Brics membership: challenges to South African diplomacy

2012-06-26 13:53

On face-value, Brics membership has put South Africa in a situation where it seems to have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

But there is an important proviso: It will largely depend on the quality and thrust of South African diplomacy, how the country interprets its role and exercises its membership within the parameters of its national interests.

By piggy-backing the substantial individual and united power of its four partners, the country can potentially play in a world league other countries of a similar category simply cannot. This being the case, South Africa has a strong interest in Brics policies and strategies. A main diplomatic challenge it will therefore face is to influence the Brics agenda in such a way that its own national interests are maximised while maintaining foreign policy independence.

As a relatively new phenomenon, the Brics’ true DNA is still rather amorphous and the assumptions underpinning its raison d’être mostly aspirational.  With this in mind, South African foreign policy makers would be wise to give careful consideration to especially the following aspects:

Firstly, the Brics’ raison d’être is strongly based on the rather simplistic linear assumption of the inevitable decline of the West and the inevitable rise of the East and emerging nations from the South. Does the world indeed face a future ‘without the West’?  It may be argued that, the present ‘decline’ may be more apparent than real against the background of the temporary cyclical nature of the global recession and the Western debt crisis. From the vantage point of the present the decline-of the-West scenario seems plausible but not necessarily inevitable.

In any case, while power is undeniably flowing away from the West to the developing nations, it is unpredictable how long it would take to reach a tipping point. It may indeed take a long time as power shifts over decades, not years. By 2050, according to Goldman Sachs, the United States (with an economy about half the size of China’s), along with China, India, Brazil end Russia, will still rank among the top five economies of the world. Even so, China will need more than a dominating economy to replace Western supremacy and become number one in the global pecking order.

It may also be possible that emerging nations might not choose to cast their lot with China or to challenge America’s hegemony; that fluid rather than fixed alliances could emerge as countries compete to maximise their strategic interests.

The other side of the decline-of-the-West coin is that the sustainable, stable future of all the Brics’ members is not a certainty and cast in stone. There are signs of economic hiccups in China, India and Brazil and Russia is still practically a ‘petro state’. Considering also the potential for instability in the undemocratic or quasi-authoritarian regimes in China and Russia, a linear hypothesis about their inevitable rise and dominance could be premature if not faulty.

In the context of recent manifestations of revolutionary eruptions of  ‘people’s power’ in various dictatorships, particularly the recent occurrence of the ‘Arab spring’ in North Africa and anti-Putin demonstrations in Russia, and China’s burgeoning social challenges, a  more conservative prognosis seems to be called for.

South Africa would, therefore, be wise not to put all its eggs in one basket and be more discerning about possible future developments or choosing alliances. A caveat which could be added here is that Goldman Sachs ‘exclusive use of linear ‘hard power financial arithmetic’ to substantiate their ‘rise and decline’ scenario is open to contestation.

Rather conspicuously, qualitative ‘soft power’, and more importantly, the linkage/combination of hard and soft power (‘smart power’) do not feature in its estimations, casting some doubt on the conclusiveness of their findings.

Secondly, the Brics’ objective to reshape the global economic/financial architecture is both legitimate and relevant in the light of Western continued dominance and the seemingly inexorable shift of economic power away from it to the developing world. From this point of view, South Africa’s membership makes very good sense as it accords with its own overarching foreign policy vision.

What will compromise its interests, however, is the real possibility that Brics’ growing economic leverage might be converted (mainly at the behest of Russia and China) into geopolitical leverage to form a new pole, a countervailing force, to Western dominance, in world politics.

Such a development would be a step backward in world politics; it smacks of  a resurrection of anachronistic of 19th century balance of power politics, a re-introduction of old-fashioned confrontational Westphalian realism, and greater militarization to buttress the sought-after ’countervailing force’. This also seems to ignore contemporary trends and forces in international politics, i.e. consensus-seeking phenomena like globalisation, interdependence, transnational cooperation and non-governmental transactional interaction.

A ‘political’ role, basically oppositional to the West, particularly the USA, is obviously dominated by power political obsessions on the part of Russia and China in particular. South Africa should be utterly careful how it involves itself in this kind of a political agenda in view of its obvious interdependence vulnerability towards the West.

Thirdly, it is particularly noticeable that Brics’ membership does not square with the usual geo-political demarcations used to indicate South Africa’s foreign policy preferences.  Brazil is from the South, Russia and China are from the North, while India is a borderline case although generally grouped with the South.  Asia, Latin America, Europe and Africa are represented in the club.

The South-South, North-South configuration, a prominent reference point in South Africa’s foreign policy compass, is therefore not followed in this case.  Also the fact that Australia, geographically part of the global South and Western-friendly, will never be considered as part of the equation points to an obvious ‘we-they’ ideological agenda. On the other hand, Russia, a country of the geographical global North, and noted for its staunch Western opposition, is included, corroborating Brics’s ideological agenda. This smacks of foreign policy a la carte, opportunism, rather than a principled stance.

Fourthly, what adds to questions about Brics’ real character is the exclusiveness of Brics. In its present form, it comes across as an elitist configuration of diverse nationalities, a coalition of the influential, the strong and the powerful, aiming at promoting the specific agenda of its members and usurping the privilege to represent the ‘South against the North’. In particular, given its role perception as a countervailing force vis-a-vis the West, and casting itself as the  ‘hope’ of the emerging nations of the world, the question arises whether the Brics concept should not be representative, more inclusive of other potential role players? It raises questions about the wisdom of excluding other major role players like Mexico, Turkey, South Korea and Indonesia in particular.

The question is also how Brics will fit into a global architecture characterised by a plethora of multilateral organisations (the G8+5, G20, G 77, the Bandung Group) with overlapping agendas and to which they all belong in any case? Particularly the overlapping between the Brics and G20 agendas is a source of confusion regarding implications of double membership.

Fifthly, Brics membership has implications for South Africa’s role as an international moral force, as a champion of human rights, being a primary objective of its foreign policy.  However, as its voting behaviour in the UNSC indicates, its commitment to this objective is ambivalent, if not questionable, as it is increasingly obvious that human rights now plays second fiddle to its strategic and ideological interests.

The argument that South Africa cannot support UN Security Council resolutions on human rights because it is part of a ‘Western Agenda’ is deeply flawed and opportunistic. No doubt, this posture is being reinforced by South Africa’s Brics membership and puts the country in a state of denial regarding its own founding principles.

In the final analysis, how South Africa will benefit from Brics membership will ultimately depend on the quality of its diplomacy, measured against the way it maximises its national interests and honours its foreign policy ideals and principles.

While Brics membership was no doubt an important foreign policy coup for South African diplomacy, it may also come at a price: its foreign policy independence and the root principles on which it is based. Russia and China, both early sponsors of South Africa’s membership, seem to expect South Africa to tow a Brics’ foreign policy line on crucial issues, which means that the two strongest partners will determine the diplomatic agenda. It will be expected to be a ‘reliable partner’ in the configuration, but reliability may also imply subservience.

What begs the question is whether particularly Russia and China see South Africa as a pawn in their tactical game to challenge the Western dominance of the global agenda?

For South Africa, this implies a clear choice, a specific mode of identification and alignment in world politics. In other words, either collective foreign policy making, particularly where Brics and Western’ interests are at odds, a pan-African posture, or an independent stance. Present indications are, however, that it has fallen between two chairs.


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