The BRICS International: On the Legacy of Visions of Regional and Global Cooperation

Our ability to reach unity in
diversity will be the beauty and the
test of our civilization.

Mahatma Gandhi

One of the key strengths of BRICS resides in their diversity and in their capability to offer multiple paths to modernization. In effect BRICS harbor the potential for driving the development of the global economy along the multiple paths of economic models rather than convergence towards one set of prescriptions. A crucial component of this multiplicity in economic models will be diversity of economic alliances and regional integration patterns pursued by the developing economies. In this regard, perhaps the most striking commonality in all five BRICS countries is the legacy of some of the foremost schools of thought and visions of continental, regional and global integration. All five BRICS countries have a rich legacy of aspiring for greater unity and cooperation across borders, regions and continents. 

In Russia’s case that kind of vision of continental integration is represented by the Eurasian school of thought (most notably by Petr Savitskiy, Georgiy Vernadskiy and Nikolay Trubetskoy) that emerged nearly a century ago. The theory holds that Russia’s development strategy should take into account factors what make it distinct from other countries, namely, its geographical, historical, cultural, and economic peculiarities. According to Lev Gumilev, one of the foremost theorists of the Eurasian school of thought, a key tenet of the theory is polycentrism, which implies that “there are many centers in the world. Europe is the center of the world, but so is Palestine. And the same goes for Iberia and China”. Another important facet of Eurasianism is the commonality of the Eurasian space, which makes it amenable to integration and closer cultural and economic ties. From a present-day perspective, the heritage of Eurasianism has particular relevance for pursuing Eurasian continental integration through the creation of economic alliances and transport corridors linking Asia and Europe. 

Elsewhere in the developing world, a rich integrationist tradition emerged in Latin America, where one of the early champions of the unification cause in the region was Simon Bolivar, who back in 1815 (Cartagena manifesto) called for the Spanish American provinces to act together in the face of external aggression. He worked on various integration projects such as “Gran Colombia” as well as the “Bolivian Federation”, with continental unification being the loadstar of his efforts as a statesman, whose call to the nations of the continent was: “In the unity of our nations rests the glorious future of our peoples.” 

Brazil for its part in the last quarter of the 19th century presented a whole group of statesmen and intellectuals who advanced the cause of Latin American unification and closer partnership, including such figures as Quintino Bocaiuva, Oliveira Lima, Eduardo Prado, Rio Branco, Rui Barbosa, Joaquim Nabuco. This was the generation of intellectuals that transformed the vision of Brazil from that of an “island” to that of an integral part of the continent. One of the projects of closer partnership that originated on the back of these greater contacts between Brazil and other Latin American countries was ABC – closer partnership between Argentina, Brazil and Chile (accord reached in 1915). 

In China the key figure to lead the intellectual struggle against colonialism through closer cooperation among Asian nations was Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), who called on the Asian nations to fight against colonialism under the banner of “Greater Asianism”. In the words of Sun Yat-sen, “we advocate Pan-Asianism in order to restore the status of Asia. Only by the unification of all the peoples in Asia on the foundation of benevolence and virtue can they become strong and powerful.” 

In Africa Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah presented one of the most fervent calls for Africa’s unification: “If we are to remain free, if we are to enjoy the full benefits of Africa’s rich resources, we must unite to plan for our total defence and the full exploitation of our material and human means, in the full interests of all our peoples. “To go it alone” will limit our horizons, curtail our expectations, and threaten our liberty”. 

This mission was carried on by South Africa’s Nelson Mandela who advanced his vision of regional and continental cooperation. In his 1993 article in Foreign Affairs he wrote: “In forging links with our neighbours, the ANC will draw on an African tradition, of which we are part, for promoting greater continental unity. We are currently involved in consultations with the Southern African Development Community, and the Eastern and Southern African Preferential Trade Area. We look forward to a mutually beneficial association with both of these important vehicles for promoting regional prosperity. We likewise look forward to becoming involved in the process of reforming the Southern African Customs Union, linking our country to Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland”. 

Indeed, Mandela actively worked to improve the regional integration institutions in Africa, including the SADC, SACU and the African Union. In his words, “South Africa cannot escape its African destiny. If we do not devote our energies to this continent, we too could fall victim to the forces that have brought ruin to its various parts. Like the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity needs to be attuned to the changes at work throughout the world. We are inextricably part of southern Africa and our destiny is linked to that of a region, which is much more than a mere geographical concept”. 

As for India, the philosophical concepts on integration and trans-border cooperation was expressed by Mahatma Gandhi who went beyond the regional ramifications to take the vision of partnership among developing nations to a global level. This was encapsulated in Gandhi’s advocacy of the creation of a World federation of free nations on the foundation of nonviolence and the abandonment of weapons in international relations: “The better mind of the world desires today not absolutely independent States warring one against another, but a federation of friendly inter-dependent States. The consummation of that event may be far off. I want to make no grand claim for our country. But I see nothing grand or impossible about our expressing our readiness for universal inter-dependence rather, than independence.” 

The gamut of all these integrationist legacies of the BRICS countries serves as an important reference point for efforts to breathe new life and energy into BRICS and their interaction with the developing world. Despite the tremendous difficulties faced by developing nations over the course of the past century, the above visions of greater integration and partnership at the regional level have materialized to a significant degree in the form of regional integration blocks like MERCOSUR, the Eurasian Economic Union, the South African Customs Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), BIMSTEC and many others. Now may be the right time to bring these blocks closer together to take the process of South-South integration to a whole new level.