The BRICS grouping—comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—is as contentious as it is misunderstood. Skeptics dismiss the BRICS out of hand, arguing that the coalition is all talk and no action. Enthusiasts, on the other hand, maintain that the BRICS portend a new global pecking order—one in which the emerging economies, led by China, will challenge and eventually overtake a West in decline. More sober analysis is hard to come by.
Last week’s summit of BRICS leaders in the Russian city of Ufa offers a timely opportunity to assess what the BRICS are, what they are not, and why it’s time for the United States to begin taking them—and the grievances they represent—seriously.
The BRICS grouping can best be understood as a platform to express dissatisfaction with shortcomings in the system of global governance, not a vehicle to overturn the system itself. In fact, the BRICS are more status quo than they’d like to admit. Their joint declarations may have a revolutionary tinge, but the BRICS are revisionist more in rhetoric than in reality. Far from seeking to upend the existing world order, these five countries have a vested interest in broadly preserving the institutions that have enabled their prosperous rise, while selectively reforming those areas where they are denied privilege and influence commensurate with their growing economic weight.
Whether Washington likes it or not, the BRICS aren’t going anywhere. In 2001, Goldman Sachs analyst Jim O’Neill coined the term “BRICs” to encapsulate what he predicted would be the four most dynamic emerging market economies of the new century. (South Africa joined their ranks in 2011.) Given the acronym’s origins in the world of finance, Western observers are predisposed to view the BRICS as a purely economic entity—one whose legitimacy depends on extraordinary growth rates and investment opportunities. That’s why many have been quick to assume that the BRICS’ uneven economic performance in recent years has cast doubt on the group’s relevance. But it would be a mistake to view the BRICS exclusively through the lens of economic indicators. It no longer matters that the BRICS’ growth is more sluggish than anticipated, or that emerging economies like Indonesia, Mexico, and South Korea could outpace Brazil, Russia, and South Africa in the years ahead. That’s because the BRICS have acquired a political momentum that transcends year-to-year economic growth.
That momentum is manifested in the new BRICS financial institutions formally launched last week in Ufa. These are the New Development Bank (NDB), a $100 billion lending platform that will finance infrastructure projects in the BRICS and other developing countries, and a $100 billion currency pool known as the Contingency Reserve Arrangement (CRA), which will aim to cushion the BRICS economies from global financial pressures. Many have taken these new institutions as evidence that the BRICS are bent on usurping the postwar economic order built and led by the West. But that’s hardly the case. In fact, the NDB and CRA mark the BRICS’ response to the widely acknowledged shortcomings of the existing global financial system. A common desire to reform global economic governance was the issue that drove the BRICS together and gave them legitimacy in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. For years, the BRICS have demanded an overhaul of the Bretton Woods institutions, where Western powers remain overrepresented at the expense of emerging economies. China, the world’s second-largest economy, has just 3.81 percent of total votes in the International Monetary Fund (IMF). To put that in perspective, France and the United Kingdom each have 4.29 percent, yet their economies are three times smaller than China’s, according to the latest IMF data. Clearly, some reshuffling is long overdue. But the IMF reform package negotiated in 2010, which would begin to address these imbalances, remains stalled in the U.S. Congress. Sadly, Washington’s failure to ratify IMF reform is emblematic of the BRICS’ grievances: existing institutions are increasingly outdated, and emerging economies—which represent a growing proportion of the global economy and population—demand to be treated as equals. Worse still, obstruction of IMF reform has only fueled perceptions that the United States is determined to keep down rising powers like the BRICS.
In this context, it is commonly argued that the NDB and CRA are not only a direct challenge to the U.S.-led Bretton Woods institutions, but also a sign of things to come. According to this narrative, the BRICS will continue forging new institutions to rival those created and led by the United States. As Indian politician Shashi Tharoor recently wrote, “if the BRICS are not allowed to help lead within the existing global system, they will inevitably create their own.” However, such fears are overblown. There are few areas where the BRICS can create viable alternatives to existing international institutions. The world stage is already brimming with relatively new, more inclusive institutions concerned with various aspects of global governance, from the Group of Twenty (G20) and the Nuclear Security Summit process to the Global Counterterrorism Forum and the Financial Action Task Force. Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa are active contributors in these and other fora. Beyond international financial institutions like the World Bank and IMF, it’s unclear where the BRICS could add value by building parallel institutions of their own.
And despite the fact that reform of the United Nations Security Council has long bedeviled the international community, the BRICS continue to attach primacy to that body. Russia and China value their veto in the Security Council too highly to threaten to irreversibly undermine its standing as the preeminent arbiter of international peace and security. Meanwhile, Brazil, India, and South Africa—which count themselves among contenders for permanent seats, should expansion ever come to fruition—continue to hold out for Security Council reform, indicating that they still place faith in the Council’s significance, its flaws notwithstanding.
When it comes to matters of international peace and security, the BRICS’ commitment to act through the Security Council underscores just how status quo they really are. Western observers have long posited that ideological differences would constrain cooperation between the three democratic BRICS—Brazil, India, and South Africa—and the two authoritarian members—Russia and China. But that’s only partly true. Brazil, India, and South Africa may be democracies, but like Russia and China, they are also ardent proponents of unfettered sovereignty. Ultimately, a common commitment to sovereignty and nonintervention—the principles on which the nation-state system is predicated—is the mortar that keeps the BRICS together.
Indeed, the group’s response to international crises demonstrates that they don’t need to have common political systems in order to unite against a perceived preponderance of Western power in an increasingly multipolar world. Take, for instance, the NATO intervention in Libya. Rather than exercise their veto, Russia and China abstained from the UN Security Councilresolution authorizing military action in Libya under the auspices of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Brazil and India, which then served as non-permanent members of the Security Council, followed suit, while South Africa, another nonpermanent member, voted in favor. However, as NATO’s campaign began looking more like regime change than humanitarian intervention, the BRICS claimed that NATO had exceeded its mandate. In their view, the West had not only exploited R2P as a pretext to oust a foreign leader, but had taken advantage of the BRICS’ good faith.
Western efforts to censure Russia for meddling in Ukraine elicited a similar show of resistance from the BRICS. Brazil, India, China, and South Africa never explicitly endorsed Russia’s incursions in Ukraine, but nor did they march in lockstep with U.S. and European initiatives to sanction and diplomatically isolate the Russian leadership in Moscow. In a telling sequence of events, the BRICS became infuriated when Australian officials made noiseabout barring Putin from last year’s G20 summit in Brisbane. Attempts to leverage the G20 as a means of isolating Putin were bound to backfire. The G20 derives its legitimacy from its diverse membership. After the global financial crisis, the G20 replaced the Group of Seven (G7) as the premier forum for international economic cooperation precisely because the West could no longer claim to exclusively represent the interests of the global economy; emerging economies—of which the BRICS claim leadership—had grown too central to economic stability to discount. The G20 may be imperfect, but it’s also a prime example of how established powers can bring rising powers into the fold. Indeed, the BRICS affirmed in a joint statement, “custodianship of the G20 belongs to all Member States equally and no one Member State can unilaterally determine its nature and character,” reflecting their conviction that unilateral action is antithetical to a multipolar world order.
To be sure, Russia’s annexation of Crimea undeniably represented an affront to the principles of sovereignty and nonintervention that the BRICS claim to represent. China, for its part, continues to assert itself in the South China Sea. And the failure of the BRICS countries—as well as the West—to address the crisis in Syria serves as a horrific reminder of the costs of absolute sovereignty and nonintervention.
Even so, the BRICS as a grouping do not represent a threat to the established world order. But that doesn’t mean that their grievances aren’t worth the time of policymakers in Washington. Indeed, the BRICS gained traction because they sought—however inconsistently—to remedy the growing irrelevance of the post-World War II system in the face of a rapidly shifting global order—a long-term challenge that the United States has failed to grasp. The BRICS may just be a symbol, but they are also a symptom of the world’s impatience with business as usual. Sooner or later, Washington must address these shortcomings in global governance. If the BRICS are able to spur any progress on this front, then the world—including the United States—will be better for it.
Daniel Chardell is a research associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.