Incredulous observers: why have they missed the “BRICS+ moment”?

As the August 2023 BRICS summit draws near, there are more and more alarm bells ringing from various parts of the academic community regarding the “excessive ambition” coming from BRICS attempts to change global governance. One of such recent pronouncements came from no other than “Dr. Doom” himself, Nouriel Roubini, who argued that: “The idea that the BRICS are going to take over the world turned out not to be right… [as] this BRICS is a bit of a mishmash that, by itself, has very different countries: economically, socially, politically, and geopolitically”. In reality, critical changes have already taken place and the advanced world has missed the “BRICS+ moment”, i.e. the “big bang” expansion in the block in a matter of months. There may be more substantial changes that could take the incredulous observers by surprise in the coming years, most notably the creation of a new BRICS currency. The question that many will be asking themselves in the months to come is why did the world miss this momentous transformation in global governance? 

The simple explanation may be the fast pace of the block’s enlargement. This is due in part to the fact that BRICS and BRICS+ increasingly operate as an aggregation platform that brings together countries and regional blocks with ambitions to play a global role in building a new construct of “global governance”. Platforms can operate quickly – much as the social platforms that were used within countries to mobilize financing, activism/opposition, so too cross-country/international platforms with a powerful purpose can achieve a high degree of participation in a short period of time. In the case of the flurry of applications to join the BRICS block the speed and the scale of this process may well feature in the “Guinness book of records” as dozens of influential developing economies (many of them among the leaders in their respective regions) have sided with the BRICS block in a matter of months. And once a critical mass of countries joins the block, then the “domino effect” kicks in as was the case with the expansion in the EU membership.   

The key point is that even without a formal decision on the expansion of the BRICS core to include all candidates, the very fact that dozens of leading economies from the Global South applied for membership is a manifestation of the growing support exercised by BRICS in the developing world. This expansion in the pool of candidates may be in itself indicative of the changes in the global balance of power and governance that are under way. And apart from the sheer speed and number of countries applying to join the BRICS block, the expansion process has already exceeded some important threshold levels. At this stage, nearly all of the developing economies that are members of the G20 (apart from Mexico) have applied for BRICS membership. The combined GDP of the economies that applied for membership or featured in BRICS+ dialogues exceeds that of the rest of the Global South (outside of BRICS). With the upcoming expansion, the BRICS core is set to strengthen its presence in all the main regions of the Global South and widen its scope to include the GCC region (with Saudi Arabia) and ASEAN (with Indonesia). In other words, the BRICS+ is becoming more of a global majority and not just on the back of the presence of giants such as China or India, but increasingly via representing all of the main regions of the developing world.     

Maybe another reason why many observers missed the “BRICS+ moment” is that some of the leading scholars from both the West and the developing world ignored the “BRICS+” theme for years, much as the mainstream media largely turned a blind eye on BRICS in the past decade – in the expectation perhaps that the whole openness of BRICS and the BRICS+ paradigm would fizzle away and be reduced again to the emphasis on “intra-BRICS” cooperation. Indeed, it is astounding how few academic publications have been devoted to issues of BRICS enlargement and BRICS+ in the past 5-6 years. Even still in some of the BRICS countries prominent scholars display aversion to any significant change in global governance that may be brought about by BRICS/BRICS+. But if there is nothing significant coming from BRICS, what is the purpose of that block anyway? Was change not the rationale for the creation of BRICS in the first place? And if in line with these experts’ prescriptions the BRICS shifts back into “introvert mode” then we will yet again hear the usual pronouncements “we told you so” from these very same scholars about the “ineffectiveness” of BRICS and lack of results. 

On that latter note, amid the elation surrounding the expansion of BRICS, several sobering observations are in order at this critical juncture for the Global South. Firstly, the BRICS expansion while an achievement of sorts, is not an innovation or a qualitative transformation of the global economic system just yet. So far this is more about the quantity of allies rather than the quality and the depth of the transformation of the global economic system. The creation of a new global reserve currency would be one such qualitative step that would elevate the stature of BRICS on the international arena. An expanded BRICS core together with BRICS+ provide a stronger foundation for launching projects such as a common currency alongside greater trade and investment openness. 

Another sobering observation is that there remain important countries from the Global South that are yet to be brought closer into the BRICS+ framework of economic cooperation. My assessment of the scope of these countries is the following: Thailand, Colombia, Vietnam, Singapore, Mexico, Malaysia, Philippines, Chile, Nigeria and Morocco. Some of these economies have already participated in BRICS+ activities – most notably Thailand and Mexico. Overall, however, greater cooperation with these economies would solidify the presence of BRICS+ in the key regions of the Global South. Half of these economies are from ASEAN and building closer cooperation with these countries via a BRICS+ platform for regional integration arrangements may be one of the more promising solutions in the future. 

In the end, the truth of the matter is that Dr. Doom is wrong on two counts.  Firstly, the fact that BRICS countries are “a mishmash” is not a weakness, but a strength – it is the diversity across the BRICS+ platform that will endow it with greater vitality and complementarities in development. Secondly, sizeable BRICS-induced changes in global governance have already transpired and are ongoing. Rather than dismissing or ignoring these important global shifts, the advanced economies could focus on exploring the opportunities that are opened in the changing global setting. Discussing cooperative frameworks along the lines of “BRICS++”, a framework that would bring together the development institutions of the Global South and advanced economies may be one such promising venue. The world is changing fast and as Earvin “Magic” Johnson once presciently observed: “If you reach down for the popcorn, you might miss something”.  

Image of Gerd Altmann by Pixabay