BRICS+ and the future of the international order

This thought-provoking article by Elias Jabbour – associate professor of theory and policy of economic planning at Rio de Janeiro State University, and member of the Friends of Socialist China advisory group – explores the shifting dynamics of global power and the emergence of BRICS+ as a significant factor in the evolving international order. The article underlines the significance of China’s socialist development in particular – which has positioned it at the centre of a rising multipolar world – and an emerging “globalisation with Chinese characteristics” which promotes development, peace and common prosperity, in contrast to the enforced inequality and violence that characterise imperialist globalisation.

Elias notes the resurgence of the Global South as a key factor in the transformation of the international order, and the role of BRICS+ in this process. While the Global South is made up of “a heterogeneous set of countries, with differentiated levels of development”, these countries collectively “have the ability to converge on some fundamental issues for their own future, and for that of humanity itself.” Put in other words, the countries of the Global South have a shared interest in opposing imperialism, defending sovereignty and pursuing peaceful development. China stands at the centre of the process of uniting the countries of the Global South in promoting a multipolar, democratic and fair system of international relations.

The article also highlights the significance of the Belt and Road Initiative as a key component of China’s global strategy, and the potential for BRI to transform the global economic landscape by promoting infrastructure development, economic integration, and a shift away from the financialised neoliberal model associated with the US.

Elias discusses the disastrous consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the concurrent global imposition of neoliberalism. On the other hand, the US’s moment of triumph did not last long, and the last decade and a half have witnessed “the erosion of the ability to reinvent capitalism due to financialisation and the emergence of a socialist country (China) as an economic power whose path reflects nothing of the neoliberal recipes sold by the IMF and the World Bank have contributed to the acceleration of a systemic transition, in which a new globalisation centered on China is only its greatest expression.”

In conclusion, the article argues that the political future of BRICS+ and the broader Global South is intricately linked to China’s trajectory and its ability to offer a developmental model that counters neoliberalism. It suggests that the global struggle against underdevelopment and for independence is gaining momentum, with BRICS+ playing a pivotal role in shaping a more equitable global order.

This article first appeared in Geopolitical Economy Report.

The emergence and rise of new poles of power to the detriment of existing ones is nothing new in history. Since the 18th century, there have been countless examples of transitions in international hegemony. This accelerated with the emergence of industrial capitalism in England, which was more advanced than the Portuguese and Spanish commercial capitalism that for centuries had dominated much of the world, especially Latin America.

Even the capitalist dynamic inaugurated by England has characteristics that are not unfamiliar to economic historians with great theoretical and conceptual rigor.

Well known is Vladimir Lenin’s discovery of the uneven nature of the development of nations and the tendency of the most developed countries to lose dynamism while others begin to enjoy what economist Alexander Gerschenkron called the “advantages of backwardness”.

So the international order cannot be observed, from a historical point of view, as a march where countries change positions like in a military parade.

The emergence of monopolistic capitalism brought with it the tendency toward war, for example. We have witnessed two great world wars where the center of the dispute was world power, with results that consolidated new political actors on the international stage, mainly the United States.

A new systemic transition

I start from the historical principle that reality has shown Lenin to be correct, regarding the uneven development of the system and the tendency toward stagnation in the developed centers. These processes open spaces of power in the world.

I also say that we will have little to offer in terms of explanation for the future if we do not relate the transformation of the United States into a unified continental economy at the end of the 19th century, and its impacts on the development of the international capitalist system, with what we have witnessed in China over the past decades: the emergence of a unified continental economy in the third-largest country in the world, which is generating huge impacts on the international political economy – and is still little investigated by so-called experts.

This is a fundamental point when we want to develop a sophisticated thinking about the BRICS+ and the future of the international order. I will return to this point.

On the other hand, we are witnessing a new wave of systemic transition today. This time, there is the emergence of new poles of global power on one side, while on the other there is an accelerated stage of political, social, moral, and economic decomposition of a hegemonic power: the United States of America.

It is interesting to note that the new order that is emerging is itself the product of the order created by the United States after World War II, which accelerated in the late 1970s with the rise of neoliberalism, and especially after the end of the Soviet Union.

Globalization led by the powerful finance of the United States was a reality that transformed the economic geography of the world, but which is eroding within its own limits. Since the moment when financialization became the dominant dynamic of accumulation in capitalism, and neoliberalism won hearts and minds around the globe, the world has entered a spiral of greater instability and unpredictability.

Since the 1990s, financial crises have become recurrent – at the same time as countries that have designed national development projects outside the precepts of the Washington Consensus have been gaining greater space in the world.

Interestingly, China and India, two countries that became independent in the late 1940s, have gone from being miserably poor countries to great economies. The two together correspond to 51% of the world’s economic growth today.

Russia, too, is reconstituting itself with a state capitalism as an atomic, energy, and military power, after the brutal fall in its GDP following the end of the Soviet Union. Russia is beginning to reoccupy lost spaces in the world. Its previous energy integration with Europe and now transition toward growing economic and technological integration with China reinforces its position of regional power.

Despite following a contradictory path in the last 40 years, Brazil has managed to establish itself as a central country in the southern hemisphere of the world.

The African continent has undergone a new process of independence in the last 20 years, largely due to China’s economic presence, in contrast to the old colonial powers. New anti-colonial revolts such as those in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger are proliferating on the continent, as China and Russia present themselves as progressive alternatives compared to the West’s historic relations with Africa.

The formation of the so-called BRICS follows this historical logic of the functioning of capitalism, with its tendency toward the cyclical emergence of alternative poles of power in relation to the dynamic center of the international economy.

This trend accelerated with the international financial crisis of 2008, where there was an apparent inability of central capitalist countries to manage the crisis in a way that would overcome the impasse created by financialization.

Simultaneously, the tendency of the United States to lose influence over the international economy has led to a contradictory movement in which the hegemonic country breaks the rules it itself created.

Hence, the globalization nurtured by the United States is declining as a cause and consequence of its own protectionism, the use of the dollar as a weapon of financial mass destruction, and the widespread breakdown of global value chains exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The impasse we are witnessing in the world today is reflected in global governance institutions, such as the United Nations, which are increasingly impotent in the face of facts. And the emergence of new weighty actors in the global economy is making the institutions formed under Bretton Woods obsolete, incapable of meeting the new demands of a global order that is emerging amidst the old.

Thus, there arises a so-called Global South that can become a large international market capable of operating – starting with energy markets and local currencies.

Currency swap agreements between China and other Asian economies, for example, have created a large local payment system that already dispenses with the use of the dollar.

Historical rivals such as the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have not only resumed diplomatic relations, but also become part of the BRICS in its new composition, consolidated at the bloc’s 2023 summit in South Africa.

It has been remarkable to see the contours of what has been called the “Global South”, a heterogeneous set of countries, with differentiated levels of development, located outside the Atlantic axis, but which have the ability to converge on some fundamental issues for their own future, and for that of humanity itself.

The political future of the BRICS+ is increasingly related to the persistent search for convergence of this group of countries, and of the “Global South” as a whole.

It is interesting to note that, after the international financial crisis and the exposure of Western hypocrisy across the board, what has resurfaced is the centrality of the struggle for the right to development – a struggle that was so present in anti-colonial struggles, and which found its brightest representatives in the Soviet Union and China.

The “Global South” and particularly Africa have experienced a new wave of struggle for independence, against neocolonialism.

This means that the political future of the BRICS+ is also related to the way this type of global struggle against misery and underdevelopment will occur.

Another kind of globalization?

Another fundamental element to understand our common future is the emergence of another kind of globalization.

The chancellor of the People’s Republic of China, Wang Yi, stated:

Our circle of friends will always be in the Third World. Remember: developed countries in the West will not call us to play and, in their eyes, will always have a ‘superiority complex’. The West will always despise our values and consider China ‘backward’. In the eyes of Westerners, there will always be ‘differences between the East and the West’. Don’t think you can integrate into the Western world, nor think naively that you can.

On October 18, a large meeting was held to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative. Many heads of state and government from the Global South were present at the event, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s presence alongside his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping was highlighted at various moments of the summit.

There are a series of questions that must be answered by intellectuals interested in the change of dynamics that marks our historical moment.

One of these involves so-called globalization, its decline, or the emergence of another kind of globalization, particularly in the context of Eurasia and China.

In September 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the general guidelines for what was then called the Economic Belt of the Silk Road, currently the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Since then, 154 countries have formally joined the project, with about US$1 trillion already invested in almost every continent of the globe.

Ten years after the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, the world is facing a series of discussions, including that of a so-called “deglobalization” – accelerated by historic US protectionist policies and an attempt to block China from the global market for semiconductor supplies.

This process has brought fissures to the pre-existing pattern of globalization, but does it mean the beginning of “deglobalization”?

The type of globalization birthed by the United States after World War II has gained other contours and “financialized”, especially since the 1970s. This is dragging the world – and China in particular – toward new institutional milestones of all kinds, with new territorial arrangements based on the speed at which capital flows in and out of countries and the reorganization of the planet’s industrial geography.

An extended period of low inflation in the US became synonymous with “Made in China”. What US policymakers never imagined is that the man who included China in the capitalist world economy had previously been a hero of the Long March, not one of their appointees in South Korea or Japan. We are referring here to Deng Xiaoping.

In about 40 years, financialization has eroded the US’s ability to periodically reinvent itself. Its seemingly unbeatable military machine has been tested more times in a decade than in the entire Cold War. And this has contrasted with a society increasingly fractured by social inequality.

At the same time, with each new financial crisis, the distance between China and the United States has decreased.

In the last four decades, China has built “three immense machines”:

  • a machine for constructing exchange values (transforming China into a world machine),
  • a financial machine (transforming China into the world’s largest net creditor), and
  • a machine for constructing use values (in 20 years, China has built 42,000 km of high-speed trains and has become the largest exporter of public goods in infrastructure in human history).

It is at this point that we should question the narrative of so-called “de-globalization”.

Is there a new kind of globalization is taking place? One with China as a promoter, based on incorporating Russia as a sovereign part of its economic networks and the physical integration of the world with infrastructure, based on large productive capacity, based on public banks (creators of fiduciary currency), with greater protagonism for regional powers such as South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia, and perhaps Brazil.

On the other hand, if there is a “globalization with Chinese characteristics”, and if any globalization process can also be defined by the values shared by the gravitational pole, what can we expect from a Chinese globalization?

Social sciences and humanities do not have test laboratories like the hard sciences. Therefore, many answers lie in the field of history.

In this sense, given the weight exerted by China’s productive (non-financialized) economy in the world, this new “globalization” will redesign an international division of labor, to the extent that China begins to export its prosperity.

This export is already taking place to a certain extent, to the extent that a country is able to plan its economy on the basis of the trends created by China. That is one point.

Another point is multipolarity. The Chinese are not interested in the burden of being a hegemon. But they are interested in polarizing the debate on global governance.

China has launched three major “Global Initiatives”:

  • (i) global development,
  • (ii) global security, and
  • (iii) global civilization.

We can say that Chinese governance is rethinking the principles of the famous Bandung Conference of 1955, with the addition of the “internationalization of factors”, by placing responsibility for safeguarding a world marked by multiple tensions in the field of the Global South.

Here is to be found a dialectical relationship between the future, BRICS+ and the Global South.

The centrality of China

The end of the Soviet Union brought several negative consequences to the world that are still felt today:

  1. the transformation of neoliberalism into the “only possible way out”;
  2. the regression of social and labor rights around the world;
  3. the multiplication of military interventions by the United States, and its militarized Keynesianism, on a scale never seen even during the Cold War; and
  4. the resurgence of fascism and Nazism in the international political horizon.

On the other hand, the erosion of the ability to reinvent capitalism due to financialization and the emergence of a socialist country (China) as an economic power whose path reflects nothing of the neoliberal recipes sold by the IMF and the World Bank have contributed to the acceleration of a systemic transition, in which a new globalization centered on China is only its greatest expression.

It is worth remembering that one of the consequences of the conflict in Ukraine was not only a greater challenge to the order based on the dollar as a reserve currency for various financial operations, but also an incorporation of Russia into Chinese economic territory. This is not an annexation or economic colonization, but the beginning of the realization of a Eurasian project based on exchanges at all levels, from energy to high technology, and mediated by hundreds of joint projects involving the investment of hundreds of billions of dollars.

This is made possible by China’s central position in the international credit market, the role of its domestic demand, and the immense potential held by the Russian Federation that goes far beyond its natural reserves.

China’s export of its prosperity also occurs with the possibility opened for the industrialization and re-industrialization of various countries. The cases of Argentina, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, and others are suggestive, where value could be added to primary products, with help from Chinese companies.

In short, the political future of the BRICS+ and the Global South depends greatly on the future of China and how its domestic challenges are being faced.

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