Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
For many years, a set of black-and-white photos of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai meeting various leaders from Nasser to Nehru at the 1955 Asian-African summit in Bandung, Indonesia, hung prominently in the bar of the old Beijing Hotel near Tiananmen Square. The images were meant to evoke an air of nostalgia when sipping a Bombay Sapphire cocktail for that hopeful era of great ambition and aspiration by the postcolonial nations which, finally freed from oppression, sought to put their stamp on the world order.
The declarations from the Bandung conclave, when a scattering of countries such as Algeria still remained under colonial rule, rang with the strident rhetoric of the weak against the strong. They insisted on the core principles of political self-determination, mutual respect for sovereignty, and equality as the condition for raising up their impoverished populations to the level of the West that had long dominated their destinies. Wary of imperial interventions or being pressed as pawns into the great game of the new superpowers, the admonition of non-aggression and non-interference in internal affairs was the sine qua non of international relations for these fledgling states.
Nostalgia notwithstanding, the Bandung Conference didn’t do much to advance the participants’ aims since, at that time, they lacked the economic clout, military might, diplomatic savvy and collective organizational capacity to realize their claims.
Nearly 70 years on, mainly due to China’s long march to the top ranks of the global economy and its frontline role in contesting the Western worldview, that wherewithal is, at last, at hand. This was in full evidence at the BRICS summit held late last month in Johannesburg, South Africa, where the original core membership of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa was expanded to include the mixed bag of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Ethiopia, Argentina and Iran. In the future, others will be invited to join.
Back in the Bandung days, the U.S. alone accounted for nearly 50% of global GDP. Today, the BRICS+ countries together account for 37% of the world economy (projected to reach 50% by 2040), compared to 30% for the global West. And they represent 46% of the planet’s population and growing, compared to that of the G7 nations, which stand at less than 10%, and declining.
Inhabit, Don’t Supplant, The Rules-Based Order
As if by rote posture, the BRICS summit rehearsed, sometimes verbatim, the long-ago lingo from Bandung. Despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Johannesburg declaration expressed “concern about the use of unilateral coercive measures, which are incompatible with the principles of the Charter of the UN.” That is either a good sign intended to restrain anyone else tempted to mimic Putin’s aggression or it is a bad sign that the stated principles are only the empty window-dressing of a false consensus. None of the nations at the summit have condemned the invasion outright.
But most significantly, the BRICS countries signaled their intention not to supplant the multilateral institutions established after World War II by the mostly Western victors of that conflict, but inhabit them anew on their own terms. What comes to mind here is the old revolutionary playbook of capturing the periphery and surrounding the metropole in preparation for entering and occupying it.
The final communique declared its “commitment to enhancing and improving global governance by promoting a more agile, effective, efficient, representative, democratic and accountable international and multilateral system” with “greater representation of emerging markets and developing countries, in international organizations and multilateral fora in which they play an important role.”
The declaration continued with some specificity: “We support a comprehensive reform of the UN, including its Security Council, with a view to making it more democratic, representative, effective and efficient, and to increase the representation of developing countries in the Council’s memberships so that it can adequately respond to prevailing global challenges and support the legitimate aspirations of emerging and developing countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America.”
The group further called for “the open, transparent, fair, predictable, inclusive, equitable, non-discriminatory and rules-based multilateral trading system with the World Trade Organization (WTO) at its core” as well as for “increases in the quota shares of emerging markets and developing economies” in the IMF and a greater role, “including in leadership positions in the Bretton Woods institutions.”
The mortar that binds the BRICS+ is not some internally cohesive ideology. Rather, the common denominator is resentment of, and resistance to, the continued dominance of the global West in setting the rules of world order despite the hefty presence of the rising rest. In short, this premier platform for the Global South is seen by those present at its creation as a righteous counterweight to the G7, which U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan calls “the steering committee of the free world.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision not to personally attend the G20 summit in New Delhi suggests that these two competing blocs will become the main players, which will no longer seek some sort of reconciliation in one common global forum.
Some of the nations involved, such as South Africa, Brazil or Argentina, are “multi-aligned,” with one foot in each camp across current divides, instead of “non-aligned,” as the Bandung group defined itself. At this transitory moment, they seek both to maintain any beneficial links to the West while tacitly accepting China as the leader of the Global South.
Surely, there will be nationalist tensions within the BRICS+, just as there are within the G7 over cleantech subsidies and other issues. But such tensions are unlikely to break either apart, because both are constituted in these fraught times as a reflection of the other. The Global South is no more an illusion, as some claim, than the global West. Together, they create this new reality.
The Johannesburg summit marks a historic shift in the balance of power on the world stage in which the formerly dispossessed are mustering their collective weight to take over the very institutions of a “rules-based order” its hidebound custodians have been so vociferous in defending, and bend it to their benefit.
This challenge can no longer be ignored as it was in the Bandung era. The battleground for the next world order will be on the terrain of the present one.