The Corners of the Multipolar World Order
The BRICS nations seek to shape the end of the American unipolar moment.
Much has been said about Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa separately. Still, remarkably little attention has been paid to the joint attempt to institutionalize the emerging powers' ties in BRICS—an acronym crucial to understanding the multipolar framework of the emerging world order.
Although the acronym initially served to address investment objectives, economist Jim O’Neill—who coined BRIC, without South Africa, in a 2001 paper—admitted in a 2013 interview for Der Spiegel magazine that he was perfectly aware of the impact the new country players' emergence would have on global governance.
The geopolitical debate in the years after the 9/11 attacks focused on terrorism and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan instead of the rise of BRICS. This created a false assumption that there is no alternative to the U.S.-led unipolar world order, which was quite ironically described in 1999 by Dartmouth’s William Wohlforth as “not only peaceful but durable.”
The same year, Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington described the global order in an essay for Foreign Affairs magazine as “unimultipolar,” where the United States plays the role of “the lonely superpower” with “the reach and capabilities to promote its interests in virtually every part of the world,” but which sometimes needs smaller countries’ help to achieve its foreign-policy goals.
Meanwhile, no serious thought was given to China’s development potential. The country’s prospect of becoming a significant regional and international power was thought to be almost nonexistent; Wohlforth and his Dartmouth colleague Stephen G. Brooks, for example, questioned Beijing’s ability to keep up with the U.S. in the technology development area in a 2002 Foreign Affairs magazine’s essay titled “American Primacy in Perspective.”
But by that time, the world had been already undergoing massive change, with power rapidly shifting away from the global North to the global South. The global system has been steadily moving towards a “Post-American World” or a “Post-Western World”—both of which capture the same geopolitical phenomenon, relating to what Amitav Acharya in 2014 called “the end of American world order.”
The single event that did the most to catalyze the multipolarization trend was the U.S.'s subprime-mortgage crisis from 2007 to 2010. The crisis marked the moment when a growing number of international investors and economists started to take BRICS more seriously.
Due to developing countries’ governance failures in response to the recession, the international financial order faced a legitimacy crisis. BRICS economies increased their intra-bloc cooperation in international finance and successfully established themselves as new pillars of stability in the world economy, with the nations enjoying an average annual economic growth of 10.7 percent from 2006 to 2008.
Since then, the bloc’s primary objective has been to promote a shift from the Western-led global governance system to a more inclusive paradigm of multipolarity that could serve as an alternative to the U.S.-hegemonic unipolar model.
“We underline our support for a more democratic and just multi-polar world order based on the rule of international law, equality, mutual respect, cooperation, coordinated action and collective decision-making of all states,” reads the Joint Statement of the BRIC Countries’ Leaders, published at its 2009 meeting in Yekaterinburg. This position regarding multipolarity has been maintained throughout the following years.
Despite the initial disbelief in BRICS’s effectiveness and cohesion among Western commentators, the Financial Times finally admitted in 2014 that “shifts in global economic power suggest that changes in institutional power may be logical—or even inevitable.”
Following the BRICS summit in China in 2017, members published the Xiamen Declaration, which laid out a 68-point manifesto for a multipolar world order aimed at replacing Pax Americana. The “strategic partnership” status of intra-bloc relations was approved, and the centrality of the United Nations, the need to reform the UN Security Council, and Bretton Woods institutions were reaffirmed.
Notably, at the same summit, Beijing came up with the idea known as “BRICS+” that has paved the way for the bloc’s cooperation with non-member states and created a solid base for a truly “collective leadership.”
Get weekly emails in your inbox
As the recent BRICS forum proved, more and more countries are becoming interested in cooperating with the bloc, with Middle East and Latin American nations keeping a close eye on the group of emerging economies, and Argentina and Iran already desiring to become full members. Both China and Russia appear to look favorably at BRICS enlargement as a way “to embrace changes and keep abreast with the times,” and have said they look forward to clarifying “the guiding principles, standards, criteria and procedures" of the enlargement process.
The BRICS nations account for more than 40 percent of the Earth’s population. Their collective GDP amounts to 25 percent of global GDP ($21 trillion), and the nations' share in world trade was close to 20 percent ($6.7 trillion) in 2020. It should be obvious that BRICS is a force to be reckoned with. The dominant position of the Western powers is eroding. In contrast, powers like China and India have come to the fore, making the global decision-making elite less Western and ideologically more diverse.
As Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro rightly noted, “the growing weight of the emerging economies in the world requires a proper representation.” This process is organic and irreversible. It is represents an order in which the U.N. and G20 are given preference over NATO and the G7 group. The BRICS nations are laying the foundations of a multipolar world order that is genuinely democratic, where states act as sovereign entities co-managing the international system through international law rather than under a hegemonic “rules-based order.”