Analyzing the Geopolitical Implications of the BRICS Expansion

By Nayan Seth, MGA 2024 Candidate at The Fletcher School

As the debate continues over whether the world is moving toward or is already in a multipolar global order, the Russia and Eurasia Program and the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy (CIERP) at The Fletcher School organized a panel discussion on September 28, 2023 to analyze the geopolitical implications of the expansion of the BRICS forum and its likely impact on the West-led international system.

Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics and Co-Director of the Fletcher Russia and Eurasia Program; Mihaela Papa, Fletcher Senior Fellow; and Abiodun Williams, Fletcher Professor of the Practice of International Politics, debated the possibility of BRICS posing a substantial challenge to the West-led international order. The conversation was moderated by Arik Burakovsky, Assistant Director of the Fletcher Russia and Eurasia Program.

BRICS, originally a multilateral forum of five major emerging economies including Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, expanded to include six new members at the group leaders’ summit in August 2023: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Papa believes that BRICS’ decades-long campaign for a multipolar world has been “resilient” and is attracting “greater interest from other countries.” She highlighted a sense of grievance among the developing countries over their exclusion from global governance structures. Before the summit, over 40 countries showed interest in joining the BRICS forum.

According to Williams, the BRICS expansion is a “significant signal” to the United States and Western powers that highlights “growing disenchantment” with the prevailing international system. “Systemic shocks, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ukraine war–with all its consequences in terms of food and energy security for poor countries–and the climate emergency. All of these have underlined the deep inequities at the core of the global order.”

Williams argued that BRICS represents the interests of the Global South in a “fundamental way.”

“[BRICS] gives a voice to countries in the ‘Power South,’ which represent global economic growth such as India, and at the same time, countries in the ‘Poor South,’” he said.

Drezner, on the other hand, branded the multipolar world narrative as a “convenient fiction for all BRICS members.” 

“We live in a bipolar world right now. We have the United States on one hand; we have China on the other. There are other countries that are undeniably significant. But none of these countries have the same aggregate power as either the United States or China,” Drezner argued.

He also highlighted the presence of regional rivals in the expanded group and predicted that the expansion “inevitably is going to weaken the cohesion.”

“We’re talking about Saudi Arabia and Iran. We’re talking about India and China. We’re talking about Ethiopia and Egypt. I will believe that there is consensus in BRICS when China supports India’s membership as a permanent five member of the UN Security Council. Because it’s not going to happen,” Drezner said. 

However, Papa argued that her research showed that BRICS actually helped lower the tensions between India and China, saying, “If BRICS managed to de-escalate tensions between India and China, there is a potential that it will de-escalate tensions among the rest.” 

Papa also spoke about China’s increasing influence in BRICS post-expansion. “This is a win for China’s BRICS agenda. And China is now much more aligned with BRICS, which means that we are going to see much more action, potentially, from China’s side,” she said. 

Drezner explained China’s push to expand the group. “One of the interesting things we can see is that China created the BRICS, but it didn’t stop there. It then created an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and then it created a network structure through the Belt and Road Initiative. I think that’s one reason why China wants to enlarge the BRICS; it gives them another option.”

On the question of implications for U.S. foreign policy, Drezner asserted that the Biden administration has “doubled down” on its international engagements, citing U.S. support to Ukraine, strengthening NATO, renewing alliances with Japan and South Korea, and the revival of the QUAD. 

“You are seeing a sort of explosion of these kinds of networked arrangements, where the Biden administration is trying, if not to bring these countries into a formal partnership with the United States, to spin a web where they recognize that they have common interests with the United States and therefore don’t necessarily want to gravitate too much towards China’s center of gravity,” he said.

Papa countered that although the Biden administration has toned down its “democracy versus autocracy” narrative, she noted a few “missed opportunities” by successive administrations. 

She explained, “I think that if the U.S. would have worked with IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa), there was an opportunity to actually develop a trilateral collaboration, but most of its agenda has been eaten up by the BRICS…When the U.S. engages in new entities, they’re usually very security-focused. So there is not enough development thinking and development focus.”

Williams and Drezner debated reforming international institutions like the UN Security Council. “If you look at the UN Security Council, the Council reflects the realities of political and economic patterns of a bygone era. Yes, there is China, a member of the Council. But there is no India. Africa, which has the largest bloc of votes in the UN General Assembly–54 countries–is not represented. And you have no countries from Latin America,” Williams said. 

But Drezner argued that the UN Security Council has become a “dysfunctional body,” and it does not matter if some countries of the Global South become members. “The UN Security Council, because we are moving into a bipolar world, is now going to look like the UN Security Council of the Cold War…only very rarely will they do anything of consequence in global affairs.”

Williams concluded that BRICS’s success will depend on its leadership. “I think in reconciling diverging interests, leadership would be critical…Leaders create, shape, and change institutions. And leaders can also foster cooperation.”


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