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The BRICS and the Challenge of Challenging the Global Order


The so-called BRICS have become a formidable collective force with a shared ambition to reshape the prevailing global order and bring about a multipolar world where power is distributed more evenly among (groups of) nations.

In the short term, the BRICS’s vision confronts substantial challenges arising from contingent factors. In particular, Russia and China, the heavyweight members of the alliance, grapple with economic and geopolitical issues that affect their ability to assert dominance on the global stage. The imposition of sanctions against Russia, the economic slowdown in China – made more severe by the recent problems originating in the real estate market – have strained their capacities to subvert the global international order.

In the short term, the solidity of the BRICS alliance hinges on external factors and domestic economic dynamics. In the long-run, the primary obstacle to their becoming a global hegemonic force lies in the diverse situations within each country in the group and the different motives behind their actions.

An anti-liberal pact?

Looking ahead, the intrinsic nature of the BRICS alliance presents significant hurdles to their mission. The inherently diverse political systems and the different ideological perspectives within the alliance constitute a formidable barrier to the cohesive pursuit of shared objectives. Indeed, the tensions arising from differing political ideologies can hinder the alliance’s ability to present a unified front against the existing world order.

The conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza have brought to light divisions and clear contrasts. For example, in contrast with India, China has refrained from explicitly condemning Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine. In a similar vein, Modi and Xi Jinping do not share the same views about American President Joe Biden.

Certainly, the BRICS alliance might increasingly take on the character of an explicit anti-liberal pact, one that combines states that tend to lean toward authoritarian governance. For example, in 2024 Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Ethiopia are expected to become members of the so-called BRICS Plus, a label which signals an open approach to broader collaboration.

It is debatable whether an alliance kept together by the members’ opposition to liberal democracy can effectively challenge and reshape the global order. What would replace liberal democracy? A world-level dictatorship? New, more “advanced” forms of democracy?

During the November G20 summit in Bali, Xi conveyed to Biden that the prevailing narrative of ‘democracy versus authoritarianism’ does not define today’s world. He emphasized that China possesses its unique form of democracy, characterized as Chinese-style democracy. Although these words may sound odd to Western ears, all this means that the authoritarian rhetoric may be a little simplistic.

BRICS and the world economy

Certainly, the BRICS must deal with the practical implications of their diverse economic structures and levels of development. China is an economic powerhouse and has different priorities and capabilities compared to South Africa, a comparatively smaller economy. Bridging these economic gaps within the alliance requires effective cooperation: designing policies that satisfy the different needs of member states will not be easy.

Even the most obvious policy for those challenging the U.S. hegemony, namely replacing the dollar with the Chinese currency in intra-group transactions, is not backed by unanimous agreement. First, the Chinese Yuan has proven to be a relatively weak reserve currency so far (Fig. 1a). Second, it is by no means obvious that other BRICS countries would be eager to replace the American hegemony with the Chinese one. In any case, such a substitution would have a limited impact, as nearly half of trade benefiting China and India is with the United States (Fig. 1b).

Fig. 1a (data available at https://data.imf.org/?sk=e6a5f467-c14b-4aa8-9f6d-5a09ec4e62a4)

Fig 1b (data available at https://wits.worldbank.org/CountryProfile/en/Country/IND/Year/2021/Summary)

Moreover, the BRICS’ aspirations face scrutiny from the international community. As the BRICS countris seek a more prominent role in global institutions such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, resistance from existing powers raises concerns. Overcoming skepticism and gaining acceptance as legitimate stakeholders will not be easy.

To summarise, while the BRICS share a genuine desire to challenge the current global order, their path is fraught with challenges in the short and long term. In the immediate future, economic and geopolitical issues hinder their collective strength. During the next years, the inherent diversity of the political ideologies and economic structures within the alliance presents formidable obstacles. The BRICS’ ability to navigate these intricate challenges will ultimately determine whether they can effectively counterbalance the existing world order or succumb to the complexities of their alliance.

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