The BRICS group of countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) held their fifteenth summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. The summit (August 22 – 24, 2023) was held amid major tectonic shifts in the global order. With Beijing and Moscow at the helm, the expanding bloc is widely seen as central to “countering western global dominance”.
The two leading powers—China and Russia— alongside emerging powers in the Global South are rapidly gaining economic and geopolitical prominence, their collective influence already challenging the long-standing dominance of the US-led order.
This shift is not only evident in the realm of economics but is also intertwined with the quest for a multipolar world order and the gradual erosion of dollar as global currency. Additionally, the recent applications by numerous other states, including several Muslim-majority and Arab states for BRICS membership, along with Iran’s full-fledged accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), underscore the growing appeal of these alternative power structures.
As it stands, 22 official applications have been received from among others Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan, Turkiye and the UAE. On the final day of the summit, it was announced that six countries—Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Egypt, Ethiopia and Argentina—were admitted to the bloc.
The surprising exclusion was Turkiye at this time. Prior to the summit, Morocco denied initial reports that it too, had applied to join the BRICS group of countries.
Cooperation not colonization
As part of his virtual address to those in attendance at this year’s summit, consisting of over 40 world leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke of the trading bloc representing the “global majority”.
“We cooperate on the principles of equality, mutual support and respect for each other’s interests,” he said. “This is the essence of the future-oriented strategic course of our association, a course that meets the aspirations of the main part of the world community, the so-called global majority,” he explained.
For his part, and on his behalf, Chinese President Xi Jinping insisted that Beijing has no intention of engaging in great power competition or create “bloc confrontation” and that “hegemonism is not in China’s DNA.”
Similar sentiments were conveyed by Brazil’s President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who stated: “We do not want to be a counterpoint to the G7, G20 or the United States… We just want to organise ourselves.”
Despite these assertions, it is quite evident that BRICS is seen by its member states and the collective west as a competitive bloc across multiple spheres. It already accounts for 40 percent of the world’s population and a quarter of the global economy and has now overtaken the G7 in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), calculated in purchasing power parity (PPP).
Erosion of the US dollar
One of the pivotal factors driving the rise of BRICS is the gradual erosion of US dollar’s dominance in international trade and finance. Since World War II, the dollar’s status as the world’s primary reserve currency has afforded the US immense economic and geopolitical leverage. However, the BRICS countries have been working towards reducing their dependence on the dollar, seeking to insulate themselves from the vulnerabilities associated with a single currency-dominated system.
Their efforts to enhance trade in their local currencies and promote the use of alternative settlement mechanisms represent a significant step towards a fairer multipolar global financial architecture and, therefore, a more level playing field in global commerce. India, currently the world’s fifth-largest economy and projected to become the second largest by 2075 has begun trading in rupees and recently did so, to acquire one million barrels of oil from an important trading partner, the UAE.
The establishment of BRICS’s New Development Bank (NDB) is another testament to this transformative agenda. By providing an alternative avenue for infrastructure funding and development projects, the NDB challenges the traditionally western-dominated international financial institutions, bolstering the economic sovereignty of BRICS member states and those seeking to align with their vision.
While experts doubt the greenback will be completely side-lined in the near future, there is a recognition that the dollar’s hegemony is gradually eroding, ironically being fast-tracked by the weaponization of sanctions against states that wish to pursue policies independent of western interests. In April, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned that “There is a risk when we use financial sanctions that are linked to the role of the dollar that over time it could undermine the hegemony of the dollar.”
Challenging the US-led order
The rise of BRICS has implications far beyond economics. It marks a departure from the unipolar world order that has prevailed since the end of the Cold War, as these states seek to foster a more equitable multipolar system.
With their collective influence on the global stage, the BRICS countries are increasingly asserting their voice in matters of global governance, diplomacy, and security. This shift challenges the long-held presumption that western powers hold a monopoly on shaping international norms and institutions. Most recently, the influence of de-facto leaders of BRICS—Russia and China—have made significant inroads in Africa. This has been especially felt with the rise in anti-western sentiment and developments taking place in countries that were former French colonies, such as the recent coup in Niger.
BRICS’s pursuit of a multipolar world order reflects their emphasis on national sovereignty and the right to determine their own paths of development, free from undue external influence. This sentiment resonates with leaders of many countries seeking to assert their autonomy and escape the shadow of unipolar hegemony.
Inroads into West Asia
The growing allure of BRICS is evident in the recent applications by a plethora of Arab states to join the bloc. These countries recognize the potential benefits of aligning with the BRICS bloc, such as access to diverse markets, technology transfer, and economic cooperation that could contribute to their own development agendas.
Some of the traditionally pro-western Arab states of the Persian Gulf such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also realized that the US is not a reliable ally or guarantor of their security. While they are not ready to abandon their relations with Washington any time soon, the BRICS platform provides a compelling alternative to western-dominated partnerships, offering a pathway towards more balanced and mutually beneficial collaboration.
Iran’s inclusion in the SCO also highlights the reconfiguring of geopolitical alliances, with Tehran a few steps ahead of its regional rivals due in part to its advocacy of Eurasian integration. On August 8, at the end of a conference held in Tehran, titled “Iran and BRICS: Prospects for Partnership and Cooperation”, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that his country is a “reliable and influential” partner of the BRICS bloc. By joining BRICS, Iran will benefit from safeguarding and enhancing its established independent course in the face of persistent threats from adversaries.
The rise and rise of BRICS
The impact of the rise of the BRICS bloc on global politics is a manifestation of a collective aspiration for a more multipolar world, one where the dominance of any one power is tempered by shared influence and cooperation. The gradual erosion of dollar hegemony, coupled with the challenges posed to the US-led order, reflects a broader narrative of change and transformation in the global arena.
Furthermore, emerging economies and developing countries driven by their pursuit of autonomy and an equitable international order, are embracing alternative power structures that promise greater agency and influence on the world stage.
As the BRICS bloc continues to gain momentum, its impact on global politics will increasing significantly. It is safe to say that the ascendance and expansion of BRICS signifies a paradigm shift in international relations, heralding a new era defined by multipolarity, cooperation, and the gradual transformation of the status quo.