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Landmarks of a changing world: 2023 BRICS Summit and India on the Moon

No doubt the big story of the multipolar world this week was the BRICS summit in Johannesburg. It even managed to feature the Indian space mission landing on the moon Narendra Modi was gracious enough to declare this an achievement of the plural world.

The agreed decisions of the BRICS Summit are set out in the Johannesburg Declaration. You can also watch the press conference in which all the leaders spoke, and perhaps make your own observations about the respectful ways in which they spoke with each other.

The preamble of the Johannesburg Declaration states the principles of the institutions of a plural world order. It announces a new stage of maturity for this now central institution.

We further commit ourselves to strengthening the framework of mutually beneficial BRICS cooperation under the three pillars of political and security, economic and financial, and cultural and people-to-people cooperation and to enhancing our strategic partnership for the benefit of our people through the promotion of peace, a more representative, fairer international order, a reinvigorated and reformed multilateral system, sustainable development and inclusive growth.

This preamble does not call for BRICS or any one country of BRICS to be the new world leader. It calls instead for new ways of peaceful development for the world that genuinely enable all the world to flourish, not just the West, or the golden billion, as Vladimir Putin calls them.

It is a reasoned moral challenge to the leaders of the West. So far, some Western leaders, commentators and media talking heads have responded with some pettiness, as evidenced by the disinformation campaign about divisions within the BRICS in the lead-up to the summit. It would be a grave error to demonise BRICS, especially now that it is expanding to BRICS-11 and soon more. There is a good discussion of this on the recent Multipolarity podcast.

The Declaration contains these sections that set out the agreements:

  • Preamble (paras 1-3), with the principles quoted above
  • Partnership for Inclusive Multilateralism (paras 3-10), with criticism of “unilateral coercive measures incompatible with the principles of the Charter of the UN” and a focus on reform of the international organisations including the UN, WTO and IMF
  • Fostering an Environment for Peace and Development (paras 11-25), that leads to peaceful resolution of differences and disputes through dialogue and inclusive consultations, and gives more weight to current conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, and Haiti, and more importance to the role of women and prevention of nuclear war, rather than the G7’s focus on Ukraine and its model of democracy.
  • Partnership for Mutually Accelerated Growth (paras 26-51), which discusses multilateral economic cooperation and has decisions on local currencies, payment instruments and platforms, and the National Development Bank
  • Partnership for Sustainable Development (paras 52-74) with declarations on sustainable development goals, climate change, health care, pandemic prevention, preparedness and response, education and skills, science and technology and energy
  • Deepening People-to-People Exchanges (para 75-86) with initiatives to deepen people-people exchanges in business, media, culture, education, sports (including the BRICS Games in October 2023), arts, youth, civil society and academic exchanges
  • Institutional Development (paras 87-94), with decisions on BRICS membership

It is an elegantly constructed declaration. Its rhetoric is of pluralism, generosity between countries with different values, and peaceful development that benefits  the whole world, especially the Global South, which countries have suffered from decisions by the West. This rhetoric is far more appealing than the harsh tones of the NATO Vilnius Summit declaration: shrill militarism, paranoid defence of unique democratic traditions, and denunciation of rivals as uncivilised. 

The two large decisions of consequence for the international order that were widely speculated on before the summit, and led some to anticipate an historic turning point, were BRICS expansion and ‘dedollarization’. On both issues the declaration has revealed a patient method, rather than publicity driven drama.  This patient method demands more respect from Western leaders, commentators and journalists, who turn international diplomacy and world history too often into panel show pantomime.

On BRICS expansion, six countries will become full members in January 2024. These countries are: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These states may now be considered middle powers, and will participate in next year’s BRICS Summit in Kazan, Russia. Moreover, there is a set of rules, processes and arrangements to agree on expansion of the membership. South African leader and chair of the Summit, Cyril Ramaphosa, emphasised in the press conference that these rules and processes will support a further phase of expansion, perhaps even to be ratified at the 2024 Summit. Leaders also tasked Foreign Ministers to develop a BRICS Partners program By 2025, then, we might project that BRICS may well represent more than 40 per cent of the world economy, and over half of the world’s population.

On ‘dedollarisation’, leaders have strengthened the role of the New Development Bank and the BRICS Contingent Reserve Arrangement. Critically and patiently, Leaders tasked Finance Ministers and Central Bankers to develop a set of proposals by next year’s summit. These proposals will relate to national currencies, payment systems and platforms. In other words, next year the fates of the ‘petrodollar’ and the Western crutch of economic sanctions through the financial system will be decided by a summit comprising major economies subjected to sanctions, and these OPEC, oil-producing powers: Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. As former Prime Minister Paul Keating once said to an American trained free-marketeer Opposition Leader, “I am going to do you slowly, brother.”

This patient method will broaden the networks governed by BRICS sustainably. The careful husbandry of the energy of these new networks will change world history. The dream of a homogenised world brought together under the monotheistic leadership of the USA, and its liberal rules-based order, has been exposed as a misunderstanding of the history of globalisation. As John Darwin wrote in the conclusion of After Tamerlane: the Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000 (2007)

The magnetic force of the global economy has been too erratic thus far, and too unevenly felt, to impose the cooperative behaviour and cultural fusion to which theorists of free trade have often looked forward. What we call globalisation today might be candidly seen as flowing from a set of recent agreements, some tacit, some formal, between the four great economic ‘empires’ of the contemporary world: America, Europe, Japan and China.” (p. 505)

But the agreements have broken down, and the set of great states has changed. A new plural, diverse world order is taking shape. BRICS Johannesburg is not a turning point but a tolling of the bell of all those bad histories of the West and the disastrous ‘grand strategies’ of the failing American elites.

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