What Do the BRICS Want? Co-Existence or Cooperation?

Photograph Source: Prime Minister’s Office – GODL-India

Headlines about the recent meeting of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) in Johannesburg used traditional Realpolitik language: “BRICS nations to meet in South Africa seeking to blunt Western dominance;” “BRICS expansion wished for by China has become a reality.” While those titles may be appropriate on the level of traditional power politics and relations between countries, they miss the larger question: What do the BRICS want? If the BRICS countries only wish to counter Western dominance in order to impose their own dominance, that’s just Realpolitik. But if they wish to participate in a larger remaking of a more equitable global system based on justice and equity, that’s a whole other ball game.

The Chinese leader, President Xi Jinping made statements during his visit to South Africa that suggested differences between a new international order and something closer to a global order. On the one hand, Xi said that the BRICS should expand to include new members such as Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to counter Western domination. “It can’t be that whoever has the thicker arm or the loudest voice has the final say,” he stated in an obvious rebuke to Western powers. The more BRICS members, he assumed, the more power the BRICS allies would have to compete with the U.S.-led post World War II multilateral system. And maybe, China would be the future dominant power in a new international order.

On the other hand, Xi called for the BRICS expansion “so as to pool our strength, pool our wisdom to make global governance more just and equitable.” A global governance that is more equitable and just goes beyond mere competition between countries. Global is not inter-national, with its inherent rivalries between countries. Global is also inclusive, including actors above the state level, such as supranational institutions like the United Nations or sub-state actors within civil society. The German legal scholar Wolfgang Friedmann summarized the difference between international and global in terms of inter-state co-existence vs. global cooperation.

Beyond differentiating between international and global in terms of actors and competition, the differences also concern issues. Climate change and pollution would be excellent examples of the need for global cooperation. Individual, economically competing countries cannot solve global warning or planetary pollution. All actors – public and private, states, multilateral organizations, multinational corporations, individuals, civil society – must cooperate in order to deal with climate change and pollution. (This is precisely the argument of the late German philosopher Hans Jonas in The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age in which he argues for the need for global responsibility based on universal cooperation following the implications of modern technology.)

Presenting the recent BRICS Summit as a counterbalancing force to the G7 or other Western institutions misses the possibilities for significant change. Global issues are beyond Realpolitik. In that sense, the question of the relationship of the BRICS to global governance warrants close attention.

Specifically, how do the BRICS see their relationship to the United Nations, an international institution historically dominated by the victors in World War II? Are the BRICS against cooperating in traditional international institutions or are they preparing a different world order based on their emerging power?

This is what President Xi Jinping said about global governance and the U.N. in his major Summit speech titled “Seeking Development Through Solidarity and Cooperation and Shouldering Our Responsibility for Peace” on Aug 23, 2023:

“Strengthening global governance is the right choice if the international community intends to share development opportunities and tackle global challenges. International rules must be written and upheld jointly by all countries based on the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter, rather than dictated by those with the strongest muscles or the loudest voice. Ganging up to form exclusive groups and packaging their own rules as international norms are even more unacceptable. BRICS countries should practice true multilateralism, uphold the U.N.-centered international system, support and strengthen the WTO-centered multilateral trading system.”

In other words, China is not calling for a total overhaul of the international system. Xi is calling for a different type of multilateralism, one not dominated by Western powers, yet one within the basic tenets of the principles of the U.N. Charter established by the West. He is calling for more equity within the given system, not radical change.

(Historically, it is important to note that much of the BRICS agenda comes out of the Global South’s 1970s call for a New International Economic Order following decolonisation and leading to the Right to Development. While neoliberals then and now quickly reject any proposals away from market-based economics, the growing power of China’s state capitalism and growing inequalities within Western powers have resurfaced in the BRICS demands in another form.)

How did the Secretary-General of the United Nations react to Xi’s remarks? First, the U.N. head recognized the current weaknesses of the traditional system run by the victors of WWII and the growing role of emerging powers: “For multilateral institutions to remain truly universal, they must reform to reflect today’s power and economic realities, and not the power and economic realities of the post Second World War.” How to do this? “And so I have come to Johannesburg with a simple message: in a fracturing world with overwhelming crises, there is simply no alternative to cooperation. We must urgently restore trust and reinvigorate multilateralism for the 21st century.”

As part of an effort to “reinvigorate multilateralism for the 21st century,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres mentioned two U.N. initiatives for greater cooperation: Sustainable Development Goals and a Climate Solidarity Pact. (He did not mention the war between Russia and Ukraine.) What is important to note is that there was agreement by the Chinese president and the U.N. Secretary-General on the need for cooperation within the established multilateral system following the principles of the U.N. Charter.

So what do the BRICS want? At least according to the Chinese president, they want the current multilateral system to remain, but to ensure that it is as equitable and fair. Do the BRICS want co-existence or cooperation? Again, according to Xi, they want a little of both. They want to participate in the existing multilateral system, but not as it functions today. While it would be too strong to say that China and the growing BRICS movement want to dominate the existing system, as the Western powers have for many years, they want, at least, a more equitable, less Western dominated system.

Following Xi’s statements, the BRICS have not rejected the existing Western created system, nor have they proposed a totally new one. In terms of a more equitable global governance within the United Nations, the BRICS movement should be seen as a positive step. Evidence of global cooperation on issues such as climate and pollution could be positive indicators to that effect. But values such as human rights or following Charter norms on war and peace remain outside full cooperation. That was obvious from the BRICS Summit.

So we are left in a grey zone between co-existence and cooperation, with co-existence on certain issues and cooperation on others. It is obvious that despite all the calls for global cooperation and governance, countries will cherry pick which institutions they will use to their advantage. What is crucial to note following the BRICS Summit and enlargement is that the tension between co-existence and cooperation will be played out in different ways within the existing multilateral system. President XI, as leader of the BRICS, made no call for a new world order; just a need for serious reform towards more equity, justice and inclusion. The U.N. Secretary-General agreed. Will the West?

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.