September 1, 2023
One key outcome of the 15th Brics summit, hosted by South Africa, is the decision to invite six more countries to join the group with effect from January 2024. They are Argentina, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. All six had applied for membership. The enlargement will grow the association’s membership to 11, and increase its envisaged role as a geopolitical alternative to global institutions dominated by the west.
The five current member countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – have argued that their size, in economic and population terms, was not represented in the world’s institutions, particularly the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Brics five represent about 42% of the world’s population and more than 23% of world GDP. The enlarged grouping will account for 46.5% of the world population. Using IMF GDP data, we can deduce that it will account for about 30% of global GDP. The disparate nature of the six new members is bound to spark debate about the real nature of Brics. In his welcoming remarks at the summit (22-24 August), the host, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, stated:
Brics stands for solidarity and for progress. Brics stands for inclusivity and a more just, equitable order. Brics stands for sustainable development.
The group has been remarkably consistent on these values and aspirations.
Understanding the nature of Brics
One of the first questions about Brics is often “what is it?”. This is telling. This question does not come up, for example, about the European Union or even the G20. Brics is not an organization (it has no headquarters, secretariat or treaty). But it does have a formal institution that is jointly owned – the New Development Bank. Confusion about Brics’ precise nature is understandable. At various points it has referred to itself as a forum, a platform, a mechanism, a partnership, or a strategic partnership, to name a few. Others have called it an alliance or a bloc. It is neither. In international relations, both terms are strictly defined. The term “alliance” refers to a mutual defence pact and implies military cooperation. A “bloc” refers to ideological consistency (political bloc) or a free trade agreement (trade bloc). Brics has none of these characteristics. The members also disagree on some key issues. China and Russia are noncommittal (at best) on the aspirations of India, Brazil and South Africa to become members of the UN Security Council. Their declarations have over the years reiterated the same phrase:
China and Russia understand and support the aspirations of India, Brazil and South Africa to play a greater role in the United Nations.
This shows there is some serious disagreement within the group. As a political scientist interested in global politics, I have written about Brics and its potential for changing the status quo. With hindsight, I can assert that certain principles have informed it since its establishment and first summit in 2009. In my view, at a material level, the 15 years of summit declarations point to four fundamental values:
- mutual development
- global governance reform
The association self-reportedly seeks secure sustainable development for itself and the global south, to safeguard and advance multilateralism, to institute reform for the goal of representative institutions, and to achieve solidarity among members.
Economics comes first in the group; at its root, it is a collective of emerging economies eager to sustain and improve their economic trajectory. Their insistence on reform is, after all, based on their perceived disproportionate under-representation in global financial institutions. The group’s first, and so far only, notable establishment is the New Development Bank, primarily to finance infrastructure development. There’s also a contingent reserve that members can draw from in emergencies. It is valued at US$100 billion.
The second value refers to the group’s concern about the use of entities outside the UN to pursue global objectives. Most notable is the use of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to invade Afghanistan in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks in the US, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the US and the UK, circumventing the UN Security Council.
Russian president Vladimir Putin expressed this concern in his speech to the 2007 Munich Conference on Security:
The use of force can only be considered legitimate if the decision is sanctioned by the UN. And we do not need to substitute NATO or the EU for the UN.
Global governance reform
Thirdly, the Brics countries have long pushed for leaders of global institutions to be elected in a transparent and democratic way. For example, the president of the World Bank has always been an American, and the managing director of the IMF a European. The World Bank has 189 member states and the IMF 190.
The idea of the New Development Bank was not to substitute the World Bank but to “supplement” existing international financial institutions. Brics still envisions a World Bank in which its members have voting rights proportional to their economic weight, and with staff drawn from across the world in a geographically balanced way.
Finally, the members have articulated solidarity with one another in a number of declarations, beginning in 2010. It comes down to mutual assistance in times of humanitarian disasters, respecting one another’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In light of criticism and sanctions plans against China, for its alleged suppression of the Uyghur-Muslim population, and Russia, for invading Ukraine, solidarity has come to mean silence or nonalignment.
A blank slate
Brics is a nebulous entity. This has proved beneficial for member countries hosting Brics summits. They get to set the agenda and use it for their ends – without upsetting the consensus. One common pattern has been the use of summits to set overarching themes that are favorable to the host country’s domestic policy and regional leadership or foreign policy stance. Thus, for example, all Brics summits hosted by South Africa foregrounded Africa in their names: “Brics and Africa: Partnership for mutually accelerated growth, sustainable development and inclusive multilateralism” in 2023. Brazil and Russia have inserted issues that are important to their region, and often invited leaders of neighboring countries to retreats. This shows how much clout they enjoy, as they get to funnel access to a now-renowned association that is simultaneously well established but also evades easy definition. With the addition of the six new members, such evasiveness is set to only continue.
is an associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg. My research focuses on Africa’s international relations and regime types with a focus on tech, trade, and wars.