The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 united the East and the West, symbolising the end of the ideological divisions of the Cold War. Thirty years later, a new wall is emerging between the Global North and South as rival political systems come to the fore. This was made apparent during the historic three-day summit held in August 2023 between BRICS members in Johannesburg, South Africa. Leaders at the summit sought to deepen existing ties between the nations and assess the current geopolitical climate fraught with conflict including the war in Ukraine, military build up in the South China Sea, and Africa’s coup epidemic.
BRICS refers to the multilateral group of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Seen as leaders of the 'Global South', these five countries account for nearly half the world’s population and a quarter of the global economy. In the words of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “BRICS has become a platform of the Global South”. BRICS emerged in opposition to the United States (US)-led intervention in Iraq in 2003 and its leaders continue to condemn Western imperialism and ideological colonisation. Indeed, this was a running theme throughout the Summit. Russian President Vladimir Putin was particularly vocal in his criticism, condemning the West’s “desire to maintain hegemony” and signalling his intention to “build a multipolar world order” spearheaded by BRICS.
What BRICS means for the Global South
The admission of six new countries to the bloc - Saudi Arabia, Iran, Ethiopia, Egypt, Argentina, and the United Arab Emirates - evidences a widespread desire to shift the prevailing paradigm. These new member states have repeatedly echoed anti-Western sentiment. In addition, 40 other countries from the Arab, Asian, and Latin American world have expressed an interest in joining BRICS.
The term ‘Global South’ comes from a visual depiction of the ‘Rich North’ and the ‘Poor South’. The divide runs from the north of Mexico across the top of Africa and the Middle East to loop around India and China before dropping down to encompass most of East Asia while avoiding Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.
The vast disparity in wealth is a constant source of frustration among members of the Global South, with USD$152 trillion drained from their economies since 1960. The BRICS bloc offers economic and diplomatic alternatives to the US-led global, neoliberal order. During his historic speech at the 2023 Russia-Africa Summit, President of Burkina Faso, Ibrahim Traore, highlighted the ‘paradox of plenty’ and captured the rationale for the rise of BRICS: how can Africa, a continent so abundant in natural resources be such a poor and hungry continent? This paradox is less confounding when situated within a historical narrative of brutal exploitation, oppression, and corruption. This is why the Global South seeks to break the stranglehold of Western hegemony.
Key issues from the Summit
BRICS have ambitious plans to dethrone the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency, a major discussion topic at the Summit. Brazilian President Lula da Silva has called for the establishment of a new South American currency. These plans have been criticised by the US. Chair of the US Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, argued that the “US dollar is the only serious candidate for the world’s principal reserve currency” due to the nation’s long history of democratic institutions, sufficiently liquid markets, and prevailing rule of law. BRICS will not accept this notion, unhappy with the US dollar’s weaponisation through sanctions and trade wars.
All BRICS members have either maintained neutrality over the Russo-Ukrainian War or are explicitly pro-Russia. At the Summit, Putin defended Russia's invasion of Ukraine, accentuating his desire to bring leaders of BRICS nations to the Kremlin’s side. In contrast, members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and leaders of the Western world, including Australia, have been vocal in their support of Ukraine. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has reiterated his government’s ongoing support and condemned Russia’s "brutal invasion". Ukraine’s recent push to become a member of NATO is particularly significant. If it were to join the intergovernmental military alliance consisting of European and North American member states, "an attack against one is an attack against all" and an Allied army would need to be deployed to the region. International reactions to the Russia-Ukraine conflict illustrate the sharp dichotomy between the Western world, under the banner of NATO, and the Global South, under the banner of BRICS.
What does this expansion mean?
The expansion of BRICS signals the end of the post-Cold War consensus and entry into an increasingly contested and multipolar world. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western liberalism was heralded as the “end of history”. Western liberal democracy was the supposed end point of mankind’s ideological evolution, with all other political philosophies consigned to the dustbin of history. The emergence of BRICS casts doubt on this assertion.
It would be a mistake for Australia to not engage with the outcomes of these BRICS summits. BRICS will continue to push for a multipolar world as they begin to flex their economic and social muscle. In such a globalised world, this geopolitical cataclysm will affect every facet of our lives: from investments, to the cost of imports, to the more existential threat of war. We cannot afford to cling to the unipolar order that once was. Many of our neighbours are part of the Global South; our foreign policy ought to engage with and accommodate for their concerns. Otherwise, we risk being left behind in the new world order.
Jude Holohan is a public servant who holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Melbourne majoring in Politics and International Relations.