The words of 13th century Persian poet Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, ‘As you start to walk the way, the way appears,’ certainly found new resonance in Johannesburg last week at the 15th BRICS Summit.
Apart from expanding the diplomatic club to include Iran, Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the summit revealed the global south’s growing disillusionment with the current structure of the international system.
These frustrations have bolstered BRICS’ appeal as a counterweight to leading Western countries, such as those composing the G7. More significantly, an expanded BRICS represents a resounding call for international reform by global south states, exclusive from, and in opposition to, traditional Western powers.
This unprecedented moment reflects the shifting locus of global power, and has propelled an expanded BRICS to chart a way into unknown territory.
Decisions over the nature and trajectory of global order were once the sole preserve of the European ‘great’ powers, along with the United States (US). The contemporary international system will undoubtedly be shaped by the Asia-Pacific region, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
If global institutions fail to evolve and accommodate this reality, international cooperation on the most pressing issues of our time will inevitably fail. On paper, this is the fundamental challenge BRICS intends to address in order to bring about a more ‘representative, fairer international order, [and] a reformed multilateral system.’
How it does so, however, remains poorly defined.
One likely approach is to use the group’s combined economic clout to pursue global governance, financial and justice system reform, and alternative paths on specific issues like climate change.
Already, the current BRICS states’ collective economic output (based on GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity) is roughly USD three trillion larger than the G7, which includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the US and United Kingdom. (As a non-enumerated member, the European Union is excluded.)
With six new BRICS members in 2024, this difference rises to just under USD 11 trillion. However, economic output measured by GDP based on current exchange rates places the G7 as the larger combined economy (even with the six new BRICS members).
Regardless, countries in the global south are increasingly poised to challenge the economic dominance of traditional powers. And based on the former’s current growth trajectories, will decisively outperform the G7 economies over the coming decades.
This combined economic influence could help to secure greater representation and fairer rules and procedures in the United Nations Security Council, International Criminal Court, World Bank and International Monetary Fund – among others alluded to in the BRICS Johannesburg II Declaration.
However, coordinating common action on specific points of contention may not be as easy for the expanded BRICS grouping as for the G7.
G7 countries have structured their cooperation on global matters around shared liberal political values and norms, particularly on democracy and civil liberties. While these have been threatened in recent years by the rise of populist right-wing administrations, G7 members’ considerable normative and political alignment underpins their global economic clout.
The expanded BRICS grouping, on the other hand, is a more arbitrary constellation of states with very different (and sometimes diametrically opposed) political systems and values. They range from progressive constitutional democracies to closed and repressive theocracies, to countries experimenting with hybrid authoritarianism.
An analysis of various governance variables across member countries, including perceptions of political stability, rule of law, government effectiveness and basic freedoms, reveals a high level of variance. Scores for each of these variables show a standard deviation from the mean that is often more than double that of G7 countries.
That raises serious questions about BRICS’ ability to pursue coherent, coordinated action on global institutional reform, despite members agreeing that the international system is unfairly structured. Without a robust normative basis for cooperation, disagreements over issues such as gender equality, individual rights and liberties, and the character of a new international order, could derail momentum needed for meaningful change.
Ironically, BRICS may well be in its ascendency due to its ambiguity and loosely articulated vision of multipolarity and a reformed international system. However, as the group expands and evolves into something more concrete, difficult issues may not be as easy to kick down the road as before.
For example, how do all members justify provisions in the Johannesburg II Declaration on respecting international humanitarian law in conflict situations, increased participation of women in peace processes, and the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all?
Squaring these provisions with the brazen violations by certain current and incoming BRICS members will test the mettle of the diplomatic club. These contradictions must be overcome for BRICS to muster not only its economic clout, but the moral and political capital to pursue reforms and serve as a counterweight to the G7.
Rumi’s wisdom still rings true, but as the expanded BRICS group marches towards a new world order, the way ahead may be murkier than initially expected.
(Priyal Singh is a senior researcher, Africa in the World, at ISS Pretoria)
Contributed by Priyal Singh