7 November 2023

The BRICS and the expansion of the UN Security Council: A fierce Battle Ahead

The Brics and the expansion of the UN security council a fierce battle ahead
The Brics and the expansion of the UN security council a fierce battle ahead

The BRICS have been in the spotlight — to use a buzzword — in recent months and weeks. The expansion of this group or the accession of new members has captured the attention of politicians, experts, and laymen.

Neophytes in geopolitics have not been left out. If the candidacy for membership was obvious for some, it was different for others. Among the latter, state actors made their potential membership a matter of life and death. This is partly because they face a complex political situation hampered by their people’s high social expectations.

Would the BRICS be a new geopolitical configuration that could beat the United States and put an end to its dominance or even hegemony over the world? Would they be able in the next two decades to hinder the dollar, which remains the main currency of exchange for strategic raw materials, and thus change the rules of international trade and finance? Yet, how can the influential members of this grouping harm American supremacy given the fact that they are driven by the market economy logic that explains their ambitions to lead in terms of trade and finance?

I will not elaborate too much on the BRICS as such, but I will emphasize two dynamics that come out of the group’s founding members’ first intention back in 2009. On the one hand, I will emphasize the future relations of this grouping with the regional organizations to which the members belong, and on the other hand, I will concentrate much on their planned battle to secure permanent member status with respect to the expansion of the United Nations Security Council.

I would venture to make an adage by saying, “A hot pot is cold for neophytes, and it is always hot for those who keep it warm.” The BRICS started from a theoretical configuration that was intended to challenge unilateralism in international relations and clarify the incoherence of advocates of multilateralism who claim to be striving to make the international system more equitable.

Yet the widespread idea that the initiators of the BRICS initially used it as a weapon against American hegemony is a weak argument. In fact, the first four founders (Russia, China, India, and Brazil) sought above all to mark their immediate geopolitical spaces. The international financial crisis of 2008 gave them one more argument to fulfill such a challenging goal. However, the main motivation has been not to lose out in a choppy international system in transition.

As a matter of fact, the BRICS’ establishment expresses the members’ legitimate ambitions to secure a comfortable position on the regional political and economic chessboards. However, it is also worth mentioning that the BRICS reflect a series of losses of confidence in the traditional alliances based on ideology as an engine aimed at engaging in a dynamic and controlled balance of power in regional and international systems.

BRICS and strategic parity: maintaining a relative grip on regional living spaces

The loss of confidence is contagious. This is the reason why a nervous rush is witnessed in many countries’ behaviors when they claim their right to join the BRICS despite belonging to different geopolitical spaces. This rush is reminiscent of the Cold War orphans who ultimately found themselves facing the wall and left behind.

A set of observations are in order. First, the BRICS (which should choose another acronym because of the new membership incentives) are a heterogeneous grouping in terms of its composition, political and diplomatic culture, and the rational choices of its members. The BRICS is not an international organization guided by rules rooted in its charter.

Second, although it has an economic and financial dimension, the BRICS grouping has undeniable geopolitical ambitions. So much so that the latest expansion of the group reveals a clear concern to impact maritime routes and strategic landmarks (Suez Canal, Bab Al-Mandab Strait, Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Malacca, and Strait of Magellan). However, these ambitions can only be effectively realized on the ground for the next two to three decades.

Third, unless there are reasonable safeguards, the present and future composition of the BRICS already contains the seeds of its potential loss of momentum. One of the pitfalls that will soon arise is the hierarchy of actors and the rule of consensus that governs relations between its members. 

Russia, China, and India, which are already influential members in other regional organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), will use their power to consolidate their economic and political ascendancy over the BRICS. With the accession of Iran, the other member of the SCO, the situation will only become more complex.

The same applies to Brazil and Argentina, influential members of MERCOSUR. If Argentina’s selection was motivated by the food security argument, Brazil’s role in this selection has another, even more pragmatic and subtle motive, as will be argued when examining the issue of the reform of the United Nations Security Council.

Fourth, the explanation that the philosophy behind the BRICS establishment is to achieve geopolitical balancing through the admission of countries with endemic conflicts is attractive, but it cannot be convincing in the long run.

On the one hand, if for countries like China or India the logic is rather mercantile, it is different for Russia and South Africa, for example. And the situation will be even more problematic in light of the recent invitation to new members. On the other hand, the internal agenda of most current and future members should be taken into account.

This opinion might not be justified because a country such as Indonesia has not been selected. A diplomat familiar with Asian affairs believes that Indonesia would already be comfortable within ASEAN and would prefer to focus on this promising region as an attractive geopolitical option in even more promising spaces such as the Asia-Pacific. But Indonesia would have been kept for future BRICS’ membership.

However, ASEAN risks seeing its regional geopolitical ambitions limited by a possible rush by its members to join the BRICS. Vietnam is already on the list of potential candidates. But Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, or Thailand are likely to have the same ambitions.

Fifthly, the unanimity rule adopted for the selection of new members is a source of future tension. In regional subsystems known to be the scene of endemic conflicts, the veto of one of the BRICS members is likely to prevent the accession of new members. 

This could be the case with a possible candidacy for membership from Pakistan. This candidacy could be blocked by India or China because of their dichotomous positions on Jammu and Kashmir. For the record, past wars between China and India have not been erased from the collective memory of both countries.

Sixth, the United States let it happen, one might think, because it would have had no choice. This explanation is far-fetched to the extent that Washington opts for the policy of remote observation. The USA aims to achieve at least three objectives. The first objective, for the time being, would be to pull the ears of the Europeans who have engaged in a double game harmful to American interests towards Russia and China.

The second objective would be to take advantage of the euphoria of the new BRICS members in order to speed up the conclusion of a new nuclear agreement with Iran. Tehran would be open to such a deal, even at the highest level of the state.

Proof of this potential achievement is that the United States adopted the same approach following the break-up of the USSR and the launch of the Maastricht process leading to the creation of the European Union in 1993.

Moreover, most countries aspiring to become members of the BRICS place themselves in the logic of non-alignment, which has had its day. The most realistic of them are placed in the logic of a multipolar world where the balance of power would be attenuated in certain issues-areas, although it would not solve pending conflicts that have an existential dimension.

BRICS and the UN Security Council: Bending and Hierarchical Enlargement

Seventh, two arguments seem unbeatable that consolidate the likely longevity of the BRICS: energy security and food security. All these arguments will have to be verified when, in the coming weeks and months, the question of the enlargement of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is raised with the expected fever and expectations.

So much so that we must expect arm wrestling between members of the BRICS, especially those who had been included in the paradigm of the pivotal state, which was very fashionable in the late 1990s. This paradigm had, as a reminder, retained countries such as Brazil and Mexico in Latin America, India, Pakistan, Indonesia in Asia, South Africa, Egypt, Algeria in Africa, and Turkey to play the role of intermittent organizers of security and order in their respective geopolitical spaces.

Some of these countries have been suggested as potential candidates for permanent membership of the UN Security Council as part of the reform of the UN system. However, the idea of expanding the UNSC has evolved in recent years. Some permanent member countries, such as the United States and Russia, will encourage such an expansion. 

But both Washington and Moscow are constantly careful to make it clear that potential elected countries would not get the veto right. How does the abovementioned issue have to do with BRICS expansion? There are several possible explanations. First, the invitation of six new members (Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) to join the BRICS is a message to future candidate countries that the rule of precedence in their bid for a seat in the UN Security Council will be taken into account.

Argentina will be indebted to Brazil. Egypt will be indebted to South Africa. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Ethiopia are not mentioned as having expressed the willingness to seek a permanent seat in the UNSC.

What about Nigeria? The same explanation would apply. South Africa would have indirectly ruled Nigeria out as a potential rival candidate. This is unless Nigeria seeks above all to organize security in its living space and clean up within ECOWAS. Abuja’s entry into the BRICS would come later. Abuja had already expressed this effect in the aftermath of last month’s Johannesburg Summit.

As a matter of fact, there are candidates who are more disappointed than others. Their candidacy was rejected because they did not meet the appropriate criteria that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov listed at a press conference on August 24, 2023. At the top of the list of these countries is Algeria. 

Experts and independent observers have been very prolific about the tangible reasons that prevented this North African country, already not a member of the World Trade Organization, from joining the BRICS. Algiers missed the 1994 Marrakesh international conference that led to the establishment of the WTO, arguing for a deep crisis with the host country.

However, four explanations could be added that would probably not please Algerian decision-makers. First, Algeria’s gamble to make BRICS membership a matter of national honor and Algerian diplomatic influence has indeed failed.

Second, Algeria’s bet to make the accession to the BRICS an auxiliary to its election to be a non-permanent member country to the UNSC starting in January 2024, as a matter of national security, has not succeeded either.

The third explanation reinforces the view that the election of decision-making bodies within international organizations to advance national agendas has proven to be a major handicap to the achievement of these goals. In the case of Algeria, it must be noted that the main objective of its diplomacy is to harm its Moroccan neighbor on the question of Western Sahara and on its success story in Africa.

Proof of such a perception is that Algerian decision-makers, in cahoots with their South African counterparts, insisted on seeing the Polisario leader present in Johannesburg. The South African government issued an individual invitation to the latter without formal approval from the other BRICS member countries. Algerian’ decision-makers did so even though they knew that their BRICS candidacy was going to be officially rejected.

The fourth explanation is that South Africa has proven to be a little smart. By not fighting for Algeria’s candidacy in the BRICS, it kills two birds with one stone. On the one hand, Pretoria demonstrates to Algerians that they are not economically a serious competitor and that it will continue to use Algeria in its struggle for influence in Africa that it has been waging against Morocco, Nigeria, and Egypt. 

On the other hand, Pretoria nipped in the bud Algeria’s dream of daring to challenge it in the race for becoming a permanent member of the Security Council on behalf of Africa. This might happen if the reform of the latter was decided by the UNGA with the major consent of the five permanent members in the medium or long run.

However, South Africa’s ambitions, which are very legitimate in fact, face two major obstacles: on the one hand, the country is starting to lose its credibility within the three founding members of the BRICS (Russia, Brazil, and India) as a result of extending an invitation to the leader of a phantom entity not recognized by any of them to break and enter the Johannesburg Conference.

On the other hand, South Africa broke the consensus among the BRICS by not respecting the new course of action aimed at settling, if not freezing, endemic conflicts between the new countries invited to join as a condition for the success of this grouping. 

Read also: Regional Security Complexes in a Transitional Stage of International Politics

It was on such a pillar that a proposal of admission was sent to Egypt and Ethiopia (which have long confronted each other over the Ennahda dam on the Nile), to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran (with respect to conflicts in Yemen and the Emirati islands under Iranian occupation), and to Brazil and Argentina (which are experiencing conflicts of interest and influence within MERCOSUR, not to mention pitfalls in the functioning of the various free trade areas involving other regional actors).

In sum, the BRICS enriches debates on the need for a multipolar world in which economic determinism will prevail over political determinism. However, it is worth mentioning that the logic of capitalism will require member countries to accept a new form of asymmetric relations in a configuration that will maintain, if not strengthen, the hierarchy of actors.

However, where vision and visibility lose their bearings is in the fact that no influential member of the BRICS is ready to assume the role of undisputed leader to confront the United States. Neither China nor Russia, let alone India or Brazil, currently harbor the ambition to become superpowers. 

At the very least, they aspire to some form of strategic parity that does not provoke the ire of their great power competitors, who are rapidly losing influence and impact on the regional and global levels.

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