The leaders of the BRICS group of large emerging economies – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – meet in Johannesburg for two days beginning on Aug. 22, 2023, foreign policymakers in Washington will no doubt be listening carefully.
The BRICS group has been challenging some key tenets of U.S. global leadership in recent years. On the diplomatic front, it has undermined the White House’s strategy on Ukraine by countering the Western use of sanctions on Russia. Economically, it has sought to chip away at U.S. dominance by weakening the dollar’s role as the world’s default currency.
And now the group is looking at expanding, with 23 formal candidates. Such a move – especially if BRICS accepts Iran, Cuba or Venezuela – would likely strengthen the group’s anti-U.S. positioning.
So what can Washington expect next, and how can it respond?
Our research team at Tufts University has been working on a multiyear Rising Power Alliances project that has analyzed the evolution of BRICS and the group’s relationship with the U.S. What we have found is that the common portrayal of BRICS as a China-dominated group primarily pursuing anti-U.S. agendas is misplaced.
Rather, the BRICS countries connect around common development interests and a quest for a multipolar world order in which no single power dominates. Yet BRICS consolidation has turned the group into a potent negotiation force that now challenges Washington’s geopolitical and economic goals. Ignoring BRICS as a major policy force – something the U.S. has been prone to do in the past – is no longer an option.
Reining in the America bashing
At the dawn of BRIC cooperation in 2008 – before South Africa joined in 2010, adding an “S” – members were mindful that the group’s existence could lead to tensions with policymakers who viewed the U.S. as the world’s “indispensable nation.”
As Brazil’s former Foreign Minister Celso Amorim observed at the time, “We should promote a more democratic world order by ensuring the fullest participation of developing countries in decision-making bodies.” He saw BRIC countries “as a bridge between industrialized and developing countries for sustainable development and a more balanced international economic policy.”
While such realignments would certainly dilute U.S. power, BRIC explicitly refrained from anti-U.S. rhetoric.
After the 2009 BRIC summit, the Chinese foreign ministry clarified that BRIC cooperation should not be “directed against a third party.” Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon had already confirmed that there would be no America bashing at BRIC and directly rejected China’s and Russia’s efforts to weaken the dollar’s dominance.
Rather, the new entity complemented existing efforts toward multipolarity – including China-Russia cooperation and the India, Brazil, South Africa trilateral dialogue. Not only was BRIC envisioned as a forum for ideas rather than ideologies, but it also planned to stay open and transparent.
BRICS alignment and tensions with the US
Today, BRICS is a formidable group – it accounts for 41% of the world’s population, 31.5% of global gross domestic product and 16% of global trade. As such, it has a lot of bargaining power if the countries act together – which they increasingly do. During the Ukraine war, Moscow’s BRICS partners have ensured Russia’s economic and diplomatic survival in the face of Western attempts to isolate Moscow. Brazil, India, China and South Africa engaged with Russia in 166 BRICS events in 2022. And some members became crucial export markets for Russia.
The group’s political development – through which it has continually added new areas of cooperation and extra “bodies” – is impressive, considering the vast differences among its members.
Mihaela Papa, Tufts University, MDT