From the 6th Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit at Fortaleza to the forthcoming seventh Brics summit in Ufa this week, this unlikely grouping—first conceived as an investment portfolio—is increasingly reflecting the desire and limited ability to shape a new world order. This is a significant feat given the inherent contradictions within the group.
Perhaps the best manifestation of the group’s success is the establishment of the New Development Bank (NDB) in response to the lack of reforms in the outdated Bretton Woods institutions and norms. While NDB faces several challenges, including the ability of the bank to raise monetary funds from sovereign markets and the selection criteria for prioritization of projects, its creation has been broadly welcomed.
However, the inability of the group to respond similarly to the equally outdated global peace and security institutions, notably the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) reflects on the one hand the lack of consensus within the group to reform the Council and on the other the practical complexity of seeking to do so. Indeed, there is ample indication that despite the standard reference in every Brics summit document that “China and Russia reiterate the importance they attach to Brazil, India and South Africa’s status and role in international affairs and support their aspirations to play a greater role in the UN”, the two permanent UNSC members do not see Council reforms as a priority now or in the foreseeable future.
Equally, in areas where norms and institutions still do not exist, such as global governance of cyberspace, climate change and energy security (crucial issues for all Brics members), where there is greater prospect for the group to shape norms and build institutions, there is even less of a consensus, let alone a common position. For instance, on cyberspace, while all Brics members agree on the need for a global governance architecture, they disagree on how this should be shaped. China and Russia are in favour of a multilateral negotiations within the UN system while the others support a multi-stakeholder model with a role for the government, the corporate sector and civil society.
These parallel trends within the group reflect, according to a seasoned Indian diplomat, “fluid multilateralism”, where countries band together for certain common interests without having to display a complete cohesion of views.
For India, Brics and the summits are a crucial plurilateral forum and process, which offer three benefits. First, when there is a convergence of views among members on the need to create new institutions, the Brics have proved that they have the ability to do so. This is best illustrated by the setting up of NDB.
Second, when norms and institutions have to be established to manage global commons, such as in cyber, climate and energy arenas, Brics serves as a useful platform in two ways: first, to seek convergence among its members (given their different priorities and approaches) and, second, to prepare and present a common position, which would carry the weight of the entire group. This is apparent in deliberations on climate change among the Brics sub-group of Brazil, South Africa, India and China, which is likely to play a crucial role in the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December.
Finally, Brics countries are in a position to address differences amongst themselves on bilateral, regional and global issues, ranging from military intervention, sanctions, terrorism to trade and investment and UNSC reforms.
Clearly, despite internal differences and the sanctions imposed on the host of the 7th summit by G-7 countries, Brics has emerged as a powerful financial and political voice in the emerging multipolar world that is unlikely to be ignored.
This column first appeared in Mint, on July 5,2015. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.