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  • Hugo Alexandre

BRICS+: a new international order based on fair and equitable governance, or a repeat of mistakes from the past?

The term “BRICS” was first coined in 2001 by renowned economist Jim O'Neill to describe the nation-states who, at the time, displayed the fastest-growing economies and international influence. Initially an informal and non-substantial appellation, Russia initiated discussions between the now member-states, encouraging them to fully embrace it and give it substance by developing formal relations and institutions under the BRICS international governance organisation (IGO). Initially designed as an informal “club” for these emerging economies to develop relations away from traditional governance bodies seen as dominated by the West, the NGOs roles, responsibilities and overall place in the international system has greatly evolved since its formation. Over time, the BRICS started increasingly framing itself as a “side” of the international system and as diametrically opposed to the US-led Western economic and political hegemony. In the last decade, this IGO has significantly grown in economic and political influence through various shared institutions, cultural influence and (in)formal relations.


Over the last decade, discussions over enlargement and deepening of this grouping have gained salience. In the 2023 BRICS meeting, South-African representatives revealed that 22 states had formally applied and many more have expressed willingness to join. The main reason evoked by these countries is a wish to distance themselves from traditional platforms of international governance, perceived as dominated by the West, especially FTAs and the Bretton Woods Institutions. While this perspective largely holds true, it should also be noted that the original BRICS already had significant influence in the world economy and international governance, especially through resource-ownership and foreign direct investment by member-governments and their national public firms. This significant position may have influenced potential candidates’ likelihood to apply, which was reinforced by the ideal of international institutions that are (in theory) more equitable and not dominated by any state(s).


On January 1st, 2024, the BRICS incorporated four new states: Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran and the UAE—all states that are somewhat resource-rich and have troubled historical relations with the West. While it is tempting to assume that this is driven by fair economic development for previously underdeveloped countries, evidence suggests that this enlargement holds more than mere economic ramifications. Before the expansion, the BRICS accounted for around 34% of global GDP, but the new members only contribute about 4% to the BRICS+’ cumulative GDP, implying that this admission holds more than economic weight. Instead, the BRICS+’ quest for expansion may be understood as an attempt to create a more balanced international order with (in theory) fairer bodies of international governance, thereby giving more voice to previously underrepresented countries from the Global South. Unfortunately, things are often not as simple as they seem, and this IGO is more than a mechanism of equitable governance between states. While maybe not initially designed as such, this mechanism is employed to increase the political influence of the original members and challenge the political hegemony of the West. However, in doing so, they may end up repeating the mistakes of the West that they are so critical about.


While it is important to acknowledge the challenges posed by BRICS+ onto Western hegemony, it is I think more relevant to address their empirical shortcomings. Indeed, upon examining their intergovernmental plans and operations, it appears evident that the original BRICS use these structures to enhance their global sway and expand their manoeuvrability both domestically and internationally. First, like most of the original BRICS countries, the newer members all boast impressive domestic stocks of oil and gas. This is likely to harm global distributive justice because, despite global efforts to move away from fossil fuels, they remain crucial resources for almost every country. Having a significant share of the world’s most crucial, economy-fueling resources shared between communitarian countries may lead to intentional shortages in specific countries, high tariffs and increased prices of these resources for importing countries and their citizens. Granted this is also what the West was doing, so there is an argument to be made that this is just payback from their victims. However, this would kickstart a race to the bottom between states, both in terms of economic performance and in terms of pollution as fossil fuels remain one of the biggest sources of environmental pollution.


Secondly, one of the BRICS’ main arguments is that they seek to develop a model of international governance that could resist (what they see as) unwarranted arbitrary sanctions on specific states, such as the direct economic sanctions on Russia and Iran (ex: frozen accounts and assets, closure of trade and political relations, etc.) or the more discrete sanctions imposed on China (trade tariffs, attempts at political isolation in international governance, economic protectionism by sanctioning states, etc.). However, the IGO has increasingly used their growing influence to bully certain countries to accept their terms. This resembles what the West was doing with the Bretton Woods and UN institutions, using the latter to liberalise & democratise certain countries and coerce them to accept certain discrete conditions: the “poor” countries would ask the IMF or World Bank for a loan (or,n ask the UN to provide some form of support), and when they were unable to repay it the Western-led institutions would undertake certain reforms that would ‘make-up’ for their growing debts. This is very similar to how Russia and China have massively invested in African and South American countries to build infrastructures, provide services and more, in exchange for a growing presence of BRICS countries and their projects into recipient countries’ territories. They would build hospitals, highways and provide chemical compounds needed for agriculture and/or medicine, and when the recipient countries could not repay this debt, the BRICS would install military bases, mining projects, BRICS-based national companies would establish in these countries to grow their international market shares…


In conclusion, the BRICS group's attempt to counter Western dominance ironically involves adopting similar tactics. Initially an economic alliance, BRICS is evolving into a formidable global governance entity, mirroring Western methods of resource management and political leverage. As it expands by including new members with key resources and strategic locations, BRICS+ may replicate the economic tactics historically associated with Western powers such as the IMF and the World Bank, potentially reinforcing global disparities under new leadership and hindering the creation of a truly fair international order.


Literature:

Acharya, B. (2023). What is BRICS, which countries want to join and why? Reuters.

Carport, P. (2024). BRICS’ Enlargement: Power Expansion or Contraction in a Changing World Order? Trinity College Dublin.

Chang Woon, N. (2024). Introduction to the issue on BRICS enlargement: What are the Geoeconomic implications? EconPol For. pp. 3-4.

Jütten, M., & Falkenberg, D. (2024). Expansion of BRICS: A quest for greater global influence? European Parliament Research Service.

Lukyanov, F. (2023). The BRICS Summit 2023: Seeking an Alternate World Order? Russia In Global Affairs.

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