Impulse of Multipolarity: Outcomes of South Africa’s BRICS Summit


On August 24, 2023, the BRICS summit in Johannesburg came to an end, but its overall significance is yet to come to grips with, as too many variables are at stake. Still, it is already possible to put the first emotions aside and assess the unconditional consequences.

The first and foremost thing that only a lazy person failed to talk about was the fait accompli of BRICS admitting new members. The topic was indeed vigorously harped on, and the demand for membership kept exponentially growing, creating a certain hype on the run-up to the summit. Moreover, the stir arose due to a spike in official aspirants for membership. According to various estimates, alongside the official 23 applicants, informal interest was expressed by about just as many states that represent the Global Majority. One should also bear in mind the reaction of the “golden billion”, which was this time not limited to expert discussions in the media promoting the message that BRICS is worthlessness, but it rose to a whole new level: from attempts to get an invitation to the summit, made by Macron of France, to the pressure put on candidate nations such as Argentina. Passions and emotions were running high in the expert as well as pseudo-expert environment, which had not previously honored BRICS summits with such close attention. Diametrically opposite assessments of certain decisions were made, while external non-BRICS-related events were literally dragged in. Notably, the Group of Seven, which had a monopoly on existence as a privileged club for more than a quarter of a century, had never received such a level of attention with a diversity of attitudes. So why has BRICS become the hero of the day, while the G7 remained in the background?

What is the Group of Seven? An elite club that had initially been looked upon as something like the Bilderberg Club, only with incumbent leaders of the developed nations from the West involved. Its closed nature provoked public discontent primarily within the participating countries. It would suffice to recall the mass anti-globalization protests timed to the G7 meetings, and at least once, in Genoa 2001, these did not do without human casualties. Interaction with other countries outside the elite club was looked down on, and the outreach they promoted was nothing else than the standard colonial discourse of providing aid in exchange for the conditions favorable to the G7. By the way, we should not forget that Russia went through a similar “outreach,” first obediently reporting on progress in the development of democracy and economic reforms to Western mentors, and then, as it later turned out, was granted a conventional and limited access to the bosom of the elite family as a toady. However, hope is always the last to die in Russia, so starting at least in 2002 (after Russia was queued for presidency in the final document of the summit in Kananaskis, Canada, and eventually presided the club in 2006) and until the “suspension” of its membership in 2014, it seemed to many, including to the author of these lines, that Russia can really engage with all G7 members on an equal footing, pushing for the global good, these circumstances being objective and mutual. Time has shown that my hopes were futile. At least since the Okinawa summit in 2000, the G7 has been making approaches to China in an attempt to offer a similar alternative to the Asian giant, but Beijing would not fall for this bait, refusing to change its status of a developing nation in exchange for a restricted membership in the club. In other words, the public saw the G7 in a negative light, as a club for the “rich”, where interaction with the guests followed the standard neo-colonial pattern, and this also detracted from the Group’s image. As for the agenda of recent summits, it altogether slipped into a wolf-warrior style, which further alienates even loyal countries of the global majority.

In contrast to the elitists, BRICS built its interaction—both within the Group and with the outside world—on the principles of equality, mutual respect and inclusivity from the very beginning. While a full-fledged civil society process (rather than limited consultations with individual representatives of mainly transnational NGOs) was launched in the G7 only three decades after the Group’s emergence (incidentally, this happened in 2006, during the only time when Russia presided in G8), BRICS started interaction with civil society already within its “second” cycle, during the Russian presidency in 2015. The academic track in BRICS was a precursor to launching the summit format, while the institutionalization of consultations with the business and expert communities occurred in the first cycle already, the year of the Group’s first expansion and simultaneous chairmanship of its new member, South Africa.

You may wonder why we compare these two clubs. The point is to understand the difference in how these two groups are perceived by various communities; to understand the sources of extra opportunities through a constructive involvement of both national communities and those of other states in their work; instead of the dictate, pressure and voluntary-coercive reporting inherent with Russia’s Western (no-longer) partners. As well as to assess the prospects that have emerged for BRICS as a result of the expansion that has just taken place.

But let us return to the recent summit and its visible results. The devil is always in the details. Indeed, the expansion exceeded all expectations, even cautious ones, and raised certain questions both about the approved composition and more than doubling the number of members. There is no doubt that each new member can bring added value to the work of this grouping, but the specifics of each will at the same time add more than one sleepless night to those responsible for the renewed group’s joint operations.

On the one hand, there has been a lot of commentary on the fact that Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, being U.S. allies, have joined BRICS, but in the meantime numerous observers have failed to notice the active steps taken by those wealthy Arab states towards an independent foreign policy. Again, they did not do to irritate the U.S. or the collective West as that was just a pragmatic foreign policy: minding their own national interests. Others have emphasized that Iran and Saudi Arabia, while having recently established bilateral relations, still have a number of unresolved differences. Similar conclusions can be drawn regarding the admission of Argentina as a new member. Yet, this challenge can instead be interpreted as an additional opportunity. The BRICS experience has shown that even in the presence of bilateral conflicts, the need to meet on a regular basis in a common format provides additional incentives and opportunities for dialogue and for any controversies to be overcome. Continuing our discussion of Argentina, it can be noted that, on the one hand, along with Brazil, it is indeed one of the contenders for leadership in the region of South America; on the other hand, serious economic and domestic political concerns of the country makes the upcoming elections in October 2023 a kind of “black swan” for BRICS, since there is still a possibility of a radical change of course should the most popular right-wing candidate come to power. While Egypt, which has joined BRICS, is the third economy in Africa (next to Nigeria and South Africa), the situation with Ethiopia, where the headquarters of the African Union is located, is very uncertain, because per capita income in this country is about a thousand dollars, which places it in the group of countries with a low per capita income. Yet, the upside of such a candidate might be the opportunity to directly address the issues important to the poorest developing countries and accelerate their socio-economic development via collaboration within BRICS. There are some “buts” here as well, though – the result is to be visible, whereas the speed of its verified achievement should be within the medium term.

So new members and expansion of the membership indeed means increased authority and higher profile for this association, a broader base for interaction, significant hydrocarbon reserves in possession, along with precious and semi-precious as well as rare earth metals and other mineral resources, more than 45% of the Earth’s population and more than a third of the planet’s territory, new significant financial centers, and up to half of the global production of certain cereals. In the meantime, all these bonuses combined do not automatically translate into unconditional leadership, since they do not add up so easy. BRICS global leadership can only be the fruit of painstaking effort by each member bent on achieving consensus and tangible results in addressing even dire challenges, through the new members’ understanding and acceptance of the principles and spirit of the association, and their consent to dig deeper instead of focusing on further expansion.

Besides, as we remember, the queue of those wishing to join BRICS was much longer, which also determines the importance of further consensus and partnership via close engagement and dialogue, given the new composition of this club.

Another trendy topic at the summit was a common BRICS currency. However, this was the perspective from which this issue was reviewed by external observers, while the conversation and narrative within the association was somewhat different. Some try to present the absence of result they themselves thought up as a failure of the current summit, but the situation is quite different. As we remember, back in Fortaleza 2014, the leaders signed framework agreements on the use of national currencies, as well as on the pool of foreign exchange reserves. Today, given the aggravation of the international situation and the unreliability of payment systems offered by the West, weaponizing the SWIFT and the U.S. dollar has necessitated the need to agree on the principles of preserving stability and independence of mutual trade and investment, which, in turn, requires alternative payment instruments. That was the exact commission given to the financial authorities of the BRICS members for the next year. Moreover, the stability of such an instrument can be guaranteed by tangible commodities, including precious metals or other mineral reserves available to the BRICS nations, especially in their new composition.

Other results, albeit less noticeable against the backdrop of the two flagship issues, deserve a separate analysis, too.

Apparently, the discourse on the ongoing reform of global governance, the UN Security Council in particular, has long since become tiresome, whereas the document of the past summit merely reaffirmed the commitment of the two permanent members of the Security Council to strengthen the voice of the other three. Yet, if you read the declaration carefully, you’ll notice that BRICS did not simply agree with the need to make the UN, including the Security Council, “more democratic, representative, effective and efficient,” but emphasized the importance of increasing the representation of developing countries in all membership categories—surely, with a special emphasis on Brazil, India and South Africa. By the way, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized this point in his press conference, because this approach significantly corrects the previous approaches and situational partnerships of applicants, including those who were among the favorites in the accession race.

In this context, it was also interesting to listen to the speeches at the BRICS enlarged meeting. In particular, the speech of the UN Secretary General, who in the first half of his speech failed to maintain neutrality, mandatory for an official of a universal organization, and promoted certain bullet points in the spirit of Western discourse, while the rest of his speech was actually about persuading the summit participants to preserve the uniqueness of the organization. A number of observers could not even refrain from sarcasm and regarded this speech as a request of Mr. Guterres “not to fire” him.

Equally important was the assertion of the BRICS position on “unilateral illegal measures such as sanctions” through the lens of global trade and especially “trade in agricultural produce,” which can be seen as an indirect support for Russia’s position on the grain deal.

The part of the document dealing with the assessment of regional conflicts is also interesting by its vague and wooly wording in describing complex situations where the interests of BRICS members could be at stake, or within the framework of the anti-colonial agenda, but way harsher language in expressing “deep concern about the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the occupied Palestinian territories as a result of violent escalation under the ongoing Israeli occupation and illegal settlements.” In fact, the declaration expressed specific positions that were often at variance with the standard Western discourse. Therefore, the BRICS position on strengthening the BTWC regime and the P5 position on preserving the JCPOA with respect to Iran, as well as the slightly adapted but traditional passage on preventing the placement of weapons in space, should not be underestimated in the context of growing criticism, above all from Russia and China, of the illegal activities of American bio-laboratories.

Similarly, the energy part of the declaration is worth noting. In fact, BRICS is making a bid for its own philosophy of energy transition, different from the Western discourse. In the BRICS vision, “energy security, access to energy and energy transitions are important and should be balanced,” which is why the document includes not only standard renewable energy sources, but, also, nuclear power and hydrogen, hydropower, and fossil fuels, all based on national opportunities for “a just transition to more flexible, sustainable and stable energy systems.”

These are just a few examples, but they allow us to see the growing self-awareness of BRICS as the core of the new world order. On the one hand, no one in BRICS even thinks of opposing their group to the G7, the West as a whole, or anything else. The BRICS agenda remains constructive. On the other hand, BRICS is making more and more confident bids for its own opinions which are sometimes in stark opposition to those generally accepted and formulated according to Western molds.

Increasing the number of members, bringing in an even greater diversity of positions and opinions will certainly make the BRICS’ operation even more complex, interesting and extremely intense. However, preserving the effectiveness of the association and the possibility of deepening the partnership do not automatically go hand in hand with expansion and euphoria over this event. Negotiations and consensus building within the Group will certainly prove more labor-intensive. But in the meantime, political will, awareness of its new global status and interest in more serious negotiating positions with both partners and foes outside the BRICS framework should help to solve this extremely non-trivial and daunting problem.

From our partner RIAC

Victoria Panova
Victoria Panova
PhD in History, Vice Rector, HSE University, RIAC Member