What Is BRICS?

If a student, who majored in international relations a quarter of a century ago, were to be asked today to give a scientific definition of what BRICS is, it is unlikely that he or she would be able to come up with an answer. Only a generation ago, a student at the MGIMO University, Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU) or St. Petersburg State University (SPbU) was taught that it was primarily the sovereign powers that shaped international society. It was these powers that regulated their ties by joining intergovernmental organizations, as well as by signing (and implementing) bilateral or multilateral international treaties.

Present-day international relations are shaped by different rules and institutions. Since membership of international organizations involves restrictions imposed on the ability of member-states to “follow their chosen course,” it is increasingly more often the case that forums amorphous from both international legal and organizational points of view (BRICS, G20, APEC) emerge instead of the usual intergovernmental organizations (the EU, NATO, the CIS). The practice of states signing binding “agreements” and “conventions” is receding into the past; they are more and more being replaced by pompous but not binding “declarations” and “memorandums of understanding.”

The international system is in transition. The governments and parliaments of sovereign states have markedly fewer opportunities for regulating the entire set of relations between countries, their peoples, businesses, and civil society organizations that existed a quarter of a century ago. We are confident that in the future it is the forum format rather than the habitual intergovernmental organizations that will be best fit for coping with the rapid change in the international environment, increases in the number of its players, the emergence of new forms of transboundary interaction and the demise of the old ones. At these forums, state leaders compare notes, arrange to coordinate their international moves, and implement these arrangements at the national level.

BRICS is perhaps the most large-scale and vivid confirmation of this trend, to wit, the demise of old forms of interaction between states and assertion of new ones. In his remarks at the BRICS Summit in Brasilia (November 13-14, 2019), President Vladimir Putin referred to BRICS as a “forum,” an “association,” and a “partnership.” He put all the states participating at the forum in the category of “developing nations,” adding that their top priorities were to abide by international law, uphold the UN’s central role in world affairs and to create a just world order.

We are quite sure that the Kremlin came up with the BRICS initiative after the few disappointing years at the G8. The G8 summit in St. Petersburg (2006), where Russia debuted as its president, showed that the most Russia could hope for on things of key importance for itself (international security, energy, regional conflicts) was to engage single-handedly in tough and fruitless debates with the US and its allies. Politically, even after Russia was invited to join the G7, its “formula” remained the same: the Washington-led seven (G7) vs. the newcomer, Moscow.

Russia, realizing that international processes were taking an unfavorable turn, encouraged the creation of a totally different structure, where its voice would be heard plus its interests would be taken into consideration. BRICS has proved precisely this kind of organization. Its members (initially four but now five) share Moscow’s concern over the negative influence that the US unilateralism is putting to bear on international security. The BRICS countries are not happy with Washington using the IMF as well as the World Bank to meddle in the internal affairs of developing states. They are against the absolute domination of the dollar in the global monetary system and have a positive outlook on the dedollarization of the global economy. The five biggest developing countries also regard the US policy of building up their internal debt as irresponsible.

BRICS is not an anti-American organization; each of its member-countries would like to have good political and economic relations with Washington. Cases in point are numerous official statements by the leaders and foreign ministers of the Five. BRICS includes states that are concerned over the United States using its world leadership to gain unilateral advantages. This “state egoism” is impossible to hide in the global economy, while attempts to obtain unilateral advantages by threats and blackmail are inciting revulsion and opposition moods.

To overcome the negative US influence on world affairs, the BRICS countries have addressed a major task of establishing a world economic governance system that would be fully independent of the United States. The first parts of this system are already in place and up and running: the New Development Bank as an opponent of the World Bank; the Contingent Reserve Arrangement as an alternative to the IMF; the Global Financial Messaging System (GFMS) created by the Bank of Russia as a safeguard against entire states being weaned off from SWIFT. The BRICS initiatives have significantly eroded the United States’ ability to damage its opponents financially and economically. It is worthwhile calling the forum each year for the sake of this achievement alone.

But BRICS is capable of positively influencing the international processes in the security area as well. It has almost slipped our minds that a very significant event took place on September 5, 2013, when a brief BRICS summit was held at Strelna near St. Petersburg just a few hours prior to the start of a G20 meeting in the same location. The debate on how to settle the Syria crisis and the positions coordinated in its wake enabled President of Russia Vladimir Putin to present to the G20 Summit on September 5-6, 2013, the consolidated view of all the five BRICS countries to the effect that a US military operation against a sovereign state was unacceptable. This opinion was heard and the tension that the United States had been stoking around Syria for several months instantly ceased to be explosive. Some scope emerged for diplomacy (Syria’s renunciation of its chemical weapons) and international intermediaries organized the first round of peace talks. So, BRICS really does have some experience when it comes to the field of international security and this is very positive experience.

BRICS in its present form will not become a military alliance. But already now the Five de facto can veto Washington’s reckless actions. The US will hardly dare to oppose the collective will of these states as it did before when invading Iraq or igniting the fire of the Arab Spring in Libya and Syria. This will make our world more stable and multipolarity ever closer. 

What are the most urgent challenges facing BRICS?

In the coming years, the BRICS leaders will have to answer numerous questions. As we see it, two of these are more important than others:

1.     Will BRICS follow a path of integration?

2.     Will BRICS accept new member states?

The first question should be answered in the negative, but only if we mean country-to-country integration in its currently existing forms, such as a free trade area, a customs union, a monetary union and so forth. There is still hope, however, that the diplomatic services of the Five will succeed in developing an innovative form of rapprochement for their large and very diverse countries. Some possible options for this kind of integration are harmonizing monetary and financial policies, coordinating reduction of customs dues, liberalizing visa rules, and forming a single labor market, initially for highly skilled personnel only.

The second question can be answered in the affirmative. If we proceed from the assumption that BRICS is a community of few truly sovereign states that have the privilege to defend their national interests internationally without paying heed to any other hegemon nation, we may soon see Turkey, Indonesia, Argentina and Nigeria as new BRICS members. It well could be that the leaders of the Five are not in the right mood for rushing to expand, but there is a likelihood that sooner or later this will happen with a vengeance.

Let us spell out the most important opportunity that BRICS provides for Russia. It is a format enabling Russia to dialogue with the entire planet. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a forum for Russia and its two biggest Eurasian partners, China and India, to discuss the entire gamut of economic and political matters as well as certain security problems too. BRICS is a project on an entirely different scale and has the world’s attention riveted to it. The forum focuses on global processes and the agreements reached there determine new global development targets and ways of their attainment. This is why global issues should prevail on the BRICS agenda. 

What reforms does BRICS need?

Short of encroaching on its members’ sovereignty, BRICS can establish a permanent Secretariat (desirably on Russian territory) as early as next year. This Secretariat will ensure continuity of debates on matters of common interest, draft resolutions, and monitor the implementation of decisions. There is also a favorable environment for establishing other coordinating agencies, such as a Committee of Foreign Ministers, an Assembly of Parliamentary Representatives, a Committee of Central Bank Heads, a Committee of BRICS Security Council Representatives, and a Rating Agency. The creation of some of the above entities is being discussed but the essential political decisions are yet to be approved. 

What other forms of cooperation within the Five in addition to the existing ones can prove promising?

Though technical in essence, such matters as visa-free travel for citizens of BRICS countries would run into political difficulties as attempts are made to implement the process. Today, it is high time we solved these problems.

Apart from institutionalizing the contacts between MPs, diplomats and central bank heads, the most important target, as we see it, is starting a dialogue between BRICS and the United States (or between BRICS and G7). At least two BRICS states (India and Brazil) are clearly reluctant to be parties to the forum’s anti-American image associated with tension existing in relations between the United States, on the one hand, and Russia and China, on the other. But there is every chance for the three to engage in a calm and reasonable dialogue, look for compromises, and deal with information asymmetry problems. A BRICS-US dialogue could initially be formalized as meetings between the leaders’ representatives and later possibly shift to a higher political level.   


Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.