The BRICS, an ignored area
1 This issue originated from a fundamental question: Why do the BRICS—a group made up of countries very present on the international scene, namely, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—seem to draw so little attention, at least in the Western world, and particularly in France? There are in fact very few studies dedicated specifically to the BRICS that grant them major importance. This issue will contribute to filling in this gap.
2 The gap is particularly puzzling given that the BRICS want to become much more than simply an association of countries linked by economic interests. The European Union may serve as a comparison: the BRICS are also seeking to establish a project that would be not only economic, but also political, even societal, given that one of its stated ambitions is to serve as an alternative to the Western model.
3 The second reason that led to the creation of this Hermès issue consequently involves examining the degree to which the BRICS’s political project is, or is not, viable. Can we really say that it falls in line with the Bandung Conference which, in 1955, marked the emergence of the movement of non-aligned nations, bringing together countries that refused to become dependent either on the Western bloc, led by the United States, or the Eastern bloc, led by the former Soviet Union? What about today, during the era of globalization? Stated in this way, the question clearly needs to be considered.
4 There is, however, a third, even more fundamental question that will serve as a guideline for the entire issue, namely, communication. In carrying out their project, the BRICS countries clearly face a major obstacle: their extensive differences. It is difficult to imagine a more disparate group at the global level, whether in terms of geography, economy, politics, society, or culture. Here again, we can make a comparison with the European Union, which is also facing major difficulties, but is much more homogeneous. How can the BRICS project have the slightest chance of succeeding with such a disparate group? And yet, this project truly exists and thus needs to be taken seriously (which does not mean it should not face criticism, on the contrary), since it is coming from a space that simply cannot be ignored during this time of globalization.
Three billion inhabitants, 40 percent of worldwide GDP in 2030
5 The term BRIC appeared for the first time in 2001, and the S for South Africa was added ten years later, in 2011. Let us recall the facts. Jim O’Neill, who was working at the time as an economist at Goldman Sachs, one of the largest American investment banks in the world, published an article entitled: Building Better Global Economic BRICs (O’Neill 2001). He started with the following statement, which marked a turning point in the world economy: “In 2001 and 2002, real GDP growth in large emerging market economies will exceed that of the G7” (O’Neill 2001, 1). The G7 represented what has come to be called the “West,” that is, the United States, Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Canada. Among the emerging countries he indicated, four were at the top: Brazil, Russia, India, and China, which he grouped under the acronym BRIC for convenience. His reasoning was as follows: because economically, the BRICs were catching up with and overtaking the G7 countries, it would be good for them to join, in some way or another, the G7, which, reduced to a G5 (Europe represented solely by the United Kingdom, with France and Italy being shown the door—which, in retrospect, is of interest in this era of Brexit), could then join the four BRIC countries and become the G9: “Looking at each of Brazil, Russia, India and China, the case for the inclusion of China is overwhelming. The case for the other three is less clear-cut, but in many of our scenarios for the future makeup of the world economy, the case for the inclusion of all three is at least as strong as Canada, and in some ways, as strong as Italy” (O’Neill 2001, 10). The goal was to establish better governance of the world economy, even though Jim O’Neill made it clear that there was an extreme disparity between the countries grouped together under the same acronym: “Clearly, the four countries under consideration are very different economically, socially and politically, and incorporating all four of them into a G7 style club might not be straightforward (although the existing G20 meetings are arguably an extended club version of this proposal) and as we have discussed already, the case based on economic criteria is strongest for China, and less for the others” (O’Neill 2001, 10).
6 The G20 had recently been created, in the wings of the G7 summit on September 25, 1999, in Washington. It brought together twenty countries (including those of the G7), with the European Union counting as one. The BRICs came about due to Jim O’Neill’s analysis, even though the countries in question had not yet in any way formed a group: their first summit would not take place until 2009.
7 The BRICs, which became BRICS, now definitely exist, and their economic strength has only increased as predicted by Jim O’Neill. Today, it is estimated that by 2030 they will represent three billion inhabitants and 40 percent of worldwide GDP. The economic importance of the BRICS thus cannot be ignored. Whether they can become more than a purely economic group is still an open question, provided it is not ignored.
The construction of an alternative project to the Western model
8 The BRICS have gone well beyond what Jim O’Neill imagined. First, they have sought to organize themselves into a group, instead of joining the G7 or of being satisfied with acting within the framework of the G20. From this point of view, the BRICS follow in the wake of the Bandung Conference in 1955, during which an alliance of “third-world” countries declared themselves as “non-aligned” (most notably Egypt, India, Indonesia, China, and many African countries) with the two dominant powers of the time.
9 It was in Russia, in Yekaterinburg, that the inaugural summit of the BRICS took place in 2009, after a long diplomatic journey. The date was not insignificant. It was in the midst of the most serious global financial crisis since the Great Depression of 1929, which against all expectations was again started by the United States, beginning in 2007. The effects then spread to the rest of the world. The BRICS were first seeking to establish an economic alternative to the crises that were, according to them, originating in the Western world. What Jim O’Neill wanted was for emerging powers to participate in the G7, which would allow for better regulation of the global economy. However, the BRICS were in actual fact at odds with this view: they did not join the G7, which was the source of the disruptions throughout the world, but instead, through their union, sought to become a force that would serve as a counterweight to the disruptions to the global economy caused by the West.
10 This is the reason why, at India’s initiative, the BRICS decided to create the BRICS Development Bank, now called the New Development Bank (NDB). It is a kind of global bank at the service of emerging countries, for whom the BRICS want to serve as spokespersons.
11 The BRICS are not only seeking to become economic powers, but also to act on the global economy. Their project is thus equally political and even geopolitical: the inclusion of South Africa, a regional instead of global power (as is the case with China, for instance), is a prime example. This integration has allowed the BRICS to spread to an additional continent, Africa. Inspired by the spirit of Bandung, the BRICS aim to fight against a unipolar world order, one that seems to have been established after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, a world under Western dominance with the United States taking the lead, a dominance that is first economic.
12 After the 2007–2008 financial crisis, the BRICS project thus involved proposing a more just world order, which Western countries, representing the richest countries on the planet, were not able to provide. From that point, their project took on a completely different dimension: it was no longer just economic or political, but also cultural, even societal. In summit after summit held by the BRICS countries, this broadened perspective has become even more prominent. This is also what has made the BRICS the target of much criticism.
13 It is indeed easy to point out the obstacles faced by such a project, which many consider as insurmountable. First of all, even at the economic level, the difficulties are significant: how can countries as diverse as Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa agree in this area, even amongst themselves, when each one’s interests are so different? Even supposing they can be successful, which is far from certain, how can they lead the other emerging countries, whose interests also diverge?
14 But let us imagine that the BRICS succeed in creating an alternative model to an economy dominated by the West. How would they be able to accomplish this from a political point of view? What do the regimes and political institutions of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa have in common?
15 If we take the case of the European project as a comparison—which is often done—, the difficulties seem even more striking. The European Union has been and is currently faced with internal tensions of all kinds, but it represents a much more homogeneous group from a geographical, economic, political, and cultural perspective.
16 Some may then view the BRICS project as either an unrealizable utopia, or a complete work of fiction dreamed up by the BRICS that they themselves do not believe in, because the only goal of this project is to serve their own interests in the short, medium, and long term.
17 It is possible, naturally, to opt for one or the other of these interpretations, and the articles in this issue contain very diverse analyses. We still do not have sufficient distance from a history still being made before our eyes, so therefore preferred to explore as many paths as possible, without seeking to provide definitive unilateral answers.
The future of the BRICS
18 It is due to the BRICS’s extreme heterogeneity that today people do not really consider them to be a coherent group with any chance of affecting the world’s future. Our goal was not to provide an unequivocal answer to the question of whether or not the BRICS represent a real alternative to the Western model, or to decide whether one day this will happen. In our view, this needed to remain an open question, for essentially two reasons, which are however connected.
19 First, for the European Union, which emerged out of the immediate post-war, we have a distance of a good sixty years (the Treaty of Rome was established in 1957). Such is not the case for the BRICS which, by contrast, are still in the early stages, or at least in a much less advanced phase than the European Union. Second, opinions on the future of the BRICS are mixed, especially because their concrete accomplishments remain in large part at the project stage. On the one hand, some consider that the BRICS, due to their heterogeneous nature, have no chance of becoming an alternative to the Western model. Some go so far as to say that they have no other purpose except to promote their own interests. On the other hand, there are those who believe that the BRICS are a counterweight that is viable, necessary, and welcome for the world’s future.
20 This issue is based on a conviction expressed and shared by all of its contributors, which is that the future of the BRICS, regardless of their future form, depends on the matter of communication. The sources of miscommunication and thus of rupture, are in fact directly proportional to the very real heterogeneity of countries as diverse as Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, from a geographical (discontinuity of their borders, straddling four continents), economic, political, societal, or cultural point of view.
The development of this issue
Some will also be surprised to occasionally find texts that differ from the university publications that they are used to. This should not be seen as a lack of academic rigor (or worse, of incompetence) or as a deliberate attempt at provocation (questionable at best), but instead as an opportunity for other points of view to be expressed that would otherwise be left out. This issue could no doubt have been more polished, more “readable,” but it would not have shown as clearly how the topic is being covered in other countries, most notably among the specialists from the BRICS countries. In addition, it would have deprived this issue of its essential characteristic. Therefore, we chose not to do so.
21 In a recent interview, Jim O’Neill points out that the BRICS have gone well beyond his predictions: “Sixteen years later the BRICS share of global GDP (gross domestic product) is bigger than every scenario I projected” (O’Neill 2017). He focuses essentially on the economic aspect and predicts that the future of the BRICS will continue to be assured for the long term, contrary to what he has heard elsewhere. But the key point is that he no longer ignores the political dimension as he used to. It was in this regard that he expressed doubts concerning the presence of South Africa alongside the other BRICS members: “China creates another South Africa (economically) every six months, how on earth can South Africa be economically in the same class?” (O’Neill 2017). Today, in his estimation, South Africa no longer seems like an anomaly within the group, so long as it is viewed at a political level: “Politically, it is very important that South Africa is part of BRICS” (O’Neill 2017).
22 This issue was developed based on this change in focus, and in our consideration, the economic aspect, while not entirely without interest (we would not be talking about the BRICS countries if their economic weight were insignificant), was in the end the least interesting. Our attention has above all been centered on the political, cultural, societal, and communication dimension, which tends to be ignored due to the heterogeneous nature of the BRICS. This dimension is however by far the most important. It is also the most complex and least predictable.
23 To raise the question of the BRICS clearly means asking about political and cultural diversity in the present era of globalization, as well as in the future. The sources of miscommunication are increasing as the number of players grows due to the rising power of new emerging countries. This issue thus seeks to tackle a central challenge facing contemporary society in all of its complexity and from as many different perspectives as possible, because this is the nature of the subject itself.