The Corners of the Multipolar World Order

Foreign Affairs

The BRICS countries seek to end the American unipolar moment.

Much has been written about South Africa, Brazil, India, China and China separately. Yet, surprisingly little attention has been given to the attempt by all emerging powers to establish ties within BRICS, an acronym that is crucial for understanding the multipolar 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.

While China was not considered a potential development power, it received little attention. 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.”

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But the world was already going through massive changes, and power had shifted from the North to the 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. This crisis was the turning point in international economics and investors’ attention to BRICS.

The legitimacy crisis faced the international financial system because of the failures of developing countries to manage the aftermath to the downturn. 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 main objective of the bloc has been to encourage a transition from the Western-led system for global governance to an inclusive model of multipolarity. This could be used as an alternative to U.S.-hegemonic unilateralism.

“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.”

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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. Approval was given to intra-bloc relations as a “strategic partner” and the importance of the United Nations and reform of its Security Council and Bretton Woods institutions.

Notably, Beijing also presented the “BRICS+” idea at the summit. This has opened up the possibility for cooperation between non-member countries and provided a foundation for a true “collective leadership .”

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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 is obvious that BRICS must be taken seriously. It is losing its dominant status as the West’s largest power. However, power like India and China have emerged as the dominant players in the world’s decision-making process, making them less Westernized and more ideologically diverse.

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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 countries are laying the foundations for a multipolar order in the world where sovereign entities and international law co-manage the system. This is genuinely democratic.

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