BRICS expansion: another sign of the world's de-westernisation?

Bernardo Jurema places the recent BRICS expansion into appropriate historical context. It is, he argues, a project to de-westernise the world, opening up new possibilities, including de-colonialisation along the lines of previous historical attempts. It may not be everything that is needed, but it is a significant step forwards

An alternative order?

The BRICS recently added six countries (Argentina, Egypt, Iran, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) to the original five (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Reaction from the Global North's media and political establishment was swift. France's President Emmanuel Macron told French ambassadors,

This [BRICS expansion] shows a wish to establish an alternative order to replace what we call the world order, which today is seen as too Western

The Financial Times claimed BRICS has 'never been a cohesive economic unit' because its democracies are in favour of 'non-alignment'. Authoritarians among the BRICS nations, the FT contended, are 'outright anti-west'.

Historical context

The West's media and political class tends to perceive BRICS through an antagonistic, Cold War-era lens. I believe it would be more apt to locate it within the history of the Bandung Conference, the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the Group of 77 (G77), and the New International Economic Order (NIEO).

NIEO set out to establish the normative framework for engaging in negotiations. It aimed to reorganise the existing international order to benefit the poorer countries of the world.

NIEO helped establish new collaborations among Southern nations which freed them from economic reliance on former colonial powers

Some of NIEO's main demands included the regulations governing global trade, particularly concerning agricultural products and raw materials. NIEO sought adjustments to the international monetary system rooted in the Bretton Woods framework, aiming to enhance financial resources for Southern countries. It called for the transfer of funds and technology to expedite industrialisation in the Global South. And NIEO helped establish new collaborations among Southern nations, which freed them from economic reliance on former colonial powers.

No alternative allowed

By virtue of their sheer number at the United Nations, left to their own devices Global South countries could have carried out, in the words of Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, 'fundamental changes of international economic relations'. Indeed, he argued, they would have been able to 'carry resolutions like the Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order (NIEO)'.

Global South countries, however, were not left to their own devices. Then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated that the G77 and NAM bloc were 'more unified' and that it voted 'consistently' against US interests. This action request, Rice explained, was part of 'a long-term strategy to counter these developments in the General Assembly' that included 'assertive approaches to G77 / NAM countries that have reasonably good relations with the US' to nudge them into 'better voting inside the UN'.

Global economic governance

But UN diplomatic pressure was only one of many ways the US and Europe fought against coordination between Global South nations. Global economic governance institutions descend directly from earlier forms of imperial arrangements. They exert far-reaching influence over many states' domestic policies, through the power of conditional lending and structural adjustment.

In the post-World War period, institutions such as the International Monetary Fund have been crucial for the US to enforce austerity. Such institutions have allowed the US to enforce independent central bank policies, oversee development programmes, and regulate commodity prices, without generating backlash. These austerity measures were a response to postwar decolonisation processes.

Protection for rising elites

The Atlantic powers were instrumental in providing protection for the rising elites in postcolonial nations. Through the G7, they presented minor concessions while remaining inflexible on important matters. As Elias König rightly notes, 'maintaining the wealthy nations’ financial control over Global South is the very raison d’être of the G7'.

Military assistance

Of course, there was also overt and covert military assistance and diplomatic and economic support to topple left-leaning governments and slaughter leftist movements across the Developing World. From Iran to Guatemala, and from Indonesia to Chile, we have seen coups and massacres.

As a result, Vincent Bevins argues, a global system has arisen 'that only had two basic structural types — Western advanced capitalist countries and resource-exporting crony capitalist societies shaped by anticommunism'. Most of the countries affected by the US-backed global anti-communist campaign 'slid right into the second category'.

BRICS+: a countervailing power

As Kenneth Waltz points out, 'American behaviour over the past century in Central America provides little evidence of self-restraint in the absence of countervailing power'. So, we can understand BRICS+ as a countervailing movement against the elite-driven Euro-American geopolitics of industrialised war and capitalism. It is a five-hundred-year geopolitical tradition of conquest, colonisation, and extraction.

Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni of the University of Bayreuth summarises this point eloquently:

While 'dewesternization' may not be synonymous with decolonization / decoloniality, mainly because it does not radically delink from capitalist logics, it still forms part of the struggle against Euro-North American hegemony

The future is open

And in doing so, de-westernisation offers an opening for different futures. We shouldn't view the BRICS in isolation, but as one element in a post-unipolar world, along with other formations such as the G20, the G77, the Small Island Developing States grouping at the UN, and civil society-led international movements such as the Debt for Climate campaign, the Fridays for Future's Most Affected People and Areas chapter, the Bridgetown Initiative, the Progressive International network, and the wave of anti-colonial coups underway in West Africa.

These different formations show how we might build a more democratic international system. And this, in turn, opens new possibilities at the domestic level. Just a few years ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel defended her government’s policy response to the European sovereign-debt crisis on the grounds that it was alternativlos — alternative-less. Even if that were ever true, it is definitely not the case any more.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Bernardo Jurema
Bernardo Jurema
Research Associate, Research Institute for Sustainability, Potsdam

Bernardo's research interests include US foreign policy, critical security studies, transdisciplinary research, environmental justice, and the intersection of geopolitics and ecopolitics, with particular focus on the Amazon Basin.

He earned his PhD from the Freie Universität Berlin and has worked for international organisations and think tanks throughout Latin America and Europe.

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