Book review: “Brazil, the BRICS and the International Agenda”



Original title: O Brasil, os BRICS e a Agenda Internacional (Portuguese)

The rise of the BRICS concept is one of the most fascinating phenomena of our time. Yet what the group stands for or what it is capable of remains hotly debated. In the United States and Europe, a strong narrative prevails that the BRICS are too disparate to agree on anything. They predict that the grouping will soon fall into oblivion and then cease to exist. Within the BRICS, the discussion is more nuanced. Some are skeptical, while others see great potential. One thing seems to be clear: No matter what the mainstream Western media says, the BRICS will be what its member countries make of it. Understanding what policy makers and policy analysts in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa think is therefore of great importance. In this context, “Brazil, the BRICS and the International Agenda”, a collection of short essays by academics and policy makers is a welcome contribution.

At the outset, Amb. Gelson Fonseca Jr. rightly points out that one of the reasons that the BRICS brand “stuck” is that it helps us understand an ever more complex world – this, however, says little about the BRICS’ capacity to coordinate their policies. He makes the useful distinction of cooperation “towards the inside” (e.g., strengthening intra-BRICS trade ties or learning from each other’s common domestic challenges) and cooperation “towards the outside”, such as seeking to change the international system. Distinguishing between the two is useful when speaking about what the goals of the BRICS grouping should be. Cooperation “towards the inside” may be less visible to the rest of the world yet perhaps one of the group’s greatest achievements. While recognizing internal differences, Fonseca proves to be an optimist and argues that the BRICS have potential to make progress both internally and externally.

Amb. Maria Edileuza Fontele Reis, ‘sherpa’ at several BRICS Summits, makes a passionate case for the potential of the BRICS grouping. She argues that the G8’s unwillingness to include emerging powers, and the established powers’ decision to create a second-tier “outreach group” significantly contributed to the conviction among rising powers that they had to create their own grouping. This raises an interesting question: If Jim O’Neill had not created the BRIC acronym, would these countries have found together anyways? Perhaps not precisely this group, but Reis’ account indicates that emerging powers’ discontent was palpable at the time the idea of the BRICS emerged, which certainly increased their interest in exploring the concept further. She identifies Brazil’s Celso Amorim and Russia’s Sergey Lavrov as the two diplomats who were ultimately responsible for the BRICS’ transition from a mere investment group to a diplomatic and political reality. In the annex of her text, the reader finds a useful list of all BRICS-related events since the first informal meeting in September 2006.

In a later chapter, Valdemar Carneiro Leão, another ‘sherpa’, makes the interesting observation that while the BRICS may be very disparate, they need each other to obtain what they want – similar to the G7 in the 1980s and 1990s. It remains to be seen whether this necessity to join forces can overcome the many differences between the BRICS, which are mentioned by virtually all authors such as Antonio Jorge Ramalho or Ambassador Affonso Celso de Ouro-Preto, who writes that the BRICS are “both powerful and fragile at the same time”.

The relative decline of the United States is taken for granted by the contributors, and the possibility of a political meltdown in China receives virtually no mention. Yet rather than applauding the end of the American Age, the authors identify both the opportunities and the challenges of a multipolar world order. While Brazil is likely to emerge as a key actor in this new order, the notion seems to prevail that the old order has, despite its disadvantages, served Brazil rather well. To those who question the BRICS’ capacity to assume a global leadership role due to its internal challenges, Paulo Fagundes Visentini replies that “one doesn’t have to be a Switzerland to aspire international leadership”, pointing out that both the United Kingdom and the United States faced severe domestic problems when they turned into global players.

Regarding the BRICS’ members, China is at times seen with suspicion. Several authors, such as Carlos Márcio Cozdendey, take note that Russia is currently applying for OECD membership, implying that this would perhaps bring Russia closer to Europe and undermine a potential “BRICS identity”. The majority of authors stress the positive aspects of South Africa’s inclusion, arguing that it increases the group’s legitimacy. India, the country probably most unknown to Brazilian thinkers, receives relatively little attention.

While the book’s overall focus is geopolitical, some authors focus on other, equally important issue areas. Ronaldo Mota highlights the potential between the BRICS in the field of science and innovation. Marcio Pochman and Lenina Pomeranz look at intra-BRIC trade, the latter noting that there is less potential for strengthening trade than is often assumed.

Interestingly, Amb. Rubens Barbosa asserts that “Brazil is the country that has most benefitted from the BRICS acronym”, arguing that it elevated Brazil’s international status substantively. Yet according to him, Brazil needs to do more to define a “BRICS agenda” and figure out what exactly, other than global attention, Brazil wants to get out of the BRICS.

Several authors remain skeptical about the group’s future. Sandra Polónia Rios, Rubens Ricupero and Ricardo Sennes, for example, predict that the BRICS will not turn into a relevant international actor, arguing that Brazil should carefully weigh the costs and benefits before seeking a strategic alignment with the other members – Sennes, for instance points to a convergence of interests between Brazil and the West. Ricupero says Brazil’s priority should be regional integration, not the BRICS.

Those in favor of the BRICS argue that Sennes and many other skeptics have bought into the ‘Western narrative’ about the BRICS’ limitations. Yet critical voices are extremely important at a time when Brazil is just beginning to articulate its behavior on the global stage.

Read also:

Como os BRICS podem mudar a geopolítica do mundo

¿Por qué el BRICS?

Why BRICS Matters

The Hindu: BRICS and the ‘Responsibility while Protecting’ concept