BRICS+ begin to crack under geopolitical and economic pressure

War, money and climate catastrophe are still wedge issues
Patrick Bond (First Published in the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt 28 November) 3 December 2023

The most important question in North-South politics is whether the G20 – the Group of 20 leading state powers (plus the African Union starting in 2024) – is capable of fusing the rich-countries’ G7 (as it deservedly continues to lose credibility) with the rapidly-growing BRICS+ bloc, or whether the BRICS+ becomes a genuine force in global affairs.

It is not, yet, as witnessed in ongoing controversies over war, money and environment. In August, the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa alliance held its 15th summit in Johannesburg, inviting six new members, including four Middle East oil-rich states – Iran and traditional U.S. allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – along with Ethiopia and Argentina. The arrogant request by Emmanuel Macron to also formally draw France into the BRICS was quickly rejected by Xi Jinping. The G20/BRICS+overlap is important because not only did India host the 2023 G20 in September. That privilege moves to Brazil in 2024, followed by South Africa and the U.S., perhaps under Donald Trump’s second presidency (if current opinion polls are durable).

But while disappointment in the G20’s performance in solving global crises is obvious, the BRICS+ do not appear as a stable alternative bloc. In mid-November, the election of a new Argentine president – the far-right populist Javier Milei, who wants to re-dollarise the peso –likely means one BRICS+ invitation will be refused. So the next BRICS summit in Russia will include only ten members.

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will, as usual at the BRICS, not be considered an agenda item of importance, notwithstanding a glaring contradiction in the Johannesburg Declaration: “We reiterate our commitment to inclusive multilateralism and upholding international law, including… an international system in which sovereign states cooperate to maintain peace and security.”

Two weeks before the BRICS met in August, Saudi Arabia had gathered 40 countries’ foreign ministry officials to discuss the potential for peace in that war, a long process which may ultimately compel Ukraine to surrender 20% of its territory (including Crimea), given that Russia has so many more millions of soldiers to sacrifice in order to retain control over the invaded land. The Saudi conference made no progress, partly because Moscow was not invited to attend. Likewise, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s peace mission to Kyiv and Moscow with a few other African leaders, also failed.

But the latest Middle East war could not be ignored so on November 21, the full 11 BRICS+ gathered virtually, chaired by Ramaphosa, to discuss Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Tel Aviv’s retribution for Hamas’ October 7 atrocities (1200 murdered Israelis of which 800 were civilians and 240 kidnappings) was extreme: more than 12 000 mainly women and children killed, during Israel’s shelling of 55 000 buildings across Gaza.

The BRICS+ were divided, with two generally pro-Israel backers in India and Ethiopia having abstained in the October 26 United Nations vote to protect civilians and uphold international humanitarian law. Egypt and the UAE had normalised relations with Israel, and Saudi Arabia was on the verge of doing so before the Hamas attacks. Against Israel, the most voluble BRICS+ leaders were from Iran, South Africa and Brazil.

For context, this was not merely a matter of Israel’s claimed right to self-defense, since international war crimes were immediately committed. The Gaza Strip’s 2.3 million residents are primarily descendants of the 1948 expulsion of Palestinians from their land to the north. That left Gaza City as one of the most densely-packed sites in the world, with residents given nowhere to escape the bombings due to the Egyptian border closure.

But looming large was the very raison d’etre for BRICS: excessive unilateral geopolitical power. The most crucial military, financial and moral support given to Benjamin Netanyahu’s government comes from the United States, and in turn, Washington’s influence with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE remains a vital factor in BRICS+’s incoherence.

Independent U.S. presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. – now attracting a quarter of the potential electorate in popularity polls – is usually one of the most honest critics of North-South power and the abuse of the Pentagon’s trillion-dollar annual budget. But in an interview on November 5, RFK Jr revealed how even an anti-empire politician interprets Israel within Washington-centric geo-petropolitics. He pledged that if elected in late 2024, he would “Make sure that we have the resources that are critical to us, including the oil resources that are critical to the world, that we have a strike capacity to make sure to be able to protect those. And Israel is critical, and the reason it’s critical is because it’s a bulwark for us in the Middle East. It’s almost like having an aircraft carrier in the Middle East.”

RFK Jr admitted that of the $3 billion in military gifts from Washington plus $14 billion in new aid, “75% of it goes to U.S. companies.” Tragically, this represents not whistle-blowing against imperialism (as RFK is capable of), but instead, a fulsome endorsement of Washington’s main sub-imperial relationship.

RFK Jr then turned to his biggest fear: “If you look at what’s happening in the Middle East now, Iran is now, closest allies of Iran are Russia and China. Iran also controls all of Venezuela’s oil. Hezbollah is in Venezuela. They have propped up the Maduro regime, and so they control that oil supply. BRICS. Saudi Arabia is now joining BRICS. So, those countries will control 90% of the oil in our, in the world.” Concluded RFK Jr, “If Israel disappears, Russia and China would be controlling the Middle East. And they control 90% of the world’s oil supply. And that would be cataclysmic for U.S. national security.”

This is the distorted mentality prevalent in even the liberal wing of U.S. power politics, leaving much to debate about, for example, RFK Jr’s neo-conservative misreading of power relations in Venezuela. However, when it comes to oil production and combustion, the actual imperial/sub-imperial relationship will again be evident when the West plus BRICS+ unite at at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 28th annual summit in Dubai.

Since Copenhagen in 2009, the West and BRICS+ countries have found near-100% unity in their repeated commitments: refusal to make necessary emissions cuts, and to admit ‘polluter-pays’ liabilities (so that the West and BRICS together can avoid claims to climate reparations).

The BRICS+ have 46% of the world’s population but generate just 29% of global GDP, and in the process produce 43% (not 90%) of global oil output – and also 58% of CO2 emissions. That is a formidable force when the BRICS+ ally with – and not against – Washington.

Such imperial/sub-imperial arrangements tend to emerge at not only climate summits, but also here in Johannesburg in August: agreeing not to pursue any genuine anti-imperialist de-dollarization strategy, in spite of lobbying by Russia – due to its lock-out from Western banking. Hopes for a new intra-BRICS currency and an international anti-Western monetary rebellion were downplayed in June by the lead South African diplomat, Anil Sooklal: “We have never spoken about de-dollarisation. What we have done, which is nothing new, we signed an agreement several years ago, an interbank agreement, paving the way to trade in our local currencies.”

Even more revealing is that, in order to avoid a downgrade by New York credit rating agencies, the BRICS New Development Bank continues to fully comply with Western financial sanctions against its 19%-owner in Moscow.

There is surely a need for a new bloc of rational leaders, especially from the South, to address war and other global crises such as climate catastrophe, or monetary and financial system injustices, or the pandemic ‘vaccine-apartheid’ that arose during Covid-19’s spread. The latter incident again revealed the BRICS’ incoherence: millions died unnecessarily because Ramaphosa and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi failed to bring Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Jair Bolsonaro into alignment on waiving Big Pharma vaccine copyrights (mainly fighting against Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson in 2020-22 World Trade Organisation debates).

The inability of the bloc to set a truly new agenda, and instead to continue maintaining the worst features of global North-South power relations, is not a temporary problem. It requires progressives to look elsewhere – including resistance forces within BRICS+ often-repressed civil society – for genuine solidarity opportunities.


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