It is a hot topic in coffee shops in the Middle East nowadays that the world is witnessing an eclipse and the end of US-Western hegemony is near. For me, it has often been nearly impossible to chip into these conversations to say that the world has always been fluid and it is difficult to reach consensus on a single worldview between its many vying superpowers and players old and new. Yet, I have to admit that, more than ever before, not only in the Middle East but also in the wider Global South, the buzzwords abound about a new century without the US and Western powers; one that promises to offer more justice and equitability championed by new players like China, Russia and whomever is orbiting within their sphere of influence.
The spotlights of those aspiring for a global recalibration have been shining on Johannesburg in South Africa this week, where the leaders and heads of governments of the BRICS countries are meeting for the grouping’s 15th summit. They are discussing widening its membership and influence, pushing for a shift in global geopolitics.
It is not difficult to see why people in coffee shops across the world could be lured into thinking that the old world order is ripe for picking in South Africa, through enlarging the BRICS bloc or setting up other alliances that could magically rebalance the alleged tilt in favor of the West. The list of grievances deployed to justify the change is long and versatile, from abusive trade practices, punishing sanctions regimes and a perceived neglect of the development needs of poorer nations to residues of colonialism and an erroneous sense that nations are told how to behave, who to support and how to conduct their sovereign affairs. People repeatedly evoke the West’s domination of international bodies such as the UN, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
In short, amid rising dissatisfaction with the prevailing world order, the pledge of current BRICS members Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa to make the grouping a leading champion of the Global South has found resonance among 40 countries that we are told have expressed an interest in joining BRICS, each for their own separate interests. Yet, opening up its membership is a thorny issue, favored by China and Russia while Brazil and India tend to want to go slowly.
Becoming a counterweight to the current alleged Western monopoly was maybe the key driver for the bloc
Becoming a counterweight to the current alleged Western monopoly was maybe the key driver for the bloc. Yet this could only start with the de-dollarization of the world economy in favor of the use of local currencies, maybe creating a new single currency or even toying with alternatives like blockchain and bitcoin. The US dollar’s share of international financial transactions remains strong at 42 percent, while the euro is at 32 percent and the Chinese yuan’s share is only 2 percent.
The BRICS bloc’s development bank launched in 2015, with the aim of competing with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, but it has been hit by sanctions on Russia and its loan basket remains limited.
Potential candidates like heavily sanctioned Iran and Venezuela could only benefit from admission to a grouping that is home to 40 percent of the world’s population and a quarter of global gross domestic product. But the bloc’s chances of becoming a global political and economic player are limited due its lack of a coherent vision, divisions and absence of concrete results. This is reflected in the motives of the various countries that want to join the bloc. Some are seeking more visibility and a rival to their dependence on the West, or to improve their chances of gaining membership of global bodies, while candidates like Ethiopia and Nigeria are drawn by the bloc’s commitment to reforms at the UN that would give Africa a more powerful voice. Others want change at the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund and World Bank as a way to reconfigure the international financial architecture.
Along these lines, an expanded BRICS would surely look more like a bloc that resembles a grievances box, despite its members’ efforts to become a counterweight to the West amid China’s continued tensions with the US and the fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Small countries hoping for an economic boost from BRICS membership might look to South Africa’s experience
Meanwhile, small countries hoping for an economic boost from BRICS membership might look to South Africa’s experience. Its trade with fellow BRICS members has increased steadily since it joined, according to an analysis by the country’s Industrial Development Corporation. But that growth is largely down to imports from China and the bloc still accounts for just a fifth of South Africa’s total two-way trade.
What will drive BRICS forward will be concrete achievements, not mere rhetoric. In a world that appears to be at an inflection point, groupings to drive reform and deal with the adversities facing the planet, like global warming, food security, poverty and conflict, should be applauded. But attempts to engineer a radical overhaul of a world system led so far by the US and the West, as created in the wake of the Second World War, are unlikely to benefit from more groupings or alliances.
Yes, maybe the US and the West have many shortfalls that have been fueling inequality on the world stage. And they may not have been redressing aspects related to peace and justice as desired by those sitting in coffee shops mainly in the Global South. So, one can excuse some people’s pontification about seeing hope in new blocs or groupings. But I invite them to look more thoroughly before embracing this or any new grouping and analyze the track record of its champions in governance, accountability and transparency.
Almost fifteen years since its inception, concrete achievements for the BRICS countries are difficult to find, but it remains an important talking bloc, with hope that its agenda and actions for the common good will outweigh the empty slogans we have heard so far. Those sipping their coffee in the Global South aspire to a free refill at least, if not the full geopolitical change tabled by the bloc and its supporters.