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10 July 2015

What do the BRICS want?

And what can the West do to avoid unnecessary confrontation

The summit of the BRICS countries held in the Russian city of Ufa this week perhaps for the first time ended with the adoption of important decisions including the one on the establishment of the Development Bank with a capital of around $100 billion. Statutory objectives of the Bank include assistance provided to the member states, should they face a financial crisis. Such actions can be perceived as a sign that after a decade of ‘latent’ existence, the BRICS have begun to perceive their alliance as a major international association. What is its message to the world and what prospects can it count on?

In my opinion, although it initially appeared to be an entirely arbitrary association of four (and later five) countries, this group was formed for good reason. All the BRICS countries are states which have either dropped out of the circle of great powers and are seeking to return to their former glory (such as Russia or China) or, are ascending from the nethermost ‘depths’ of the global periphery (such as India and South Africa). This means that they are all interested in some kind of  review of the existing world order – either economic (primarily China, Brazil and South Africa), or political (Russia, which seems the most revisionist power, or India, for that matter, which is aspiring to membership in the Security Council and striving for UN reform). It must be admitted that, in the majority of cases, such aspirations are not without merit: the BRICS account for 43% of the world population and 22% of global GDP (at the current exchange rate), China, let’s say, has fewer votes in the IMF than Belgium. And the main question today is about the possibility of the ‘fine tuning’ of the global mechanisms of economic and political governance which the BRICS countries need.

I do not know the answer to this question – I hasten to add. Although the BRICS countries seem important players, currently the dominance of the Atlantic world cannot be effectively challenged. In technological, financial and military terms, what has traditionally been known as ‘the West’ remains the dominant force in the world arena. Should the opponents launch a ‘frontal assault’ against it, we will witness new confrontation – and there will be nothing to be gained for novices. That is precisely why the restructuring of the current international system can only be achieved through a slow and evolutionary process which demands caution and political wisdom both from the West and from the BRICS. What could one suggest given such a situation?

On the part of the BRICS

If the BRICS want to become a force that challenges the dominance of the West, they should formulate an agenda which would not be radically different from the existing one, but would have an extra dimension. It could combine several underpinnings: undoubtedly, it will refer to the issues that these countries are especially significant players in,  energy, the export of natural resources, industrial development etc. ̶  all of the issues should be approached not with an offensive game plan but rather a defensive one; major issues introduced into the global discourse should not become a sticking point in terms of relations between the North and South and nor should they be seen in the context of the ‘non-West’ but they should rather be attributed a global character from the outset.

Here are some examples:

Let us begin with the hackneyed subject of climate change which is, nevertheless, popular in the West. Today, China is the largest consumer of oil and the leader in terms of СО2 emissions released into the atmosphere. That said, neither China nor India are capable of reaching the levels of energy consumption per capita which are observed in developed countries, taking into account purely quantitative indicators. That is why the BRICS countries should make the topic of the economical use of resources their ‘hobbyhorse’. China needs to achieve energy efficiency so that its rural population may become familiar with the fruits of progress before they rot due to air and water pollution; India – for rapid industrialization and to maintain competitiveness; Russia – to maintain its levels of commodity exports due to the decrease in domestic consumption; while Brazil occupies a unique position as a trailblazer in biofuel production. A connection between ecology and efficiency; omitting the issue of ‘global warming’ from the agenda and replacing it with a program designed to increase efficiency and optimize the consumption of resources could be a means of ensuring that the BRICS countries, at the very least, become intellectual leaders or even real leaders in terms of tackling the issue of sustainable development, as it will be presented in the mid-21st century.

The financial problem is yet another sore subject for the BRICS. It is fashionable today to blame the West for the generation of financial crises and bubbles – but contemporarily we can observe that China is ‘bubbling’ every bit as well. The success of the BRICS countries in the 2000s was largely due to the growth in demand for goods produced by them on behalf of the USA and EU with their liberal trade regime, and in the 2010s – huge money supply brought about by the policy of ‘quantitative easing’. The West would not be so indebted if China, Russia, and other petrostates were not ready to facilitate this debt whilst accumulating reserves in dollars. And now the BRICS could raise the issue of overcoming global financial disbalances – by the way, not by giving an ultimatum to the West but rather through a proposal for the gradual and rational resolution to this problem. By recognizing their mutual responsibility for global financial disbalances, the BRICS could propose to the Western states a scheme which involves  converting debt into real assets on their territory. As a result, the existing restrictions on investments by the BRICS countries in Europe and the USA could be lifted, the debts of the leading powers would rapidly decrease (similar to the reserves of the developing countries), which would ensure accelerated worldwide economic growth. From this perspective, it would be wiser to negotiate the revision of IMF quotas.  

Finally, the BRICS countries, which appear to be the ‘advancing’ parties today, could avoid antagonizing the West, by proposing a new program of disarmament for the sake of development. Today, up to $1.9 trillion is spent annually on military needs worldwide – 17 times more than on all the humanitarian programs and development assistance programs combined. Defense spending, incidentally, is growing most rapidly in precisely China, Russia and India, and concern about a number of the BRICS countries is growing in the West. Against this backdrop, why not initiate proportional reductions in defense spending and reallocate at least half of the resources saved in this way to providing assistance to the poorest states? Such a step today could satisfy all the parties: the USA, due to the fact that they are beginning to seriously fear the Chinese threat; Europe, which undoubtedly would welcome the ‘humanitarian’ orientation of this initiative; all the less developed states which would receive considerable benefits from the implementation of such a plan; and, finally, the BRICS countries themselves, whose economies are not sufficiently sustainable to withstand a substantial increase in armament expenditures over the long term. I am convinced that, currently, expectations as regards the military dominance of the BRICS countries are radically overstated and that is why they should try to ‘reverse’ the armament race whilst offering a glib rationale. Even if they do not manage to retire from the armament race, this step would be seen by the global community as a totally novel concept in world politics and will give the BRICS a reason to position themselves as an advocate of peace throughout the entire world, a role which has long been vacant.

One could suggest a score of similar items which could be used to form a cooperative agenda and to facilitate the ‘smooth incorporation’ of the BRICS into the global architecture, something beneficial to all parties.

On the part of the West

If countries of the West do not want serious problems to emerge on the part of the BRICS countries in the nearest future, they also need to think about their incorporation into systemic institutions which exist in the contemporary world as soon as possible. And here I would consider two tactics if I were in their place.

On the one hand, Western countries should recognize the objective reality and review ‘the correlation of forces’ in international financial and political institutions – even more so, since their influence is objectively diminishing in global processes. The IMF as such, as the Greek crisis illustrates, loses its former importance, giving way to regional players. Should a crisis emerge in Mexico, the Americans will be the first to lend a hand; the Chinese will be the ones to provide assistance in the case that this happens in Thailand or Indonesia. It would be absolutely right to restore the balance of participation in this institution in order to ensure that interests of these and other members of the Fund in the global economy are represented proportionally. The role of the UN in the world cannot be considered decisive, either. At the same time, the proposal of the West to expand the number of permanent members of the Security Council would prompt the largest discussion only amongst the BRICS and not between the BRICS and the rest of the world (since Russia as such understands perfectly well that this role is practically the only one which it inherited from the USSR in the sphere of foreign policy). I am convinced that one can offer a multitude of other proposals which would be assessed by the BRICS members as a considerable concession, although they would primarily be symbolic in nature. In any case, a sharing of responsibility does not in any way infringe the strategic interests of Western countries.

On the other hand, the BRICS used to be, and still is, a group of countries not so much united by trade, financial or socio-cultural links as they consolidate around the ‘anti-Western’ basis and demand huge involvement in global processes. This being the case, the West should try to ‘co-optate’ members of this alliance into its own structures ‘on an individual basis’. It would be worthwhile for the United States to develop a free trade area not only with Europe but with Latin America, too, while making Brazil a key strategic partner in the Western hemisphere (one should not disregard the fact that, in 2013, China displaced the USA from its position as the main trading partner of Brazil). Geopolitical partnership with India should be strengthened in America, Europe and Japan. India continues to experience Chinese pressure in the region and seems to be ‘the weakest link’ in the BRICS in Eurasia. And the West could find something to offer South Africa, too. In other words, by making concessions to the BRICS (as a whole) as regards their presence in international institutions, Western countries should be wary of undermining the fragile internal unity of this group. 

However, let me emphasize once again: I do not appeal to the West or the BRICS to enter confrontation, since I am certain that this would be the worst of all of the possible scenarios as regards their interaction and could bring about serious global crises. Both ‘camps’ should now consider undertaking a search for compromises, since in them, and only in them, lies the guarantee of stable world of the 21st century.

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