Brazil and BRICS: Changing Priorities

The victory of Jair Bolsonaro, a pro-US right-wing reactionary politician in Brazil’s late-2018 presidential elections, caused certain concerns among many experts about the country's future participation in the BRICS and the future of the association in general. However, in making such predictions, it would not be entirely correct to rely on existing stereotypes about the left-right dichotomy or the new Bolsonaro administration in particular when considering the role of Brazil in the world and in BRICS.  Certainly, the Brazilian elites have opportunistic interests, but there are also constants in its foreign policy priorities - the transformation of the country into an independent world power. In the implementation of these ambitions, one can hardly expect that Brazilians to give up such a trump card as membership in the BRICS.

Brazil needs to score points to become not just a regional, but a world power. Undoubtedly, Bolsonaro’s ambitions are more limited than those of Lula da Silva or Dilma Rousseff, who sought to make Brazil the leader of the Global South, indeed, of all developing countries. At the Osaka G-20 summit, Bolsonaro made a number of statements. Commenting on possible ways to resolve the political crisis in Venezuela, the Brazilian leader admitted that the nuclear powers make decisions regarding its future and the world’s fate in general. However, these were the diplomacy-minded words of a politician; most of the elites in Brazil retain global ambitions, and BRICS offers them one of the most important venues for support. With the help of BRICS, the tropical giant can achieve one of its most important ambitions - joining the UN Security Council as a permanent member. It cannot do this without the support of China and Russia. The main thing for the new Brazilian leader is not to make mistakes and not to quarrel with its four BRICS partners. That is why, within the framework of the same summit, Bolsonaro, at an informal meeting of the BRICS leaders, stressed that the country will fully fulfil its obligations as chair of the group.

At the same time, one should not think that Brazil’s priorities in BRICS will remain completely the same. In the past few years, the five nations have often been criticised for including an excessive number of topics in the agenda of their summits; almost all issues related to politics, economics, social development and international cooperation were discussed. The member countries have become excessively carried away with the postulation of global and sometimes abstract goals and objectives. In such a thematic expansion of the BRICS, there may be a pause, which may be filled with an in-depth study of a specific agenda and projects. Indeed, much of what has been adopted in previous years is absolutely pragmatic and beneficial to all countries.

The expectations that the changes touch first on the political agenda are justified. The issues of reforming international organisations, global governance and reducing the dominance of the so-called countries of the centre (primarily the United States) will not be a focus. Bolsonaro does not seek to make any moves that would annoy the US administration. Climate change is a point of contention: Bolsonaro is a well-known opponent of the concept of global warming and the Paris Climate Agreement. However, the priorities of innovation, technological, and economic development will remain close to the tropical giant. This is evidenced by the priorities of the Brazilian BRICS chairmanship: innovation, the digital economy, financial development institutions, and the fight against organized crime. Brazilians continue to be traditionally active in the work of the BRICS STI Framework Programme - the mechanism for launching joint projects or research programs in various branches of science and technology. Brazil’s intensification of scientific and technical cooperation with the United States does not negate the relevance and profitability of the development of such interaction with BRICS partners.

Bolsonaro has demonstrated the ability to move away from the approaches he promoted during his election campaign. A striking example is the country’s relationship with China, where the Brazilian leader has shifted from tough pre-election rhetoric to a deeper, more pragmatic understanding of the balance of risks and benefits obtained from interaction with the Asian giant. It is not without reason that the priorities of the Brazilian chairmanship include the expansion of the activities of the BRICS New Development Bank - an important possible source of funding for the economic renewal of the country.

The fact that the role of BRICS will be weakened as a political tool to build more equal relations with the countries of the collective West together with a polycentric world order, is effectively a loss for Russia. For Moscow, the value of BRICS has increased significantly since 2014, but in the coming years it will be difficult to promote resistance against sanctions and the reduction of the role of the US dollar in international payments. It is unlikely that in discussing such problems, Russia will be able to find complete understanding among the new Brazilian authorities.

BRICS FM Meeting in Brazil: Priorities Reloaded
Yaroslav Lissovolik
The momentum and the focus in BRICS policy agenda may be changing, but the grouping is set to carry on cooperation in areas that are crucial not just for its individual members, but for the global economy as well.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.