Opinionista Oscar Van Heerden 29 July 2020

Is BRICS falling apart, brick by brick?

As individual nations try to position themselves for a changed world after the coronavirus pandemic, the shifts taking place in geopolitics need to be taken into account. In South Africa’s case, the partnership with BRICS needs to be reassessed and its failings must be recognised.

While we as citizens and sovereign states are preoccupied with the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the shocking global death toll, we must also remain vigilant as to the changes that are happening on the geopolitical front. 

Besides the obvious matter of the trade war between the two largest economic powerhouses, the United States and China, which is having a global negative effect, we in South Africa are carefully watching our partnerships in international multilateral formations such as BRICS.

The study of international relations as defined in the Theories of IR 3rd edition 2001 suggests that dominant concerns in international relations revolve around five things:

  • Dominant Actors – traditionally this was the sovereign state but the list now includes entities such as transnational corporations, international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, international non-government organisations such as Amnesty International, new social movements including women and ecological movements and international terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis).
  • Dominant Relationships – strategic relations between powers traditionally, but also more recently trade relations between advanced industrial societies.
  • Empirical Issues – the distribution of military power, arms control and crisis management but also globalisation, global inequality, identity politics and national fragmentation, the universal human rights culture and plight of refugees, gender issues, environmental conservation, transnational crimes plus global drug trade and pandemics.
  • Ethical Issues – “the just war”, the rights and wrongs of humanitarian intervention, the case for and against the global redistribution of power and wealth.

Alongside this is the view (the realist or egoist theory) that the world is essentially anarchic and individual states need to regulate this through their own power and security structures.

In this view, it is a matter of each to his own ability and the survival of the fittest. The bigger your economic and military might, the better your sovereignty will survive. Put another way, perhaps, the weak suffer what they must, while the strong do as they can. This has been the bedrock of the US and European world view for many years since World War I, and many have suffered as a result.

It was precisely because of the very skewed and one-sided view of who the dominant actors were and which dominant relationships mattered, the skewed nature of the empirical issues under consideration, and the selectiveness of the ethical issues that were deemed important, that some leaders began shaping an alternative approach. This skew is what many say necessitated the second-tier economies to band together and form a counterweight formation to the dominant Western actors. 

And so, BRIC was born, comprising Brazil, Russia, China and India. And since Africa was not represented, China insisted that South Africa also join, hence BRICS. Many, including the Goldman Sachs employee who coined the term BRIC, wondered why South Africa was the African country that got to be included. Still today many argue the point. For whatever reason, South Africa is there, and we must ask the question whether it is still beneficial for us to be part of this formation.

After all, three of its member countries are now being governed by tyrants and neo-nationalist presidents: Vladimir Putin in Russia, Narendra Modi in India and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. And though I know some would want to also include Xi Jinping’s name, that’s a matter for debate and I don’t think he belongs on the list. The reason is simple. We might not all agree on the form of government and democracy being practised in China but that does not make it inherently wrong. A debatable point, I know. But let’s take a look at how the formation has come undone in recent times. 

China is embroiled in a trade war with the US that is negatively affecting all countries globally, including SA. It has imposed stringent security laws on Hong Kong in order to flex its muscle and to avoid another possible secession incident. The China-India border dispute raises questions about why they remain partners. Brazil and India are messing up their response to the Covid pandemic, leading not only to large numbers of deaths but also damaging the economies of these countries. India’s Modi is also a neo nationalist leader who has apparently given his consent to the continued Muslim massacres in that country. These should be condemned in the harshest terms. And Russia’s Putin is yet another benevolent dictatorship.  The Russian economy is taking a beating during this time of Covid. All this does not augur well for South Africa in its membership of this club of misfits.

Our traditional Western partners in the form of the European Union and the US have watched in some shock as the BRICS body genuinely enacted a counterweight to their hegemony globally: how Third World countries in both Africa and Latin America embraced China and have been so accepting of its investments and loans; how the partner countries have exponentially increased intra-trade among each other; and so much more. The BRICS countries have also increased their respective military joint exercises throughout the globe, posing an obvious threat to Western countries, it would seem.

Our experience with these Western partners has shown that the Washington Consensus myth is just that: a myth that says follow these rules and practise democracy like us and you will one day be exactly like us. In the meantime the relationship remains by and large an exploitative one and none of us in the developing world is anywhere near being like them. BRICS have launched their own development bank as a counter to the IMF and World Bank formations whose chairs can only be elected from Europe and the US. These banks, through their respective lending practices, ensure that the West benefits and the borrowing countries remain in a debt trap. One only has to look at the EU trade agreement and the difficulties South Africa experienced with President Barack Obama’s administration in the matter of the renewal of the AGOA trade agreement.

Our foreign policy in the main is driven by principles of human rights, both domestically and internationally. And when looking at the track records of both groupings this criterion doesn’t look good at all. On the one hand BRICS partners are coming loose at the seams and Western powers are becoming more and more insular and isolationist in their outlook. Where does it put SA?

China, Russia and India respectively are violating the human rights of their own citizens while the EU, US and UK have not only encroached significantly on the privacy rights of their citizens but have violated human rights and committed war crimes in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon and Palestine, to mention but a few. The latter group also does not account to the International Court of Justice yet everyone else does.

There was much celebration when SA joined the BRIC formation because at the time it made sense to be part of such a noble idea – to challenge the decades of skewed global governance on all fronts; a counter to the IMF, World Bank and WTO which had ensured that they would preserve the national interests of the West while the United Nations Security Council would be used as a big stick to whip us all into order and submission.

The world post-Covid will be a changed one. The question is will it be for the better or will we simply see a continuation of the old order, that the strong will do what they can, and the will weak suffer what they must. DM

Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is an active fellow of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflections (MISTRA) and is a trustee for the Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation.

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