Those who believe that the world is moving to a post-Western global order saw their belief confirmed last week. At its annual summit in Johannesburg, the BRICS forum of five major emerging economies—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—announced a major expansion by inviting six new members. In January, the group will add Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. If economic weight is a measure of power, this will be a singularly potent group. Together, the 11 BRICS states will have a higher share of global GDP based on purchasing power parity than the G-7 industrialized countries.
Depending on where you stand, you might celebrate a more powerful BRICS bloc or worry about it—but neither reaction is warranted. An expanded BRICS will not turn the world upside down, nor does it herald the rise of a post-Western global order. Equally outlandish is the claim that BRICS expansion marks a major victory for China, Russia, and their attempts to build an anti-Western bloc among the countries of the global south—or that BRICS is the core of a new Non-Aligned Movement.
All these potential interpretations take little heed of the internal dynamics of an expanded BRICS and their implications. By confusing their hopes and fears about the global order with analysis, the Western commentariat reveals its enormous ignorance about the countries of the global south, their diverse interests, and their engagement with the great powers.
There is no doubt that the sudden clamor for BRICS membership from so many significant countries has colored the analysis. But expanding the list of members does not turn BRICS into a potent bloc. If anything, the expansion only undermines what little cohesion the group had before the expansion.
The growing geopolitical confrontation between China and India already casts a shadow over BRICS and any attempt at creating a cohesive agenda. With new members come new conflicts: Egypt and Ethiopia are fiercely at loggerheads over Nile waters, while Iran and Saudi Arabia are regional foes—notwithstanding their Beijing-brokered attempt to make peace. These and other fault lines will make it much harder to turn the combined economic weight of the BRICS states into an influential political force in global affairs.
The smarter policy folks in the West should whine less about the supposed rise of BRICS—and focus instead on the many contradictions within the group they can exploit.
Those who think of BRICS as a new Non-Aligned Movement are unintentionally right on one aspect: BRICS will be just as ineffective as the original in turning soaring rhetoric on global issues into concrete, practical outcomes. In pushing for BRICS enlargement, China merely bought itself a bigger talk shop. If Beijing wants to build a bigger anti-Western tent, it can’t do it when the BRICS tent already has so many friends of the United States inside it.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are close U.S. security partners. Even if they have their differences with Washington, they are unlikely to abandon U.S. security guarantees for untested Chinese promises, let alone protection by the formless sack of potatoes that is BRICS. In his address to the Johannesburg summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on BRICS nations to “practice true multilateralism” and “reject the attempt to create small circles or exclusive blocs.” Well, India is already part of at least two such “small circles.” One is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, with Australia, Japan, and the United States; the other is the I2U2 forum that joins India with Israel, the UAE, and the United States. In Johannesburg, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi even called for “resilient and inclusive supply chains,” an obvious euphemism for reducing economic dependence on China.
If China sees BRICS as a forum for expanding its role in the global south, so does India—and, for that matter, the Saudis and Emiratis, who are willing to deploy large chunks of the capital they have accumulated over the decades for economic and political gain in Africa and beyond. In fact, the competition among BRICS countries for global influence is perhaps more consequential for the group than their presumed common interest in countering the West. Instead of shaping a new theater of contestation with the West, the BRICS forum will be a theater of contestation itself.
The smarter policy folks in the West should therefore whine less about the supposed rise of BRICS—and focus instead on the many contradictions within the forum they can exploit.
This is not the first time Russia and China have tried to promote an anti-Western coalition. Indeed, history tells us that Moscow and Beijing overestimate the possibilities for uniting non-Western societies against the West. When hopes for a communist revolution in Germany failed after World War I, the founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, turned to Asia and promised to “set the East ablaze” with revolutions against global capitalism and Western colonial overlords. At the 1920 Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku, in Soviet-occupied Azerbaijan, the Communist International gathered a colorful but motley group of nationalists, revolutionaries, and religious leaders. Lenin’s effort did not get very far as rising nationalism made Asia inhospitable to Bolshevik ideas.
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In the 1960s, Chinese leader Mao Zedong thought he could do the same with his attempt to promote revolutions in Asia; instead, his many failures paved the way for capitalism with Chinese characteristics at home. Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev tried a different tactic—aligning with nationalists in Africa and Asia against the West. Moscow did seem to gain ground in the global south through the 1970s. At the 1979 summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Havana, Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his supporters declared that the Soviet Union and its satellites were the so-called Third World’s “natural allies.”
A United States in supposed terminal decline, however, came back swinging in the 1980s to put Moscow on the defensive. Meanwhile, the elites of the global south turned out to be rather clever in using to their advantage the divisions among the West, the Soviet Union, and China. Castro and other leaders’ resounding declaration of friendship with the communist bloc in 1979 has many parallels to China’s expression of its ambitions for BRICS. But just as the Soviet Union ran out of resources to support its large roster of Third World clients in the late 1970s, Xi’s China has also overreached—it is beset by deep economic troubles and has its hands full dealing with pushback from the United States.
Still, last week’s BRICS expansion announcement might serve one useful purpose: telling the West not to take the global south for granted. Sensible Western decision-makers should therefore discard both conservative contempt and progressive condescension—each of which, in its own way, makes it difficult to engage the elites of the global south—and find better ways to reengage developing nations.
The greatest threats to the modern West from the non-Western world came with the rise of nationalism in Asia and Africa. Decolonization and competition with the communist bloc to win friends in the global south helped the West regain ground. After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, however, the lessons from the Cold War were quickly forgotten, and the West turned to sneering and hectoring the global south. China and Russia moved in, exploiting anti-Western resentment in the global south.
The West can’t sustain its global primacy on the cheap. It needs to come down from the high pedestal it has put itself on since the end of the Cold War and wrestle in the mud with the Chinese and Russian challenge. The West successfully overcame the challenges to its global primacy during a long phase of superpower competition, when it found more cooperative ways to engage non-Western elites. It can do the same again. The BRICS expansion may be a dud, but it is still a warning shot that the West must end its strategic slumber. The global south is waiting.