composed of states alone. If the EU were allowed a seat, it would revolutionise the contemporary international political system based on the principle of sovereignty, but would it mean ASEAN or NATO should also get a seat? And what about the BRICS themselves? If they are a collective bloc, would they not also deserve a seat as a concerted body in the UN? If not, then supporters of EU accession would appear to be guilty of double standards.

Dr Saryusz-Wolski’s claim that the BRICS are increasingly acting in concert is not convincing. In any case, pointing out shared interests is one thing, but one must not ignore the glaring differences. With a shared and disputed border, China and India distrust each other, and Indian political elites feel intense competition bordering on animosity towards their larger neighbour. South Africa is a country with an exceptionally progressive constitution, whereas Russia is embedding its oligarchy. Brazil’s historically close ties with Portugal bring it closer to Europe.

Furthermore, the fact that the BRICS hold international summits and release joint statements cannot be taken to show that they are a coherent group, or that they are making clear strides to co-ordinate their foreign policies, as Dr Saryusz-Wolski sometimes implies. The G20 holds summits. During the Cold War, the US and USSR held summits. Summits are a good way of exchanging information, negotiating agreements, and building trust. But it is too much to claim they show the formation of a unitary actor in world politics.

I am not arguing that the BRICS do not on occasion take up positions that oppose those held by the EU. But I am sceptical of the idea that these five countries are increasingly co-ordinating their foreign policies. Given their enormous differences, conflicting values, separate identities and unique histories, it does seem a long time before the BRICS become a collective grouping that throws its weight around on the world stage. In the meantime, gaining understanding and building strong ties with each of these countries individually should be a priority for Western policy-makers. And tying them into international institutions (perhaps by appointing a qualified candidate from one of the BRICS as the next head of the IMF – assuming holding elections is too far-fetched) is in everyone’s long-term interest.

Any attempt to simplify the complexities of world politics will be prone to errors. This sort of thinking is just such an example.

  1. Josh M said:

    I think one of the most important spheres of co-operation, where the BRICS could have a big concerted impact, is in finance. The BRICS, and other countries such as Iran and Malaysia, have all agreed that they want to end the hegemony of the US dollar, through which they finance the US balance of payments deficit, which is mostly military. Michael Hudson wrote on this in 1973 (http://michael-hudson.com/books/super-imperialism-the-economic-strategy-of-american-empire/), explaining to the Pentagon itself the advantage that the US dollar’s role as global reserve currency affords the US. He explains that foreign central banks’ holdings of US dollars mean that the respective countries are in effect lending the US money to finance its balance of payments deficit. And because, as he observed in the 1960s, the balance of payments deficit was entirely composed of US military spending, it means that countries holding US treasury bills are essentially paying for the United States to encircle them with military bases and drones.

    The debt will never be paid, but simply inflated into oblivion through QE (until the US dollar collapses).

    The BRICS have realised this and are trying to get rid of their dollar reserves like ‘hot potatoes’, as Hudson says. They are trying to break the power of the dollar through currency swaps and other initiaives. We saw that India was buying Iranian oil in gold, for example. This has been a big theme of the conferences they’ve been holding, including most notably the 2009 BRIC summit in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

    If the dollar does lose its role as global reserve currency then America will be forced to live within its means and lose its 700 or so foreign military bases. This would be a fairly big deal.

    So this currency position fits within the BRICS’ unanimous (well I’m not so sure where India and SA stand) opposition to US global hegemony generally. So I would say that while they have differing interests in some respects they are united against a ‘common enemy’. And that will have increasing impact over the next few decades I think.

    • Thanks for the comment Josh. I would not deny that many of the BRICS states might feel aggrieved at the perceived economic hegemony of the US. My point is not so much that they are not increasing their levels of policy co-ordination in some areas though, but that the evidence provided in the report I cited does not convincingly support that idea. Perhaps the currency position will give greater reason for collaboration however – we will have to see.

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