There’s a new sheriff in town — or at least a new applicant. The five countries that have banded together to form a partnership called BRICS want to overthrow the global economic and political order that has long been shaped by Europe and the United States. That’s potentially earth-shattering. So far, though, not much earth has been shattered.
The acronym BRIC was coined in 2001 by a banker at the investment firm Goldman Sachs who saw Brazil, Russia, India, and China as emerging titans on the world stage. The four countries held their first summit in 2009. South Africa joined in 2010, turning BRIC into BRICS. At the summit the group will hold next year in Cape Town, leaders of the five countries may accept Saudi Arabia’s application to join. That would increase the power of a bloc that already represents 43 percent of the world’s population and one-fourth of the global economy. Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and Argentina also want to join.
Part of the reason these five countries banded together is that they control less than 15 percent of the weighted votes in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which were established after World War II and are dominated by Western powers. They aim to create a new global reserve currency to replace the dollar and the IMF’s “special drawing rights” in international trade. A study released this year by Harvard and Columbia universities concludes that BRICS has “established a critical infrastructure for a prospective alternative non-dollar global financial system.” Since the five member states produce half the world’s iron, more than 40 percent of the world’s wheat and corn, and one-fourth of the world’s oil, their adoption of a new currency to replace the dollar could dramatically change the economic order that has been in place for the last 75 years.
Frustration over the global financial order is not the only reason these countries have banded together. All believe the West has been too quick to sanction countries for what it considers bad behavior. They want to be free to act as they wish, whether that means military action or domestic repression, without fearing punishment from abroad. Since 2012 they have also been planning an undersea “BRICS cable” that would give member countries Internet and other communications outside the watchful eye of the US National Security Agency.
The BRICS bloc is hardly the first effort to create a grouping of countries seeking distance from the West. Its ancestry may be traced back to the 1955 Asian-African Conference held in Bandung, Indonesia. Leaders of 29 countries gathered to demand a world guided by what the host, President Ahmed Sukarno, called the “live and let live” principle. It was a star-studded list, including Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru of India and Zhou Enlai of China, President Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, and the future leaders of Vietnam and Ghana, Ho Chi Minh and Kwame Nkrumah. The United States declined to send observers, leading Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell to announce that he would attend anyway; he later called it “one of the most significant conferences of our times.” The novelist Richard Wright also attended, and wrote afterward that the conference “smacked of tidal waves, of natural forces.”
The Bandung conference led to the formation in 1956 of the Non-Aligned Movement. Many of the countries that joined were climbing out of various forms of colonialism and wanted to remain neutral in the Cold War. That outraged Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who told President Sukarno, “You must be on one side or the other. Neutralism is immoral.” The Non-Aligned Movement formed a potent bloc, but during the 1970s it lost its identity as neutral when Fidel Castro of Cuba, clearly aligned with the Soviet Union, became its dominant figure. In 1979 it split over whether to condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It still exists but is no longer a force in world politics. BRICS is in part an attempt to pick up its fallen banner.
This bloc has the potential to upset the world order that Western nations constructed three-quarters of a century ago. It is still, however, far from reaching that potential. Though it is already more than a simple talk shop, it’s hardly a true alliance and punches far below its weight. Its key projects remain unrealized, and it plays no substantial role in world politics. The five members and the countries that may soon join have vastly different political and economic systems, and little in the way of shared values. They are split on major global issues like the Russia-Ukraine war. Some quietly resent China’s inevitable dominance. All they really have in common is that they’re large, non-Western, and eager to change longstanding global rules. That’s a long way from producing the true alternative system that is their dream goal.
More than a few countries are seeking to escape from the Western-dominated world order. BRICS is only the most visible of their emerging coalitions. Another is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which was founded in 2001 and groups China, Russia, and four Central Asian nations. In part to counter these challenges, the United States has strengthened its commitment to NATO and created new blocs of its own, most recently the not so subtly anti-China “Quad” partnership that includes Australia, Japan, and India — which is also a BRICS member. As the world changes in our volatile era, quiet confrontation among these blocs will shape geopolitics for future generations.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.