From being dismissed as a catchphrase to emerging as a comprehensive challenge to the West, BRICS has come a long way.
India hosts scores of international conferences every year and nine out of ten do not get even a passing mention in the international press. But the BRICS summit that concluded on March 29 broke the mould. In just two days, March 29 and 30, it was reported in no fewer than 624 major newspapers and TV newscasts around the world. What brought about this sudden change of heart? The short answer is that the international media have sensed a challenge to the two-century-old hegemony of the West over the modern, increasingly interdependent, world.
A challenge to American, and more generally western, hegemony has been building for some time. It is reflected in China's growing determination to keep the South China Sea free from foreign military and economic influence; it has been visible for much longer in the militant Islamist challenge spearheaded by the al Qaeda. It was demonstrated most recently by Russia and China's vetoes of Security Council resolutions seeking to legitimise the ouster of the Assad regime in Syria. Against this background, the Delhi meeting acquired a special significance.
But the extent to which Delhi saw the consolidation of this challenge seems to have taken the West by surprise. Only three days before the summit, a columnist writing in the International Herald Tribune had dismissed BRICS as “an artificial bloc built on a catchphrase.” Unlike NATO, ASEAN, and other such groupings, he pointed out, there is neither a regional nor a trade-related justification for BRICS. On the contrary, all of its members have their primary economic links with the West. Even the acronym was coined by an executive of Goldman Sachs whose aim was to drum up new business for the company in advising trans-national corporations on how to expand business in the parts of the world which were still enjoying rapid economic growth after the onset of globalisation and the gradual de-industrialisation of the West.
More than an acronym
But today BRICS has become far more than an acronym. The Delhi declaration contains not only the most comprehensive criticism of the failures of the West that has been voiced by any group of countries since the end of the Cold War, but also the outlines of an alternative blueprint for managing our increasingly interdependent world.
The need to draw up such a blueprint has been thrust upon BRICS by the West's failures. Both the financial meltdown of 2008 and the global recession that set in during the following year were products of capitalist greed and mismanagement, given full reign by governments that scrambled to deregulate all markets, domestic and international, in the name of economic freedom and productivity. What they succeeded in doing was to turn the marketplace into a hunting ground for economic predators.
Not surprisingly, therefore, BRICS first demands, in June 2009, all related to reforms of the international financial institutions, a restructuring of the financial system, energy security, climate change and trade. The tone of these demands was cooperative: their goal, the assembled heads of government hastened to reassure the West, was to “expand strategic consensus, consolidate mutual trust, coordinate to cope with the global financial and economic crisis” and lay out a blueprint for the future development of the international economic and financial system.
But as the chaos deepened and spread from the global economy to the global polity, BRICS was forced to widen its agenda and sharpen the tone of its declarations. It crossed the line from economics into politics at its third summit in Hainan, China, last April, when its leaders expressed their “deep concern for the turbulence in the Middle East” and promised to “continue their cooperation in the Security Council over Libya.”
But NATO chose to learn the wrong lessons from Libya. Instead of realising from the aftermath of its aerial invasion that forcibly removing an authoritarian regime does not lead painlessly to democracy, freedom and peace, but to a power vacuum that is inevitably filled by the most brutal and bigoted elements in that society, it came away with the belief that it had at last discovered a cheap “new way of war” that had made regime change affordable even for economically bankrupt powers. So Libya was followed by Syria, and Syria is in danger of being followed by Iran.
It is this deeply unsettling prospect of spreading chaos and war that has given BRICS challenge to the hegemony of the West the fully matured shape unveiled in Delhi.
The Delhi declaration poses this challenge most unambiguously in six of its 50 paragraphs. The first is a critique of European and, by implication, American monetary mismanagement, which has plunged both continents into irredeemable national debt, created an overhang of international liquidity, and severely exacerbated a global recession. The second provides an equally sharp critique of the West's political mismanagement of the Middle East. A third paragraph reminds the U.S. and the EU that peace in the Middle East cannot be obtained without a “comprehensive and long lasting settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute” and commits the signatories wholeheartedly to helping them to finding it.
A fourth unequivocally reasserts the need to respect the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states, but with specific reference to Syria. The signatories express “deep concern over (the assault on the sovereignty of ) Syria”, call for “an immediate ceasefire” and wholeheartedly back the six-point plan proposed by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire, and “a Syrian-led inclusive political process” to create “a new environment for peace.”
The declaration saves its most trenchant observation for the end: “The situation in Iran,” it says, “must not be allowed to escalate into conflict. We recognize Iran's right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy consistent with its international obligations, and support resolution of the issues involved through political and diplomatic means and dialogue between the parties concerned, including between the IAEA and Iran, and in accordance with the provisions of the relevant U.N. Security Council Resolutions.” These observations fall just short of being a barely veiled warning.
The paragraphs on Syria and Iran constitute the most unambiguous rejection to date of the doctrine of “peace through pre-emptive attack,” that was formulated by the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11, and whose repeated use since then has been justified on the grounds of not only fighting terrorism but also defending human rights, promoting democracy and exercising the ‘Duty to Protect'. The plain truth is that from the liberation of Kosovo in 1999 to the destruction of Libya last year, every such action has been a violation of Article 2, the most fundamental clause of the U.N. Charter. The Delhi declaration is therefore a reaffirmation of the continuing validity of the U.N. Charter, and therefore a warning to the West against using the institutions of the United Nations — notably the Security Council — to destroy the U.N. itself.
Even the two concrete economic initiatives it has outlined, the development of a system of international payments among the members that bypasses the dollar and the creation of an alternative international bank, have not only an immediate economic purpose — to shield their economies from the currency instability of the West, but the longer term political purpose of freeing themselves from subservience to an international banking system that has become the West's tool for imposing sanctions, sequestering funds and thereby strangling smaller countries into submission to its dictates.
The western response to the Delhi declaration has been muted so far. Robert Zoellick, the President of the World Bank, and renowned economists Nicholas Stern, Matthia Romani and Joseph Stiglitz have all welcomed the idea of a BRICS bank, remarking caustically that “such a bank could play a strong role in rebalancing the world economy by channelling hard-earned savings in emerging markets and developing countries to more productive uses than funding bubbles in rich-country housing markets”. They could as easily have added “or accepting paper securities of dubious value as payment for their exports”.
But a conservative reaction is bound to follow and, if highlighted by the media, it could easily elevate what is at present only an admonition of the U.S. and NATO, into a threat. It is imperative for BRICS to ensure and the world to perceive, that the Delhi declaration is not the beginning of a new Cold War.
Today the disorganisation of domestic and international economic systems caused by globalisation has spread to the international political system. BRICS has found its raison d'etre in trying to arrest the spread. It is not likely to be left to do this alone. To quote Diena, a Latvian newspaper published in Riga, “It would be an exaggeration to say that this more or less informal alliance is aimed against the United States. These countries all understand that they want to live in a polycentric world, not a monocentric one that is dominated by the United States.” Latvia is a member of the EU.
(The writer is a senior journalist.)