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The paradox of BRICS Challenge Theory

BRICS Challenge Theory divides into two main lines of hypothesis: that BRICS poses, first, a challenge to the hierarchy between states in the current system, and, second, that it seeks to challenge the whole liberal international order. Challenging the hierarchy between states is relevant in a state-centric analysis of foreign policies, and particularly for the US and its allies (e.g.Tammen et al., 2000). From an institutionalist perspective, on the other hand, the question of state order is irrelevant, as long as global relations are mostly about rules and norms, and as long as decision making takes place in international organizations between many instead ofby one (e.g. Ikenberry, 2001;Acharya, 2016). From an institutionalist perspective, it is relevant to study BRICS in relation to current institutions or norms, rules and international organizations.

Despite diverse national interests, BRICS members have common interests, rendering support for the idea that BKICS is indeed a functioning institution of global politics and a viable alliance between rising powers. BRICS countries share the view that the Western powers and values have an immoderate influence in global governance. This makes BRICS an institution that at least challenges the Western hegemony. Rejecting Western universalism, a common goal for all BRICS members is a multipolar world order, reflecting the diversity of interests. The Xiamen and Johannesburg BRICS summit declarations are clearly in support of the institutions of global governance. It is in BRICS’ interests to strengthen the role of the UN, the Security Council, the World Trade Organization (WTO), as well as the G20 in global governance but with a more decisive role for India, Brazil and South Africa in the UN context. BRICS gives support for further globalization, the realization of the Paris Agreement on climate change and is strongly against protectionism (BRICS, 2017; 2018). However, current members China and Russia are not ready to see any other BRICS country as permanent UNSC members (BRICS, 2017; 2018).

Despite such disagreements among BRICS members, it has been able not only to survive the first ten years but also to create new functioning financial institutions. In 2014, BRICS launched the New Development Bank (NDB) and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA) in response to the US failure to yield its dominance in the global financial institutions. NDB - also referred to as the ‘BRICS bank’ - is an institution led by developing countries. In practice it endorses the developing world’s independence from the still Western-led Bretton Woods system. With the New Development Bank, BRICS has established, in addition to the World Bank and the IMF, its own model for the rest of the developing world, though the aim is not to replace those Western-led institutions. However, it is still open to question how much the NDB represents a new kind of system of global financial governance. In the WTO, on the other hand, three of its members, Brazil, India and China, played a crucial role in upsetting the former balance of power by increasing the influence of the developing world (Hopewell, 2016).

Some scholars maintain that BRICS political economy represents simultaneously rising South-South cooperation as well as a rupture from the Westerncentric economic imperialism. Niall Duggan (2015), for example, has argued that BRICS are changing the rules and norms of globalization, with a new agenda of global economic governance. His conclusion was based partly on the BRICS stance towards the Washington Consensus, and partly on the discourse of development in BRICS summit declarations. However, Duggan does not show the existence of an actual agenda. Instead, he just demonstrates existence of a discourse that deviates from the Washington Consensus and, as Mielniczuk (2013) has argued, this could have long-standing effects on the social construction of global governance.

Research into the political economies of the BRICS countries shows that they have not fully absorbed the values and policy prescriptions of the global institutions of economic and financial governance. Specifically, most scholars agree that the BRICS members have a critical approach towards the dominant political-economy paradigms of the Washington Consensus, including a market-oriented regulatory system, fiscal austerity and comprehensive liberalization of trade (Schmalz and Ebenau, 2012; Babb, 2013; Fourcade, 2013). Simultaneously, the BRICS have retained varying measures of direct or indirect state control over markets (Stephen, 2014; Nolke et al., 2015), most notably in China (McNally, 2012; van der Pijl, 2012; Jiang, 2014). Moreover, at the UN, China and Russia have used their veto in the Security Council to support their strategic interests and the fundamental values of national integrity, or both at the same time, for example in the case of Russia’s military intervention in Syria (Stuenkel, 2014).

The current US government views the existence of BRICS as a challenge to its hegemony, particularly from two key members, Russia and China, who appear to threaten the Western liberal democratic order. The US National Security Strategy (2017: 25) and National Defense Strategy (2018: 2) declare that great power competition has returned and that the challenger states seek ‘to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions’. BRICS has no common agenda for change. Seeking greater influence in the international organization can be an objective in its own right. It does not necessarily imply an agenda to change the system. Indeed, Sarah Babb (2013) has shown that there is no ‘BRICS Consensus’ to oppose the Washington Consensus.

In consequence, the scholarly BRICS debate does not render support for the BRICS Challenge Theory in the sense that BRICS is actively promoting a systemic change. It is true that BRICS members have used their position to challenge US agendas in the UN and the WTO but that does not mean that they would not have played by the rules. Disagreeing is fully acceptable. Governance in the UN and WTO today is much less about hierarchy than it was during the unipolar moment after the Cold War. It is more about democratic decision-making among peers, which is much more difficult than managing a hierarchical system. Governance is bound to be more prone to disagreements, shifting alliances and timely negotiations, but that is something that comes with pluralism and evidences the viability of cooperation instead of its demise. The BRICS group underlines its support for global institutions and multilateralism: ‘We emphasize the importance of an open and inclusive world economy enabling all countries and peoples to share in the benefits of globalization. We remain firmly committed to a rules-based, transparent, non-discriminatory, open and inclusive multilateral trading system as embodied in the WTO’ (BRICS, 2017: Article 32).‘Upholding development and multilateralism’, the group notes, ‘we are working together for a more just, equitable, fair, democratic and representative international political and economic order’ (BRICS, 2017: Article 2).

Therefore, there is, so far, insufficient evidence to agree with the BRICS Challenge Theory that BRICS poses either a challenge to the hierarchy between states in the current system, or that it seeks to challenge the whole system. Hierarchy between states is constantly evolving and, of course, from the perspective of a dominant power wishing to retain its dominance, the rise of new powers is a challenge.

 
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