The summit of the Brics – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – kicked off on Tuesday. Russian President Vladimir Putin attended via video-link because the International Criminal Court, to which the hosts South Africa are a party, had issued an arrest warrant for him, but helped set the tone with his speech: "We co-operate on the principles of equality, partnership, support, respect for each other’s interests,” he said. “This is the essence of the future-oriented strategic course of our association, a course that meets the aspirations of the main part of the world community, the so-called global majority."
The group already represents 40 per cent of the global population and 26 per cent of the world’s GDP, but one of the main topics of discussions at the three-day summit is about letting new members join. South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa called for a “broadening and deepening” of Brics, which he said should be “open and inclusive”, while his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, said that expansion would “strengthen the voice of developing countries.”
The idea of launching a new common reserve currency has taken a back seat for now – the thrust will be on increasing trade in the five’s local currencies to gain greater independence from the US dollar in the near future. But there's an undeniable buzz over this year’s gathering – the 15th heads of state and government summit. South Africa invited more than 30 African leaders to attend, while the hosts say that over 40 countries, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria, Argentina, Egypt and Indonesia, are interested in joining an expanded Brics.
Despite the seemingly momentous future, there was a chorus of criticism before the summit even began. India and China have too many issues between them for the Brics ever to amount to much, was one argument. Jim O’Neill, the former Goldman Sachs economist who coined the acronym Bric (the S came later) in 2001, and who sometimes sounds as though he regrets that it has achieved a life of its own, was quoted as saying the idea that the group might one day achieve monetary union was “ridiculous”. The bloc is “riven with tensions”, claimed the Economist, and had “disappointed”, according to the Financial Times, while others said it would never be able to become an alliance like Nato or a confederation like the European Union.
One can only speculate why so many western critics are keen to expend so much energy panning an organisation that they claim not to see as a significant actor, at present or in the future. Could it be wishful thinking, given that the Brics-plus will represent a huge chunk of the Global South?
Either way, I believe they are making what philosophers call a “category error”. The Brics-plus may never be like the EU or Nato – but almost no one is suggesting that it should be. Why, in any case, should either organisation be considered an example to follow? The EU is plagued by a severe democratic deficit and huge tensions between hardcore believers in “ever-closer union” and states that are determined to defend their own sovereignty. Many believe that Nato, on the other hand, should have closed shop after the end of the Cold War, its mission accomplished, and that its reckless advancement to the East has been a contributing factor to the calamitous war in Ukraine.
The Brics’ own website describes itself as “an informal group of states” whose purpose is not only in serving the “common interests of emerging market economies and developing countries, but also building a harmonious world of lasting peace and common prosperity.” Their growing economic might, abundant natural resources and substantial populations make them one of the main driving forces of global economic development: coming together as a group serves as a statement of that fact to the world.
There may be differing views about the group’s long-term direction, but while the Brics may be an alternative to the West, leading voices are making clear that the Brics is not and should not be anti-West. "We do not want to be a counterpoint to the G7, G20 or the United States," Brazil's president Lula da Silva said on the first day of the summit. "We just want to organise ourselves."
Another criticism seems to be that the Brics is in fact another kind of Nato – defined in Malaysia and Singapore as “No action, talk only”. If that was a reason to dismiss the group, then we might as well all give up going to conferences. Most of those I have attended have resulted in little concrete; their main purpose has been in increasing common understanding and knowledge and people-to-people connectivity.
These are certainly ends in themselves. But of course it is not true that Brics summits produce nothing. They have resulted in work plans and agreed priorities, a string of strategies, roadmaps and agreements on trade, economic partnerships and investment and the establishment of the New Development Bank headquartered in Shanghai, China. And in the more than two decades since Mr O’Neill came up with the term Bric, the countries’ share of global GDP has gone up from eight per cent to 26 per cent – not necessarily connected to the establishment of the group in 2009, perhaps, but a figure that represents their relevance and heft.
There is plenty more to do in terms of building institutional strength. I agree with the American-Iranian scholar Afshin Molavi, who wrote this week: “The group should remain focused on business and trade, investment and development, and leave the politics to other forums.” It should integrate where appropriate but keep flexibility and a degree of informality at its core. If that puzzles critics who demand rigid structures in international organisations, that is their problem. The Brics are coming up with their own model. And if it's not a formula that inspires hope, they might ask themselves why so many countries want to join.