(from left) President of Brazil Lula da Silva, President of China Xi Jinping, President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov, in a family photograph during the BRICS Leaders Retreat Meeting, at Johannesburg, in South Africa on August 22, 2023.

Why BRICS Expansion Captures The Global Zeigeist

BRICS stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. It is a significant grouping for the sheer size of the countries involved. BRICS account for 40% of the world’s population and nearly one third of global GDP.  In late August BRICS held a much anticipated summit in Pretoria in which they agreed to add six more countries into the club: Argentina, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

You would be correct in thinking this is an odd grouping of countries, but as Ali Wyne explains, the attractiveness of joining BRICS outweighs the rivalries that some of these these countries might have with each other. And that, he says, captures the zeitgeist of geopolitics today. Ali Wyne is a senior analyst with Eurasia Group’s Global Macro-Geopolitics practice, focusing on US-China relations and great-power competition.

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Why BRICS Adding an Odd Group of Six New Members Reflects Geopolitics Today

Mark Leon Goldberg So up until this year, are there any accomplishments or meaningful outcomes that have resulted from this grouping coming together under that BRICS rubric? 

Ali Wyne The main tangible outcome today, and I think one that is likely to grow in scope in the coming years is the BRICS Bank, the Development Bank that exists under the auspices of the BRICS. It’s a tangible accomplishment and I think that with the recent expansion of the membership now include six additional countries, I think that we should expect that the financing base for this bank will grow, that there will be more efforts to conduct trade in BRICS members, local or national currencies. 

But I would say that the more important accomplishment, as it were, it’s actually less tangible. And sometimes, you know, there is something to be said for intangible accomplishments. The fact that the BRICS have endured not only as an acronym, but have also morphed into a geopolitical construct and the fact that importantly, some 40 countries, I believe 42 countries in the run up to this year’s summit in Johannesburg, they either applied formally or informally expressed interest in joining. And when you have that level of interest, there’s something in the water. And so what we see is that the BRICS, even though there are important internal divisions that we can talk about, I think the BRICS embodies a zeitgeist of the time. There’s a sense among a growing number of so-called middle powers and developing countries that they don’t have to be prisoners of great power, competition or strategic competition. And in fact, there’s a growing conviction that they can flip the script, and that is to say that they can in some cases circumvent strategic competition or they can leverage strategic competition to their advantage. And so if the United States is courting you, if China is courting you, if Russia is courting you, that courtship enhances your freedom of foreign policy, maneuverability. Chances are it ehannces your diplomatic standing, it enhances your economic standing. And so what we’re seeing is, I think, a growing trend towards a more multipolar international system, a growing conviction on the part of a growing number of middle powers in developing countries that they have significant foreign policy agency. Now, I hasten to observe, no one is saying that the salience of, for example, strategic competition between the United States and China is diminishing. Quite to the contrary, that rivalry is only growing more important. No one is suggesting that acrimony between the United States and Russia is dissipating. Quite the contrary. All I’m suggesting is that as important as strategic competition between Washington and Beijing is as important as conflict between NAITO and Russia is. If you view global geopolitics too narrowly through the aperture of strategic competition, you’re going to be missing more and more. 

Mark Leon Goldberg What’s fascinating, as you just suggested is that you have this grouping of countries, the BRICS, the I and the C, India and China — they have a border dispute and that’s led to bloodshed over the last couple of years. Yet despite these profound differences and the intense competition that exists between India and China, they are able to have this kind of attractive power together for those kind of middle power countries around the world. I saw The Economist use this kind of funny turn of phrase. They call them, “the swing votes in global politics.”And that, to me, as you said, suggests like this kind of zeitgeist of geopolitics at the moment. 

Ali Wyne Absolutely. And now, I should say, you know, it’s important to take stock of where the BRICS are, but also and to state what they are, but also to make clear, you know what, they are not. The BRICS have never been a cohesive geopolitical unit. And with the expansion, so now the BRICS plus encompasses 11 members. So it’s an even more eclectic grouping because keep in mind, the five founding members of the BRICS, there were no countries in the Middle East represented in that grouping. We now have with this latest round of expansion, we now have a number of countries from the Middle East and North Africa. So the grouping is even more eclectic. And so some observers would argue that for that reason, it’s arguably even less geopolitically coherent. If you look at the founding members, the rivalry between India and China is very real. It’s been growing and India and China, at least in the run up to the summit, had conveyed different sentiments about expansion. So if I were sort of dividing the members, I would say that Russia and China were largely of one mind about expansion and how they wanted the BRICS should be perceived. And I think that Brazil, India and South Africa were of a different mind. So what I mean, Russia and China and I think especially China, they want the BRICS to become a more explicitly anti-U.S. or anti-West countervailing bloc. 

Mark Leon Goldberg Like the bizarro G7 sort of thing. 

Ali Wyne Right. And I think that Brazil, India and South Africa, they absolutely want to escape the strictures of strategic competition. They want to enhance their freedom of foreign policy maneuver. But they are very wary of having the BRICS being seen as explicitly anti United States or anti West. What they want to do is adopt a more pragmatic issue, specific kind of omnidirectional foreign policy orientation whereby they conduct business with Russia and China as they see fit, but not at the expense of their relationships with the United States and with the European Union. So there were differences and there remain differences between the members of the group. So, no, it’s not geopolitically coherent, and yet it is telling that in this expanded grouping you have some odd bedfellows who on a bilateral basis harbor very significant, enduring distrust. So we’ve already talked a little bit about India and China, but take another dyad. Take Iran and Saudi Arabia.