Navigating between expansion and consolidation: The BRICS conundrum


The BRICS summit currently underway in South Africa has sparked remarkable international interest, far exceeding the typical attention such gatherings attract. Several intriguing questions have fueled this global curiosity over the past couple of months. The allure of the BRICS meeting becomes clear as this is the first in-person high-level summit since the 2019 Brasilia summit in Brazil. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the host of this event, is committed to magnifying its scale and prestige. His invitation extends to leaders from 67 countries, including 53 African states and others such as Bangladesh, Bolivia, Indonesia, Iran, alongside heads of influential international organizations.

Despite the uncertainties leading up to the event and the preparatory ambiguities, the focal point of the 15th BRICS summit is the anticipated deliberations on new members. Historically, BRICS has approached expansion cautiously, having added only one member since its inception in 2009. This contrasts with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which has considerably expanded its membership. However, recently, a surge of membership inquiries and applications has emerged from diverse corners of the world. With over two dozen nations seeking to join, the South African summit could serve as a pivotal juncture in BRICS’ history.

For any multilateral entity, expansion entails both opportunities and challenges. Broadening membership enhances representativeness and legitimacy. Many BRICS leaders proudly note that their community encompasses over a quarter of the world’s territory, GDP, and over two-fifths of the global population. The addition of more major Global South nations would amplify BRICS’ impressiveness. Adversaries of BRICS recognize the implications of this enlargement, leading the US to advise its partners in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa against pursuing BRICS membership.

However, broadening’s advantages come with inherent complexities. Increased diversity within the group often spawns more disagreements, making consensus on sensitive and divisive issues more challenging. Simultaneously, proponents of deepening the existing relationships and cooperation within BRICS emerge. Deepening entails strengthening the bonds among the existing members, rather than expanding by inviting new ones. While the G7 hasn’t considered new members since expelling Russia in 2014, it has actively worked on enhancing its cooperation infrastructure to engage others on an ad hoc basis.

Since its 2006 launch, BRICS may not qualify as a fully-fledged multilateral organization with a formal charter, detailed procedures, a permanent headquarters, or an operational budget. However, initiatives like the New Development Bank, the Contingent Reserve Arrangement, the BRICS Business Council, and the BRICS Academic Forum have proven successful. Advocates of deepening prioritize bolstering the group’s institutional capacity. They suggest “BRICS+” as an alternative to expansion, where the five core members function as a hub and numerous partners as spokes, creating an adaptable platform for countries, blocs, or regions to align with their specific needs.

Yet, focusing solely on deepening can breed exclusivity and resentment among those left out. Sometimes, the excluded attempt to form their own alternatives. Notably, following BRICS’ launch, an informal alliance of middle powers (MIKTA) emerged, aiming to provide counterbalancing ideas and proposals for G20 agendas.

The choice between broadening and deepening isn’t necessarily binary for BRICS, neither at the Johannesburg summit nor beyond. A balanced approach could involve gradual membership expansion while concurrently enhancing the group’s institutional capacity. This approach aims to blur the line between BRICS members and partners. The future of international multilateralism seems poised for flexible coalitions of the willing, defined by project-based collaborations, departing from the rigid blocs of the 20th century.


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