1In the 1990s, the decade that followed the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the bipolar world based on the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, global governance seemed to be changed by the consolidation of multilevel multilateralism, including in the following regional organizations: the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Southern CONE Common Market (Mercosur), the African Union (AU), and the new European Union (EU) that followed the Maastricht Treaty (1992), as main examples. Did the gradual emergence of the BRICS change the rules of the game? Is this multipolarity in conflict with multilevel multilateral governance? One part of the literature emphasizes the commitment made to multilateralism at top-level meetings of the BRICS countries, most notably with regard to the United Nations and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Another segment of the international literature emphasizes the conflict between the sovereignist multipolarism of the new global power structure represented by the BRICS and the network of multilayered institutions. In reality, the BRICS are in the process of changing multilevel multilateralism.
2In this regard, China has announced it is in favor of multilateralism, has been a member of the WTO since 2001, and during this time, has supported East Asian regionalism. It has also created new regional organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in central Asia, ASEAN Plus One (with the 10 ASEAN countries), ASEAN Plus Three (with ASEAN, Japan, and South Korea), and ASEAN Plus Six (which adds India, Australia, and New Zealand), and it IS behind the large trade liberalization project, RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership). China is also a member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), which are inter-regional projects initiated by the United States (in 1994) and the EU (in 1996), respectively. In 1991, Brazil, along with Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, created the most important South American regional organization, Mercosur, and in 2004 launched the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) including all South American countries. Mercosur affirmed its democratic conditionality by suspending the fifth member, Venezuela, in 2017.
3Since it became a member in 2004, South Africa has, on the one hand, upended the rationale behind the Southern African Development Community (SADC), an organization born out of a desire to isolate the apartheid country, and which has since then been led in essence by Mandela’s country; on the other hand, it has supported the development of the African Union (AU), a pan-African organization backed originally by Gaddafi’s Libya, with the secretariat led by Mrs. Zuma, former South African minister of foreign affairs.
4India seems to be characterized by a more nationalist interpretation of its interests and lately, aside from its commitment to the ossified South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the country seems to want to become more involved in regional cooperation, participating in ASEAN Plus Six with China and other countries.
5Last but not least, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been seeking to reorganize the post-Soviet space, first with the Commonwealth of Independent States (1991) then, in 2014, with the new Eurasian Economic Union (EEU, formerly the Eurasian Economic Community, EAEC) including Kazakhstan, ARMENIA and Belarus, which also attracted other countries from the Caucasus and central Asia.
6Can we therefore conclude that the BRICS are acting in favor of regional cooperation with neighboring countries, a multi-purpose cooperation not merely related to trade? Russia clearly demonstrates the ambiguity of the BRICS regionalist approach. The war in Ukraine was caused, in part, by Ukraine’s refusal to become a part of the Eurasian Economic Union, which makes regional cooperation under Russian leadership comparable to the logic behind spheres of influence.
7The BRICS countries have not yet shown a clear commitment to multilateralism, which is founded on two principles: reciprocity and respect for the same rules by all members, whether large or small. In addition, the developments of what the literature called neo-regionalism in the 1990s accustomed us to a bottom-up type of regionalism, where civil society plays a pro-active and essential role, and where democratic rules are respected, which explains Mercosur’s initiative to suspend Venezuela, the EU’s action concerning violations of the rule of law in Hungary and Poland, and the pressure by ASEAN that led to the democratization of Myanmar. However, it is clear that the Eurasian Economic Union, the SCO, and other organizations related to emerging economies such as the Bolivian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), promoted by Venezuela and Cuba, or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) promoted by Saudi Arabia, are not following this trend toward democratization based on the major role played by civil society.
8We can thus conclude that the relations that the BRICS and emerging economies have with regional cooperation are ambiguous. On the one hand, they are in favor of this cooperation; on the other hand, they are characterized by a willingness to reorient regional cooperation through hierarchical internal organization and external competition, most notably with already existing regional organizations, thereby heralding a more unstable and controversial world.