The BRICS role in today’s multipolar world

Published on 22 December 2016

With 2017 likely to see ongoing uncertainty in the global North-West as a result of protracted BREXIT negotiations between the EU and the UK and unpredictable US foreign policy under incoming President Trump, the coherence of the BRICS bloc, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will be put to the test. Richard Carey reflects on the last BRICS Summit and considers what its very concrete commitments on a number of areas including security, economy, health, education and culture might mean for global governance.

With little attention in BRICS countries themselves and even less from the larger global community, the 8th BRICS Summit meeting which took place in India earlier this year, nevertheless showed this process is an established part of the architecture of a multipolar world.

As one Indian specialist put it, the BRICS have played a decisive role as a transition vehicle to today’s multipolar world, facilitating the exit from a world seen in North-South and East-West terms and easing the pain for India of moving beyond the non-aligned movement.

Furthermore, BRICS support for multilateralism is strengthening at a time when the US has been declining to underwrite the multilateral system, a trend that will likely continue under Trump.

In global governance terms the BRICS are a new source of initiative.

BRICS strongly endorse UN agreements from 2015

While much of the discussion focused on the problem of terrorism, the BRICS strongly endorsed the outcomes of the major 2015 UN Agreements on the Sustainable Development Goals, Financing for Development and Climate Change, following on from the G20 endorsements in Hangzhou the previous month.

The fact that the BRICS are such strong supporters of the G20 and of the 2015 UN agreements is no small matter. It is a highly significant evolution, reflecting the emergence of a multipolar international system which has made possible the striking shift from an era of ubiquitous North South conflict to the current universal agreements in the UN development fora, on the basis of common objectives and differentiated responsibilities.

The BRICS are a component of that new system.

More specifically, the BRICS Summit endorsement of the 2030 UN Agenda included the commitments to gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.

Cooperation between their finance ministers and the BRICS Interbank Cooperation Mechanism was carried further, even if some items are still work in progress, including an agreement between the New Development Bank and the BRICS ExIm banks and the establishment of a BRICS rating agency based on market principles. A strong emphasis on the work of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), combatting illicit flows, including terrorist financing, came through.

And the G20 international tax agenda, dealing with transparency and with base erosion and profit shifting was also strongly endorsed (the Global Forum on Tax Transparency and Exchange of Information is based at the OECD, with a support unit headed by a highly experienced woman from the Indian Ministry of Finance).

A BRICS anti-Corruption Network is now in place. And, an MOU for a new BRICS Agricultural Research Platform was concluded.

At the Hangzhou Summit a month earlier, the BRICS were part of the commitment to the G20 innovation and growth agendas. Those agendas include a major push on infrastructure via a concerted effort to identify and support infrastructure connectivity programmes around the world through joining up action via a new alliance of multilateral development banks which includes the BRICS New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The G20 Initiative for the Industrialisation of Africa, promoted by China, was endorsed in the BRICS Goa communique which also supported the African Union 2063 Agenda for African Transformation.

These are palpable contributions to global governance.

The BRICS civil society input

The Summit is not just about discussions between Heads of State and other state officials. At the Goa Summit, civil society input came via the BRICS Civil Forum.

Anuradha Chenoy, co-editor of the recently published Palgrave IDS volume on the BRICS and International Development, was invited to open the event and described it as very well organised with substantive participation and preparation by CSOs, including a number of local, regional and national level meetings organized by some CSOs as a prelude to this.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs supported the meeting, but the agenda was autonomous and discussions were free and positive, with excellent delegations from all the countries. The main points of discussion were summarized in a document presented to the BRICS Summit, highlighting in particular the high level of inequalities in BRICS countries and the issues that need to be addressed in meeting the SDGs.

Global governance under construction in a multipolar world

The G20 and the BRICS represent two similar processes of the new multipolar world,  operating with no legacy institutions in an informal economic space, allowing great flexibility to range and convene across complex issues.

The BRICS agenda ranges widely across the security and global governance agendas, political, social, environmental and economic as evidenced in the Goa Action Plan (PDF).

BRICS members are aware they have assisted in constructing a multi-polar world, and that is what binds them. But they still have different interests and strategic and cross cutting alliances elsewhere, already being stretched by incoming President Trump. And while they share some common global and domestic concerns, they are unable to reach a united stand on location specific strategic issues, for example on Syria.

This leads some commentators to see a bleak future for the BRICS Summits. But the ongoing work programme, the common support for the G20 as the leading economic governance forum in the multipolar world, generates momentum from one summit to another as each host nation has a strong incentive to organise a successful summit to lead the process forward.

In 2017, the BRICS Chair falls to China, where the follow-up to the Hangzhou G20 Summit and the impact of a new US Administration on global affairs may be expected to be central issues.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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