Two decades after its emergence as a marketing ploy, the concept has seen an unlikely rise
By Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs, chairman of the Presidium of the Foreign and Defense Policy Council and research director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa returned from Riyadh earlier this week with news that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had expressed his country’s intention to join the BRICS.
It’s no such surprise – Argentina and Iran also announced the same in the spring. At this point, we’ll have to think up more and more complicated acronyms for the expanding association, but that’s not the point.
The excitement around the BRICS is a sign of the changes taking place in the world.
This group of countries – originally called BRICs, by the way – is an artificial construct invented at the turn of the century by Goldman Sachs analyst Jim O’Neill for convenience. Investors needed to “sell” emerging markets, so they used a successful marketing ploy (tying it to building blocks was a nice form of pun). With O’Neill’s touch, the union has long been viewed primarily through an economic prism.
But this perception did not imply the eventual real rapprochement of the States concerned – they are very different, distant from each other, they do not need a common framework to strengthen economic cooperation, and everything could be done bilateral level. Moreover, the rate of growth, which was the initial reason for the rapprochement of these countries, has changed – as one would expect, increases have been followed by decreases, of various kinds.
The concept would have remained a fun afterthought had it not been redesigned. Since 2006, the BRIC/BRICS have been the format for regular meetings at ministerial level and then at the highest political level. As the political community emerged (it must be stressed – strictly informally), a criterion formed itself. That the BRICS are a group of countries enjoying full sovereignty, that is to say capable of carrying out completely independent policies.
This implies not only political autonomy (without the need to be guided by outside opinion) but also the economic potential to achieve this objective. A goal that cannot be achieved by a very large number of countries in the world.
In the West today, only the United States seems to have such a right; the rest of the bloc, even the most economically developed, voluntarily limit their political sovereignty due to participation in alliances.
That said, the mere fact of a technical “union of sovereigns” has not in itself produced a new framework: attempts to boost economic ties within the BRICS have not met with enormous enthusiasm. And ideas of making the group a formalized counterweight to the G7 did not find resonance, as ties to the West were crucial for all members.
However, this situation has changed. The events of 2022, initiated by Moscow, have clearly divided the world into a western part mobilizing against Russia, while others take a wait-and-see approach. The West has used all the arsenal of pressure at its disposal to punish Moscow and demonstrate how disobedience is punished.
The result was quite unexpected. All other countries, especially the major BRICS states or those claiming a role in the world of their own, have not only distanced themselves from joining the Western campaign, but have rejected it outright, despite the fact that such a position carries the risk of repercussions from the United States and its allies.
Of course, this is not to support Russian actions, but rather to reject forms of external pressure. And since this is systemic in nature and linked to the particularities of the world order, the means to counter it require a change in the latter.
This is where it became clear that the BRICS have tremendous potential. It may be a rather loose grouping, but it is better prepared than anything else for those interested in alternative schemes of international order. The aforementioned full (political and economic) sovereignty is a prerequisite for these options.
Thus, participation in the BRICS becomes a sign of belonging to a world that is emerging beyond established Western domination. It doesn’t have to be confrontational.
It is much more valuable to be able to bypass Western institutions and reduce the risk of interacting with them. For example, by building parallel ways of conducting financial, economic and trade relations without relying on instruments controlled by the US or the EU.
Riyadh’s desire for membership is quite remarkable. Of course, a country that controls significant material resources and has the ability to regulate world prices can afford independent behavior and choose comfortable partners who do not impose a series of conditions on interaction.
A centralized international system, run by a hegemon, is doomed anyway. This will happen regardless of the end of the conflict in Ukraine. And, thus, a diversity of formats will be in high demand. The new circumstances will open up prospects for the BRICS.
The British author of the acronym could hardly have imagined this scenario twenty years ago, but life is sometimes generous for companies that seemed to have frivolous origins.