In an era marked by shifting global power dynamics and the rise of emerging economies, the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) coalition has emerged as a pivotal force challenging the American-centric world order that has prevailed since the end of the Cold War. This new order is characterized by a tussle for influence, competing visions of governance, and a quest for greater multipolarity. As BRICS nations assert their collective weight on the global stage, they are actively participating in the unmaking of a world order that has long been defined by Western hegemony.
The fifteenth BRICS summit in Johannesburg, held from August 22-24, 2023, marked a pivotal moment as the coalition decided to expand its membership, including Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, effective from January 2024. This expansion underscores BRICS’ commitment to adapt and modernize in the face of a multipolar world order, attracting interest from various countries, including some traditional US allies. The allure of BRICS, partly driven by China, reflects the evolving global economic landscape and changing international alliance dynamics.
Some observers have likened the current global situation to a new Cold War, although this comparison is not entirely fitting. Unlike the previous Cold War, where the Soviet Union’s economy was much smaller than that of the United States, China now stands as a peer economy to the US and is poised to surpass it in GDP. What sets this era apart is that many countries have the agency to choose their alignments in the evolving geopolitical landscape.
The surge in applications to join BRICS reflects a deeper underlying issue. The Western world’s inclination to unilaterally impose financial sanctions, manipulate international payment systems, backtrack on climate finance commitments, and demonstrate limited regard for the food security and health needs of the Global South during the pandemic are just a few examples of factors contributing to the growing disillusionment with the current international system.
BRICS represents a significant departure from the US-led international order, uniting against Western failures in global crisis management. Unlike Western alliances, BRICS is a diverse coalition with aspirations to reshape global financial and trade rules based on its interests. This shift highlights the Global South’s preference for a more inclusive and cooperative international order, challenging Western dominance. With the expansion and guiding principles, BRICS gains appeal as a platform for consensus-building in the developing world, and the inclusion of non-traditional partners like Iran marks a noteworthy departure from Western norms.
BRICS already outpaced the G7 in 2020 GDP and is expected to reach 33% of the world’s GDP by 2028, compared to the G-7’s 27%. The inclusion of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, along with Kuwait and Venezuela’s interest, could potentially encompass the entire OPEC. If Iraq joins, eight of the world’s top ten oil producers would be in BRICS. Collectively, BRICS covers 30% of global land and holds 42% of the population. Surprisingly, BRICS hasn’t pursued a new global order tailored to its interests, likely due to post-Cold War geopolitics that foster divisions, prioritize self-interest, hamper regional cooperation, and favor US-centric globalization.
The recent BRICS summit has been hailed as a diplomatic success for Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who orchestrated an expansion of the bloc’s membership. This expansion, encompassing both U.S. adversaries like Russia and Iran and U.S. partners like Brazil and India, could compel the United States to consider shared security interests with this diverse group. However, China’s aspirations to reshape the global financial system in favor of the Global South face challenges. Proposals for a shared BRICS currency face practical hurdles, and the internationalization of the Chinese yuan remains limited. The New Development Bank, while promising, faces questions about funding and political disruptions among founding members. China’s expansion of BRICS may inadvertently create a G20-like forum, lacking central authority and consensus, posing both opportunities and challenges for its members in shaping alternative global institutions.
BRICS nations advocate for a more multipolar and inclusive global governance system by reforming international institutions. The addition of six new members also prompts a debate about Brazil’s role, despite past expansion reservations. Brazil faces challenges due to its commitment to democracy and human rights, while some BRICS members have different stances. The key issue is navigating neutrality amid U.S.-China tensions and the Ukraine conflict, possibly aligning with Russia and China. Brazil, India, and South Africa should prioritize global South interests, focusing on energy transition, technology transfer, New Development Bank financing, WTO dispute resolution, and UN Security Council reform while reinforcing a non-anti-Western stance through agreements like Mercosur-EU and OECD accession, embodying Brazil’s BRICS role in promoting multipolarity and multilateralism.
Scholars and analysts have been tracking the rise of the Global South for some time, particularly since the 2008 financial crisis, highlighting the sustained economic growth in non-Western countries, which is reshaping global power dynamics. Moreover, the center of gravity in the global economy has shifted, moving from the Atlantic, between the US and Europe, to locations like Izmir, Turkey, by 2008, and is projected to lie between India and China by 2050. In this changing environment, nations in the Global South are presented with choices on how to navigate the growing tensions among major powers and position themselves amid the competition for global influence.
Nonetheless, the BRICS countries’ assertive stance and their pursuit of greater representation and influence in global affairs signify a significant challenge to the American-led international order. While not aiming to replace the West, the BRICS seek to reform and reshape the existing international system to be more inclusive and equitable. This shift away from a unipolar world order led by the United States reflects the changing dynamics of global power. As the BRICS and potentially other nations seek to join this bloc, they are collectively working towards an alternative model of global governance that challenges the traditional Western dominance, thereby contributing to the unmaking of the American-led international order.