What holds the BRICS together?

2 april 2013

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Resume: BRICS is held together and pushed forward not so much by the requirements of its member-countries as by the general situation in the world.

Since the acronym BRICs was coined (it was first mentioned in 2001 and became a part of the international lexicon in 2003 after the publication of the Goldman Sachs report “Dreaming With BRICs: The Path to 2050”), much has been said in the West to the effect that this format is an artificial fiction, which by definition has no future. But BRIC still exists and even grows – South Africa joined and already hosts a summit.

BRICS is held together and pushed forward not so much by the requirements of its member-countries as by the general situation in the world. Changes are rapid and unpredictable, and the recipes for resolving international issues offered by the usual leaders (the West) either don’t work or produce the opposite effect. There is a demand for alternative solutions, although for the time being not a single state playing a major regional role has the opportunity (or desire) to offer a comprehensive global vision.

All of them, taken together, prefer to keep a low profile because their importance is recognised anyway and they are not willing to shoulder the burden of responsibility. (In a way, Russia is an exception because of the global inertia that is winding down.) However, the world is becoming increasingly multi-compositional, and non-Western great powers are unwilling to miss a chance to display their common views despite all doubts and differences.

In his programme article on foreign policy, published a year ago, Vladimir Putin had exceptionally positive things to say about cooperation within BRICS. He placed emphasis on one particular aspect. The Russian President sees the unifying factor in the fact that all BRICS countries not only have similar views on the need for a new, multipolar world order, but, most important, share one and the same basic value – national sovereignty as a fundamental structural element of the world system. This concept is an alternative to the Western approach that is based on the premise that today sovereignty is no longer as sacred and immutable as it was in the past.

This view is well-grounded. All BRICS countries enjoy practically full sovereignty. They have broad latitude in their actions, rooted in their material capabilities, and they are not restricted by formal alliances. There are not so many states in this category. European countries, for one, do have an economic foundation but are often much more tied up politically. The question is whether this conceptual community is enough to create a framework that can be filled with economic, geopolitical and ideological content.

The same pre-election article by Putin on foreign policy also emphasises an interesting feature shared by Russia and the other BRICS countries. Criticising the West for its interference in Russia’s internal affairs by funding various non-governmental organizations, Putin wrote: “However, Russia does not use or fund national NGOs based in other countries or any foreign political organisations in the pursuit of its own interests. China, India and Brazil do not do this either. We believe that any influence on domestic policy and public attitude in other countries must be exerted in the open; in this way, those who wish to be of influence will do so responsibly.”

Each BRICS summit sets off a new round of debates on the essence and the future of this unusual international format. Most Western commentators are skeptical about what they consider an accidental and artificial association. Interest in this five-member group is accompanied by numerous doubts about its future even among its member-countries, particularly India and Brazil. Indeed, it is difficult to find a group of states that are so different in so many different ways. Their cultures, as well as geopolitical and demographic features, are poles apart.

However BRICS baiters and skeptics overlook one important detail. Reasoning holds true if we view BRICS as a traditional alliance. However, considering that the main characteristic feature of the current state of the international system is its transitional nature, the diversity of BRICS should also be viewed from another angle. The main trait of the 21st century is a rapid complication of the world, which requires new and creative approaches. These approaches can only be found if one takes into account the different horizons of the participants in international relations.

Paradoxically, the meaning of BRICS is that the components of this acronym are in no way alike. It is like a miniature model of the world. Apart from the BRICS, there is no other such representative format in the world that could serve as a platform for working out truly global approaches to international problems. But, of course, it is difficult to imagine that this dialogue format will evolve into a rigid organisation – the interests and horizons of its member countries differ too much for that.

Russian scholar Nikolai Kosolapov discusses a possible ideological paradigm of BRICS. The period from late 70s to late 2000s saw a global crisis of socialist ideas and a left alternative, and a global offensive of political reaction and clericalism. However, the task of ensuring the countries’ growth and sustainable development in the world is social-reformist in content, if not social-democratic. It cannot be accomplished in the context of orthodoxy and fundamentalism, ideological or religious.

Its solution, however possible, will require constructive political interaction between left thought and conservatism (not reaction!). An expansion of this aggregate part of the global political spectrum would limit the field for and risks of ultra-right and ultra-left extremism. Initiatives for the revival and strengthening of the appropriate ideological and political environment in the world could be one of the BRICS’ goals. Today’s Russia, though, least fits into the framework of the revival of international left-socialist discourse, however, current trends in Russia’s internal development may change as the neo-liberal and state-monopoly models exhaust their resources.

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