What Should We Expect from BRICS and What Should We Not?

Discrepancies between expectations and practice are one of the most noticeable characteristics of modern world politics, both in the performance of leading powers and in the activities of the international institutions they create.

Discrepancies between expectations and practice are one of the most noticeable characteristics of modern world politics, both in the performance of leading powers and in the activities of the international institutions they create. The origin of this phenomenon is the fact that the first is a product of subjective ideas or intentions, while the second is the result of objective factors, which even the strongest political will cannot cancel. Moreover, the expectations of the general public often fall prey to its inertia in perception regarding the political process, or the statements of political figures who themselves change plans, depending on the dynamics of their capabilities.

In essence, this phenomenon of international life does not represent a significant problem, because states rarely lose anything; due to the fact that their practical policies do not particularly correspond to our speculative constructions. However, we should still not be blind to the fact that disappointment can have negative consequences and, at the very least, reduce public enthusiasm for initiatives which are considered important, but not successful enough in the short term. In this regard, it would be wise to be clearer about what we can actually expect from those initiatives that are considered important in the Russian foreign policy system.

The BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) represents one of the most curious phenomena of modern international politics. First of all, because this association of five significant states, which was joined by several more participants on January 1, 2024, conceptually contradicts all ideas prevailing in the 20th century about what an international organisation should be based on. In short, at the heart of BRICS there is no visible possibility of the participating countries pooling their economic and military resources. Even the permanent composition of the UN Security Council is a relatively homogeneous group and consists of powers that, with varying degrees of certainty, are recognized as victors in the last World War and all, without exception, possess military resources that are unattainably superior to those of other members of the international community. What can we say about such strong and “established” institutions as NATO, the G7 or the European Union? In the first case, we see a real unification of military capabilities, in the second – economic power.

BRICS is not based on the balance of power of the main participants, as was the case with the most successful alliances of the past. Despite the fact that the Vienna Order, considered super-successful, was a collusion of the strongest European powers over the foundations of the legitimacy of the internal order in the countries they could reach, it still contained the idea of ​​a mutual balance of power. As a matter of fact, the destruction of this balance as a result of the rapid strengthening of Germany became the reason for the collapse of the entire Vienna system. In BRICS it is nearly unthinkable that there could be one leader, like in NATO or the G7, which would be able to discipline the other participants and achieve jointly-set goals (these goals, formulated within the framework of the “leadership” model of the institute, are achievable precisely because they satisfy the interests of the leading country).

In other words, BRICS, amazing as it may seem, is not a fake institution, a screen covering the basic mechanisms of mutual understanding among its participants. This is precisely what poses the greatest difficulty. Both in achieving jointly a set of tasks, and for its understanding by outside observers, whose thinking is built within the framework of a long-established canon. If the first issue can still, as we see, be gradually overcome by the participating countries, then it is not yet possible to solve the second problem. Perhaps it is not necessary. First of all, because it would lead to the creation of a new template that begins to generate completely meaningless expectations. In fact, we still have to, firstly, assess the limits of cooperation between the BRICS countries in dynamically changing conditions, and, secondly, create some kind of a framework to assess the effectiveness of its activities.

Discussions about what BRICS can actually do and what it can’t should begin with an understanding of how much the achievements or failures of other international institutions are related to their individual characteristics. The second may be a theoretical task, but it makes clear what the BRICS will not do. The BRICS group, is essentially an association of states that share a strategic vision of a fair world order, but pursue their national interests in practical issues of global economics and politics. Therefore, firstly, we cannot count on the BRICS group to create international financial institutions and instruments comparable in scale of influence to those controlled by the West – the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank.

Secondly, one can hardly expect BRICS to make decisions of a confrontational or repressive nature in relation to other members of the international community. We understand, of course, that in their current situation, Western countries perceive as confrontational any action or decision that does not serve their specific interests. But if we ignore this unfortunate fact, we must still understand that we should not think that BRICS can become a “ram” for destroying the positions of the United States and Europe in world affairs. Another thing: it is no coincidence that the Western powers suspect everyone else of revolutionary or revisionist intentions; even completely innocent actions become dangerous for the organism of Western hegemony, given its current fragility.

The question, therefore, is only whether the West can adapt to the inevitable reduction of its power over the main global institutions and agendas. Therefore, there is no reason to try to “pressure” our partners so that their actions become more destructive for the West; they will play this role anyway. Thirdly, BRICS is unlikely to be ready to solve, on a large scale, those problems of a global nature that the West either cannot solve, or, within the framework of its selfish interests, does not want to. However, BRICS will be able to create specific mechanisms for addressing development problems (poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, crime, terrorism, information security, artificial intelligence), which represent an alternative to Western approaches and solutions. This in itself will benefit global sustainability, but will also serve to help the West adapt to new conditions.

And finally, one should not expect achievements from the BRICS countries in those issues where their national interests differ due to objective reasons, such as when they are linked to their achievement of key development goals. BRICS was created and is expanding in order to further strengthen the capabilities of its participants, but in no case weaken them. We must be especially careful to assess the connection between BRICS initiatives, as well as the potential consequences of their implementation, and the specific interests of the member countries, including Russia, in a variety of areas, from global security to private economic issues.

If we talk about BRICS’ practical influence on global affairs, then it would be worth thinking in the direction of several conditional criteria of effectiveness. Firstly, the degree to which they correspond to Russia’s own interests, taking into account all the features of our participation in the world economy and international politics. In other words, to correlate what we want from BRICS with our own objective capabilities. There is a reason to think that Russia is not the weakest member of the BRICS group and, in this regard, its capabilities will also become significant in achieving certain goals of the entire group. Secondly, the ability of the participating countries to move forward within the framework of the agenda that they were able to formalise when there were only five members is important. Thirdly, the ability of BRICS to solve the problems of preserving and strengthening those elements of globalisation that meet the interests of its participants, but have been intensively destroyed by the West in recent years, will be quite important.

from our partner RIAC

Timofey Bordachev
Timofey Bordachev
PhD in Political Science, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club; Academic supervisor of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies, HSE University, RIAC Member