The bloc is too divided to pose any threat to the West
Dozens of international leaders have arrived in South Africa for the latest Brics summit, due to run from the 22nd to the 24th of August — and never before has it received so much attention. Just yesterday, the Financial Times declared it a turning point for an “à la carte” world in which middle powers from the bloc’s existing and aspirant members aim to stamp their relevance on the international order.
But if that is the bloc’s aim, it already appears to be a failure. For starters, Brics is neither an alliance nor an institution; it has no by-laws and its members are too divided to agree on any serious steps. China and India, for example, remain uncomfortable bedfellows, resulting from frequent clashes along their disputed border in the Himalayas — not to mention that New Delhi hopes to gain from further trade and investment from the West as Sino-Western decoupling proceeds apace.
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The few structures that the Brics organisation does have in place are already falling apart. The first major effort was the Brics Bank — since renamed the New Development Bank — which was envisaged as a challenger to the World Bank and IMF. But despite the steady decline in Sino-Western relations, the bank, which is primarily financed by Beijing, has been unwilling to support Russia where it risks running afoul of US sanctions. After the invasion last year, it even suspended loans in Russia — and reiterated its unwillingness to loan to the country just last month.
This year, the expansion of Brics is on the agenda, with Russia wanting fellow travellers in sanctions-afflicted Iran and Venezuela added to the bloc. Beijing and other members are not on board with these initiatives due to fears that the organisation will be indelibly associated with sanction-busting. That would also make it less attractive to other aspirant members, and this is partly why Brazil and India are reportedly set to oppose formally accepting any new members too.
But even if other countries are ultimately welcomed to the new group, it remains unlikely that this will be a genuine challenge to the international order. That is because none of the Brics countries (except for Russia) seek a direct confrontation with America and its allies. Given the perilous state many Brics economies currently find themselves in, antagonising Washington risks adding fuel to the fire. And if they lean too far into positioning the bloc as a challenge to Western institutions, they run the risk of being cut off from their support in the event of a major financial crisis — something of which South Africa is particularly wary, given that its economic crisis may soon require an IMF bailout.
Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Brics summit has received more attention in the press that it would otherwise. But it is important to remember that this is not the first effort by middle countries and third powers to challenge the international order through economic structures. On 1 May 1974 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration for the Establishment of a New International Economic Order, claiming that the “system (represented by the IMF and World Bank)… [is] completely dominated by a few Western powers led by the United States, [and] no longer met contemporary needs” — exactly the kind of criticism Brics advocates make today.
The UN General Assembly even approved an accompanying agenda for reform that was far more wide-reaching than anything proposed by today’s Brics states. But much to the chagrin of the countries that introduced the resolution, very little changed as a result. Indeed, 1974’s “new international economic order” proposal never amounted to much, despite coming at a time of Western inflation, low growth, and in the aftermath of the US defeat in Vietnam. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.