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Listening to Vladimir Putin’s comments to the Brics summit in Johannesburg this week, one could be fooled into thinking that the West is about to be replaced by a powerful new trading bloc of economic powers challenging the dominance of our democracies.
In the parallel universe the Russian leader inhabits, the five founding members of Brics – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – are about to undertake a radical overhaul of the global system, replacing tired post-war institutions such as Nato and the UN with a new approach that reflects the wishes of the “global majority”.
Based on the principles of “equality, mutual support, respect for each other’s interests”, Putin believes “the future-oriented strategic course of our association” is to create an alternative global structure that better meets “the aspirations of the main part of the world community”.
The concept of Putin’s brave new world, where so-called emerging economies can present a viable alternative to the dominance of liberal Western democracy and the US dollar, has been around since the forum’s creation 15 years ago, even if its realistic purpose has been to bolster China’s bid for global domination.
The Russian leader’s argument, moreover, might have more credibility had he not been prevented from attending the summit for fear of being arrested for committing war crimes.
The Kremlin might dismiss the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court against Putin last March as outrageous, but it is not a good look when someone who claims he wants to change the world for the better stands accused of unlawfully transferring children. Nor does it look good to be shooting down the private jets of adversaries such as Yevgeny Prigozhin, as reports suggest.
Indeed, far from reasserting the importance of the Brics bloc in world affairs, Putin’s contribution has only served to highlight the growing irrelevance of this motley collection of failed or failing states, with the notable exception of India.
For all Putin’s posturing on the world stage, not even the myopic Russian president can escape the fact that his country is on the verge of economic collapse, with the rouble hemorrhaging value. The proposal to force Russian companies to buy roubles with foreign earnings to prop up the country’s falling currency is unlikely to have much appeal for those seeking a viable alternative to the West’s thriving market economy.
Meanwhile China, the original driving force behind the Brics concept, is another member state whose plunging economic fortunes make it decidedly ill-equipped to start lecturing the rest of the world about the need for reform.
With the country experiencing weak post-pandemic economic growth, its Communist rulers find themselves grappling with the collapse of the property market and a potentially disastrous rise in youth unemployment, with one estimate putting it at 50 per cent. No wonder Xi Xinping decided he had better things to do than deliver his scheduled speech at the Brics forum.
As for South Africa, the summit’s host, the appalling maladministration of the country’s economy by the ruling ANC means that its main priority has been keeping the lights on and not subjecting the delegates to the inconvenience of the regular power cuts that blight the lives of many South Africans.
Then there is Brazil, once hailed as the future economic powerhouse of Latin America, which currently finds itself fending against economic disaster under the hard-Left administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
If the Brics concept seems well past its sell-by date, its only redeeming feature remains India, which confirmed its status as a major technological power after it became the first country to land a spacecraft on the moon’s south pole.
With Narendra Modi, the Indian premier, declaring that the achievement “belongs to all of humanity”, the timing also highlights the waning fortunes of Russia’s own space ambitions after disaster struck at the weekend, when its Luna 25 spacecraft crashed into the moon’s surface.
While the challenge Brics presents to the established world order seems destined to failure, India – which looks set to enjoy the status of being the fastest-growing major economy – is one emerging power that is worthy of serious attention, even if the pace of technological progress is not always reflected in other areas of development. Despite landing a spacecraft on the moon, a family health survey of the world’s most populous country found that 19 per cent of Indian households still do not use any toilet facility.
Still, at a time when New Delhi is seriously reviewing its long-standing alliance with Moscow, which dates back to the Soviet era, the West has a unique opportunity to forge a new strategic alliance.
India’s real adversary is China, not the West, which makes an absurdity of its continued membership of Brics. Far better to tempt India into the West’s embrace by making it a member of, for example, an expanded G8, a globally-recognised body firmly committed to economic growth and democratic values.