The term BRIC was coined by British economist Jim O’Neill in 2001 to describe four emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, and China. He did not envision them as a political bloc that would challenge the West’s dominance. He was only interested in their investment potential.
However, over the years, this group has evolved into a geopolitical alliance with ambitions to shape the world order. This was evident at its latest summit in Johannesburg, where it invited six other countries from Asia, Africa, and Latin America to join the club. This move was aimed at enhancing BRICS’s influence and leadership as the representative of the global south in the international community. It also appealed to countries that are unhappy with the West’s behavior. Therefore, if the core members of BRICS do not use it as a tool for their own agendas, and respect its essence as a reflection of the global power shift, we can expect a new order to emerge from this institution.
South Africa, the host of the summit, has a complex relationship with BRICS. Although it has tried to expand its ties with China, its main trading partner is still the European Union. In fact, it trades more with the EU and the US than with any BRICS member. For South Africa, BRICS is a useful tool and platform to assert its leadership in Africa and globally. This situation reveals the lack of a coherent plan and mechanisms to manage the diverse interests and preferences of the BRICS members, which lowers their collective expectations and goals.
China also has its own agenda for BRICS. It uses it as a tool to expand its geopolitical influence and promote its alternative vision of world order and governance. The summit in South Africa was especially important for China. After Japan, South Korea, and the US agreed to enhance their security and economic cooperation, China wanted to present BRICS as a viable alternative to the G7 under President Xi’s leadership.
China has a lot of influence over the other BRICS members due to its economic power. It accounts for 70% of the bloc’s gross domestic product. Although the other members share some common interests with China, such as opposing unilateral and protectionist measures or trade sanctions, they also have some differences. For instance, China was the main supporter of expanding the bloc, a proposal that the other members, except Russia, resisted.
Russia, on the other hand, views BRICS as a vital tool to overcome its international isolation. President Putin, who joined the summit virtually to avoid an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, used this opportunity to reiterate his narrative of the Ukraine war. Russia, like China, hopes that BRICS will create alternatives to the Western alliances and coalitions and ultimately challenge the global order and governance.
Not all BRICS members share this view. India, for example, has a different perspective from its rival and neighbor, China. India wants to be a voice for the global south, especially in promoting economic development on the world stage. But it also wants to keep its foreign policy independent. That is why India is cautious about the quadrilateral security dialogue – a strategic forum with Australia, Japan, and the United States – and avoids presenting it as a military alliance. Brazil, too, seems to favor a flexible approach and aspires to act as a diplomatic balancer among different powers.
The BRICS group has been hampered by the divergent views and interests of its five founding members from the start. The group has achieved little beyond establishing the BRICS Bank – now called the New Development Bank – and holding annual meetings. Adding new members could further dilute the group’s cohesion and effectiveness. The Johannesburg summit may have discussed issues such as expanding the group or introducing a common currency for BRICS. But, as usual, the summit’s final statement only reflected the members’ interests and aspirations, such as supporting inclusive multilateralism and fostering mutual growth – without any concrete actions.
The White House’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, has tried to dismiss the BRICS initiatives as insignificant. He has argued that the group does not pose a geopolitical challenge to the US or any other country, because its members have different views on key and fundamental issues.
The BRICS summit may not signal the end of the current world order, but it reveals how widespread and deep the dissatisfaction with it is, and how eager many countries are to challenge the status quo. Despite the diversity and differences in approaches among the BRICS members, there is also an emerging consensus that recognizes the failure of the previous international order and the need for a new one. More than 40 countries have expressed interest in joining BRICS, many of them are middle-income countries that are disillusioned with the liberal international order based on US hegemony. For them, BRICS is an alternative.
The main lesson for the West is that many countries, including some of their traditional allies, are unhappy and dissatisfied with the unipolar liberal international order that emerged after the Cold War. The US-led system that was established after World War II has been one of the most stable systems in modern history. But nothing is eternal.
The rise of BRICS signifies a change in the world order, and it means that the US can no longer dictate and impose all the global rules and norms. This is undeniable. BRICS – though still diverse and disjointed – should be seen as part of a larger trend of emerging power networks and multilateral frameworks, especially in the global South and East, that challenge Western-dominated institutions and organizations.
BRICS has been struggling with the problem of diversity and lack of coherence since its inception in 2009. BRICS is a bloc without a grand vision, whose member countries have agreed on some areas of cooperation. These countries have different positions and preferences in the international system, and this diversity has limited their capacity to influence the existing order and ultimately their potential to create a new one. The leaders of this group want to pursue an independent path in a changing world. But shared discontent is not enough. To remain effective, BRICS must reconcile the diverging priorities of its member states and avoid using the institution as a means to an end—a challenge that will be hard for the group to overcome.