[Co-authored with Samir Saran]
As New Delhi gets ready to host the 8th BRICS Summit in Goa in October, both the sceptics and believers are tentative in their support or criticism of the BRICS project. Commentators are also unable to comprehend or explain the nature of the grouping and the regimes it seeks to promote. In order to understand the means-ends logic of BRICS, we must situate it within the longer arc of contemporary history while seeking a better explication of the evolving relationship between liberalism, multilateralism and multipolarity.
This is crucial if we are to make sense of this unlikely grouping and its role in a world that now resembles 19th century Europe, post the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The order that emerged then was starkly driven by national interests of a constellation of powers, and arranged according to balance-of-power principles. As such, it was one of the earliest historical examples of how great powers could “cooperate under anarchy,” to riff a term from late 20th century institutionalist literature. What we are witnessing now is a similar reassertion by states and return to balance-of-power politics at a time when multipolarity and multilateralism are in an uneasy relationship.
Without doubt this European analogy is imperfect. After all, the re-emergence of the ‘sovereign imperative’ in the 21st century, under contemporary conditions of interdependence, is unlike the 19th century. It has more to do with the excesses of the unipolar moment that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and ended with the global financial crisis of 2008. What transpired then is crucial to understanding the beginnings and relevance of the BRICS.
Recent Western engagement in the Middle East tells part of the story. The first Gulf War of 1991 saw the US intervene to secure its energy interests by leveraging the UNSC. By the second Gulf War in 2003, the US saw the UNSC as an impediment. Thereafter, American, French and British interventions in Libya, Syria and elsewhere institutionalised subversion of the UN led multilateral order under the garb of ‘Responsibility to Protect’. State assertiveness was not limited to the politico-military sphere alone. Germany rode out of the global financial crisis with a new zeal for geoeconomic statecraft, raking up huge surpluses often at the expense of EU partners. The German idea of “Gestaltungsmacht” (a shaping power) is predicated not on a principled adherence to liberalism but on the fungibility of economic power. Witness the German willingness to let Greece leave the Eurozone in 2015 (and risk a Eurozone-wide crisis) but unwillingness to write off some of the Greek liability.
BRICS is a child of this era — when liberal democracies subverted multilateralism and the economic order was reduced to serving interests of a few. It was indeed a moment ripe for sovereign reassertion. It should be no surprise then that BRICS puts a premium on Westphalian sovereignty as an organising principle for the international order, and seeks new norms that would make that order more representative. Put differently, the regime-complex around BRICS is built on two principles: that of ‘sovereign preponderance’ and of a ‘democratic equity’.
The principle of sovereign preponderance holds the state is paramount, independent and inviolable, and inter-state cooperation is possible where trade-offs between autonomy and cooperation result in greater ‘state’ agency. Indeed it is this principle that allows China and Russia to come together in a forum with three democracies. For each of them, the ideology of global capitalism is not an end in itself, but only a means to meet developmental objectives of the state. Their objections to interventions in regions that are outside their own core interests and neighbourhoods must also be seen in this light.
By promoting norms around democratic equity in the international architecture, BRICS seeks to find space in structures and institutions that are increasingly seen as subservient to Atlantic powers. These powers have subverted multilateral institutions whenever they saw these institutions as impediments to furthering their agenda. A case-in-point is the multilateral trading regime with the World Trade Organization (WTO) at its center. The United States, by promoting new and exclusive mega-regional trade regimes like the Trans-Pacific Partnership as well as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, has dealt a serious blow to the WTO’s raison d’être. By persistently objecting to the WTO grant of “market economy status” to China, the United States has shown that the multilateral trading architecture — at its core — remains bound to the hegemon’s perception of fair practices. Norm-setting remains a predominantly western exercise.
It is here that BRICS differs from the democratic and equitable order that was sought to be promoted by the Non-Aligned Movement or the G77. Instead, this current impulse stems from varying degrees of disaffection of each BRICS member with the global marketplace of norms. BRICS strives to restore balance-of-power in the agenda-setting space. And as it attempts to do this, it is indeed ironic that the task of democratisation of the international system has become a central endeavour of a group that has two large authoritarian countries as members.
Herein lies the central paradox at the heart of contemporary geopolitics and geoeconomics. Liberal democracies are undermining multilateralism whereas ‘illiberal states’ are rallying behind it, and both are doing so out of self-interest. Individually BRICS states realise they need the multilateral architecture since the pursuit of other arrangements requires both political and economic heft, which all BRICS members lack. As a collective, BRICS seeks to leverage each of its member-states’ significant geopolitical and geoeconomic strengths to preserve the multilateral system, albeit in a way that recognises the significant stakes of emerging powers. In other words, plurilateralism becomes a pathway to the preservation of multilateralism. At the end of the day, this is what unifies BRICS.
First published in ORF Expert Speak|Raisina Debates blog. A shorter version also appeared in the Economic Times.