Analysis & Opinions - METRO U.N.

BRICS—Is the Concept still Relevant?

| Aug. 29, 2018

Ever since this group of states became more than a handy acronym about a decade ago, the question whether the partial common interests or the striking differences among them will ultimately prevail has been posed and though it remains open, contemporary trends in international politics have, in fact, given the group new impetus, at least for the time being.

When the group first met in 2009 the international financial crisis created by industrialized countries, was still in full swing and its members shared a certain anti-Western resentment, since despite some modest reforms their representation in Western dominated institutions like the IMF or the World Bank did not adequately reflect their growing weight. They joined forces to create approaches outside those institutions by establishing a “New Development Bank” to finance projects of members (and now also of outside developing countries) as well as a ”Contingency Reserve Arrangement” to protect against liquidity pressures. However, compared with the global institutions their scope is very small. Moreover, they wanted to coordinate policies within the G-20 group, strengthen the South-South connection and promote UN reform.

The BRIC countries now comprise 40 % of the world’s population and almost a quarter of its output, which was only 11 % in 1990.  This remarkable growth was mostly due to developments in China and to a lesser extent in India, but in any case was primarily due to national efforts and not to internal group cooperation. Indeed, China’s top ten trade partners are industrialized countries, India ranks 13th, Brazil 14th, Russia16th and South Africa 22nd. That may change marginally over the long run as a result of growing Chinese investment in BRIC countries. There is also some discussion of a free trade arrangement among them, but such a project will be inherently difficult to realize.

The differences between the members are striking. Their political regimes range from different types of democracy in Brazil, India and South Africa to Vladimir Putin’s oligarch system and Chinese Communist Party rule under a leader for life. Their relationship to the world economy ranges from China’s and India’s integration in the supply chains and service industry of the globe to Brazil’s, Russia’s and South Africa’s main role as exporter of natural resources. Their foreign policy interests diverge considerably and are even adversarial in selected areas such as between India and China on Pakistan and borders.

The BRICS group can be seen as part of two global developments. The first is older and consists of states forming regional or functional subgroups in selected areas where their interests overlap. They arose after the Bretton Woods institutions and comprise a multitude of very different arrangements like MERCOSUR, ASEAN, the Chiang Mai Initiative, or the Shanghai Co-operation Organization to mention but a few. They reflect the growing need of states to cooperate on very specific issues below the level of global institutions and thus form a growing web of cooperation among groups of countries.

The BRICS group now gets an additional impetus by a second trend in global affairs, unleashed by the Trump Administration’s assault on basic principles of the very liberal trading order which the US once helped to create by imposing tariffs, resorting to protectionist practices and challenging the WTO as the central pillar of the global trading system.   Like other coalitions of countries (the EU and Japan being one of a growing number) the BRICS group has joined the resistance against this assault and used the 2018 Johannesburg Summit to assert the defense of multilateralism and free trade as one of its central goals, thus reaffirming its relevance.


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kaiser, Karl.“BRICS—Is the Concept still Relevant?.” METRO U.N., August 29, 2018.

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