Interview: Oliver Stuenkel

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Interview: Oliver Stuenkel

Why the BRICS will remain an important force in world affairs in 2015 and beyond.

Interview: Oliver Stuenkel
Credit: GovernmentZA via

Oliver Stuenkel is an assistant professor of International Relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV) in São Paulo and the author of a new book The BRICS and the Future of Global Order. He recently spoke with Justin McDonnell about the role of the BRICS in the international system in 2015 and beyond.

Why are the BRICS important in 2015?

Despite the economic crises in Russia, Brazil and South Africa, the BRICS grouping remains by far the most important political grouping without Western participation. For leaders from Brazil, India, Russia and South Africa, the 7th BRICS Summit, to be held in Russia in July, is the most important diplomatic event of the year. The grouping’s continued strength and capacity to innovate – marked by frequent high-level meetings and the creation of the New Development Bank (NDB) – shows that Western analysts have generally been wrong in their assessments that the BRICS countries were too different from each other to agree on anything. Considering that the first BRICS’ leaders summit took place only six years ago, it is notable how much the grouping has achieved, particularly when it comes to intra-BRICS ties. For example, in a controversial move, the BRICS jointly criticized the West for attempting to exclude Russia from the G20, and their stance is likely to protect Russia for complete economic and political isolation. The BRICS grouping has thus turned into a key element of international affairs. And yet, both Western media policy analysts still know very little about the topic.

Are the BRICS a force for good in the world or simply an obstructionist bloc creating a more fragmented system?

Above all, the BRICS grouping has been very important in strengthening ties between its members, which have been traditionally weak. For example, despite China being Brazil’s most important trading partner, Brazilian society and government still know very little about China. The BRICS grouping is an important mechanism to help correct that, through providing an institutionalized yearly meeting between the presidents, ministers of Foreign Affairs, Education, Agriculture, Health, National Security, and many other areas. In the same way, there are now regular meetings between think tanks, mayors and academics, who had previously very little knowledge of each other. While such things take time, the grouping has been an important element in slowly adjusting each countries’ overall perspectives to a more multipolar world.

None of these activities or the BRICS’ joint positions in global affairs have been directed against the United States or Europe. Of course, correcting the distribution of votes at the IMF and the World Bank has led to resistance in Washington and Brussels, but they will ultimately strengthen existing institutions by making them more legitimate. The creation of the New Development Bank the Contingency Reserve Agreement (CRA) are not meant to weaken existing institutions, in the same way that the African Development Bank does not rival the World Bank. The CRA is embedded in the IMF-led system, so worries that the BRICS constitute a direct and immediate challenge to the existing order are premature.

U.S. opposition or suspicion of such structures underline how insincere U.S. foreign policy makers’ calls on rising powers to become “responsible stakeholders” is – after all, there are few better examples of emerging powers “stepping up to the plate” than providing billions of dollars for infrastructure development in the developing world. While surprising to some in Washington, it is obvious that rising powers want to assume responsibility on their own terms rather than accepting the rules and norms established by U.S.-led institutions.

It looks like sufficient steps are being made to bring the New Development Bank (NDB) into operation by 2016. What implications will that have for the global financial landscape as well as interaction with established global institutions?

The New Development Bank is merely one of several new initiatives – most of which are Chinese-led – that will slowly help adapt global structures to the new reality of multipolarity. Since all the BRICS countries continue to fully support existing institutions, immediate implications will be limited. Yet, the successful creation of alternative banks provides emerging powers with more leverage to accelerate their demands in the World Bank and the IMF, since they can, in theory, threaten to abandon existing structures. The creation of the NDB thus points to a future with a larger number of important institutions that are not Western-led.

Russia will hold the seventh BRICS summit this July in Ufa. The host nation gets to set the agenda. Given the collapse of the ruble, falling oil prices, and weakening ties with the EU and the U.S. over the Ukraine crisis, what might we expect Russia to bring to the table?

Increasingly anti-Western, Russia will introduce a series of measures during the summit discussions that are likely to generate strong criticism in the West, such as arguing for the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to replace the U.S. government as the ICANN overseer. Many critics of this idea say that it would allow authoritarian regimes to challenge the open Internet. China is supportive of the idea, and both India and South Africa have expressed their dissatisfaction with the status quo, even though their position is not as clear as Russia’s. Brazil, however, is unlikely to go along, considering its leadership on the matter at the 2014 NetMundial in São Paulo.

In several other areas, Russia may seek to politicize the BRICS meeting further and use it as an anti-Western platform. That strategy will cause resistance among the other members that have no interest in unnecessarily antagonizing Washington. In fact, Brazilian foreign policy makers will be careful not to admit any overly strongly worded language in the final summit declaration that may imperil a key goal for Brasília in 2015: repairing frayed ties with the United States. Even without imposing his Internet-related views on the other BRICS countries, the summit will be a success for Vladimir Putin. Within a few days, the Russian president will host not only the BRICS leaders, but also heads of state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). One year after the Winter Olympics, Russia will continue to successfully resist Western attempts to turn it into a pariah. Finally, further details about the launch of the NDB will be released.

What can the BRICS do to encourage a peaceful solution to the crisis in Ukraine and help Russia return to a more stable economy?

In a clear choice for realpolitik, the BRICS countries adopted a passive stance vis-à-vis the crisis (essentially protecting Russia from complete isolation), and they have been handsomely rewarded for it. Russian imports from Brazil, India and China have grown since the beginning of Western sanctions. The historic gas deal between China and Russia had been years in the making, but China clearly benefitted from the Russia’s lack of other options. Western attempts to isolate countries such as Russia drive the new pariahs into the Chinese orbit without generating any significant cost for Beijing. The BRICS are thus helping Russia prevent an even bigger economic fallout or a product shortage at home. At the same time, they have played virtually no role in helping find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Ukraine. Particularly from China’s point of view, current global dynamics are almost ideal: Forced to focus on Russia, the United States pays only limited attention to China’s rise and increasingly global projection, allowing Beijing to remain under the radar for more time. Critics are of course right to point out that in this specific case the BRICS are not playing a constructive role that could help end the conflict.

These countries are very different from one another on various fronts and issues. Isn’t forging a cohesive vision a very serious challenge, if not downright impossible?

For most observers the BRICS is too disparate to be a significant category. In the international media, the BRICSS have therefore been routinely described as “a disparate quartet,”  a “motley crew,”  or as an “odd grouping.” The idea of the BRICS as a bloc, according to this narrative, was deeply flawed and the BRICS member countries were too diverse to ever form a coherent group. Yet a key uniting element was often overlooked: All four initial member countries (prior to South Africa’s accession in December 2010) have global ambitions – a global project, however vaguely defined, voiced frequently. They also have a sense of entitlement absent in other emerging powers such as Mexico or Indonesia (Turkey may be the only exception), which makes them articulate these visions with a sense of naturalness that often baffles Western observers. The underlying message here is: We should have a key role in global affairs not because of what we do, but who we are. It is here that the BRICS grouping is indeed an interesting political category – for example, there are no emerging powers outside of it that have a systematic engagement with the UN Security Council, either as permanent members or committed candidates. As Celso Amorim, Brazil’s former Foreign Minister, argued, it was “time to start reorganizing the world in the direction that the overwhelming majority of mankind expects and needs.”  To his mind, the BRICS countries were to play a key role in that process.

It is of course true that the BRICS disagree on many issues – as would be expected from five unique countries in different parts of the world. It is also true that they regard themselves as rivals, and Sino-Indian ties are the most complicated of all. Yet frequent disagreement does not keep countries from cooperating or being part of the same clubs. Germany and Italy are fiercely opposed when it comes to UN Security Council reform, and Germany and France sharply disagreed over military intervention in Libya. The United Kingdom and France, for their part, held opposing views on such important matters as the military intervention in Iraq. The United States opposed China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and Britain was the first Western country to join it. And yet, not a single analyst argued that these disagreements showed that NATO or the EU were bad ideas.

If you could see as far ahead as 2030, do you think the global governance structure will continue to look and be led by established Western powers or will the BRICS unified efforts reshape the international system in a way that more appropriately reflects and addresses their norms, values, and priorities?

Policy makers in the Global South will continue to invest in Western-dominated structures and push for their reform. Yet provided that China and India (the two dominant actors in the BRICS grouping) can prevent domestic political turmoil and maintain moderate growth in the coming years, they will quietly expand networks in many different areas, ready to engage those who do feel today’s institutions fail to satisfy their needs, or those who seek to increase autonomy from the United States. Several of the already existing alternative institutions have arguably positive effects on development, mainly in Asia and Africa. So I think we’ll see a far more diversified global order, with the presence of strong Chinese-led institutions that will play a strong role in global affairs. Yet Western and non-Western institutions will not necessarily be opposed to each other. China will continue to be part of the Western-dominated World Bank, and several Western powers will follow Britain’s lead and join the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

While emerging powers agree with fundamental issues such as international institutions, cooperative security, democratic community, collective problem solving, shared sovereignty, and the rule of law, they consider, to differing degrees, today’s order as flawed and frequently undermined by the system’s creators. Brazil, South Africa and India in particular oppose the implicit and explicit hierarchies of international institutions and the many privileges often enjoyed by great powers in international deliberations. China, while more privileged, equally resents the U.S. advantages hard-wired into today’s order. It is thus skepticism about the operationalization of liberal norms, rather than the goals and values that guide them that shapes the BRICS’ relationship to today’s global order.