Written by Ali Lantukh
Chances are that, depending on where you look, you’ll be familiar with commonplace narratives that emerge around BRICS’ activities: accounts that concentrate on the hard economics and the incompatibilities of these odd bed-fellows; starry-eyed tales that herald the better world within our grasps thanks to the endeavours of this merry band of brothers.
Beyond these kind of caricatures, taking a look at what the BRICS do discursively around summit time — both collectively and broken down into its component parts — gives a more nuanced view of the dynamics, direction, and desires of the actors involved. Discourses are identity forming and tell us how policymakers project into the world they see around them.
A debriefing for Russian reporters at the end of the summit provided an opportunity to further this narrative of Russian leadership amongst the BRICS, and on the international stage beyond. Syria and North Korea are global problems with a Russian solution. Western solutions are discredited
Examining the messages emanating from the Russian government, representatives, and media helps to instruct in this regard, and illuminate attempts to straddle so-called “great power” and “rising power” postures — a stance highlighted in contributions to a recent issue of the Rising Powers Quarterly journal. According to the rhetoric, the BRICS are superseding Western approaches, with Russia not just at the head of the BRICS pack, but the key to resolving global crises in place of a weak and conflicted West.
Three days before the Xiamen meeting, the Kremlin published an article by President Putin entitled “BRICS: Towards New Horizons of Strategic Partnership,” intended for re-publication in leading BRICS countries’ media outlets (the Kremlin’s English language version can be found here). This piece presents the Russian government’s approach to BRICS current and future cooperation. Of course, the principal of multipolarity — operating based on equality, respect, and consensus — a key pillar in Russian foreign policy and BRICS discourse, is front and centre of proceedings. Among the BRICS, we are told, “no-one imposes anything on anyone. When approaches do not entirely coincide, patient, painstaking work is conducted to bring them closer together.” Thus, Putin is saying, the BRICS are actively modelling multipolarity, a different kind of international behaviour to that displayed through the impositions of the unipolar West. Global stability and conflict resolution can only be achieved through “combining the efforts of all countries.”
At the same time, Russian leadership is key. It is “largely thanks to the efforts of Russia and other concerned countries that conditions have been created to improve the situation in Syria,” Mr Putin writes. A debriefing for Russian reporters at the end of the summit provided an opportunity to further this narrative of Russian leadership amongst the BRICS, and on the international stage beyond. Syria and North Korea are global problems with a Russian solution. Western solutions are discredited: “we cannot forget… about Iraq, and what happened later in Libya,” the president stressed. Unable to resist a dig or two at the Trump administration, Putin told reporters, “military hysteria will do no good… diplomacy is the only way to solve the North Korea nuclear problem [… but] we are not going to pout, hold a grudge or laugh at anyone. Our position […] is based on principles.”
As elsewhere, Russian commentators were generally fairly muted in response to the Summit, but they did echo this discursive pattern. The more pragmatic multipolarity politics of the BRICS (in Putin’s words last week, reflecting “coinciding interests” and not “ideological principles”) were celebrated. One commentator noted that the main success at Xiamen was that, faced with the Doklam standoff, “the BRICS countries proved their ability to act together, regardless of the differences between them” — a legitimate win for the BRICS format. Still, it is “precisely the efforts of the Russian Federation” that are marked out for praise in this assessment, in ensuring “the coordination the entire group’s interests” and the evolution of the BRICS platform itself.
Reports from RT and Sputnik, excitable purveyors of Russian media abroad, give us a more colourful (often unhinged) and somewhat less guarded version of the official read out, and are helpful in ascertaining the narrative the Russian government wants to project to sympathetic audiences away from home. Key developments and processes highlighted at the summit (the BRICS Plus format and bilateral meetings with the corresponding heads of state; economic cooperation in trade, investment, and through loans from the New Development Bank; statements against protectionism in global trade) are all held up as indicators that the “unipolar order” is “crumbling” as “the BRICS strike back,” replacing “sanctions and bombs” with strategic partnerships and collaborative plans. This narrative of a defunct system transformed feeds into the idea of the BRICS’ crucial leadership and influence.
This is a hand that is, however, overplayed. Last week, at the PRIMO conference in Brussels on the BRICS and the crisis of liberal order, which took place just as the Xiamen Summit finished, a common refrain from researchers working across rising power countries was that this sense of crisis overstates the reality of the BRICS governments’ agendas: it is reformation of the global order, rather than revolution, that is sought. In fact BRICS’ approaches are less different from, and more reliant on, the collective West than they might purport — including, for instance, in relation to trade and finance and interactions with and within international institutions. This is reflected in the newly signed Xiamen Declaration itself. The BRICS format, the Declaration states, is about “improving global economic governance;” “upholding a fair and equitable international order based on the central role of the United Nations;” and “valuing the G20’s continued role as the premier forum for international economic cooperation.” It is this kind of politics and policy that we have seen enacted between summits — whatever the Russian rhetoric may say, and however much the BRICS platform is utilised to shape a narrative of Russian global leadership.
Ali Lantukh (@alilantukh) is a Marie Curie Early Stage Research Fellow with the PRIMO (Power and Region in a Multipolar Order) Initial Training Network. Her current research is funded by the European Commission within the 7th Framework Programme. Image credit: CC by the Kremlin.