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Here's why Brazil is a major holdout against BRICS expansion

It’s a remarkable position for Latin America’s largest nation to take, one indicative of its complex foreign policy aspirations today.

Analysis | Europe

We may be in “a new yet-to-be-defined epoch characterized by diminishing U.S. global clout,” as Michael T. Klare wrote earlier this year in Responsible Statecraft. But international governance still largely unfolds in institutions created in a post-war moment characterized by Washington’s distinctive (and enduring) influence. 

If there is to be a new framework to seriously challenge the post-war order, one might expect the BRICS — the loose confederation of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa identified at the dawn of the twenty-first century as key developing economies — to play a leading role. Yet it is not clear that aim is shared by the current governments of those countries. 

As Reuters journalist Lisandra Paraguassu reported Wednesday, Brazil, under the new administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has set itself apart from its peers by its reluctance to rapidly expand the BRICS group. It’s a remarkable position for Latin America’s largest nation to take, one indicative of its complex foreign policy aspirations that are too often misunderstood as hostile to the United States. 

Brazil has a clear interest in keeping the BRICS, which has its own massive development bank and holds high-profile annual summits, small and relatively exclusive. With over 200 million people and a vibrant, if recently tested, democracy, the South American giant wants a bigger say in global affairs. In a five-member BRICS, it is a big fish in a relatively small pond. More members would likely diminish Brazil’s influence. 

“Brazil’s position has been concerned with the cohesion of the group and preservation of our space in a group of important countries,” an anonymous Brazilian official told Paraguassu, emphasizing Brazil’s preference for a more limited membership. 

For its part, as it noted in an official statement quoted in the Reuters piece, China “welcomes more like-minded partners to join the ‘BRICS family’ at an early date.” Russia also wants to add more members to solidify and diversify its routes around Western-imposed sanctions. As Paraguassu points out, “BRICS makes decisions by consensus, so Brazil's assent will be key to any expansion.”

The expansion issue is expected to be taken up at the BRICS summit, to be held from Aug. 22-24 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Expansion itself will not drive Brazil from the group to which it remains committed, however. “Brazil is going to have to give in at some point because we are realistic and it is not in our nature to block things,” an official told Reuters. “But it won't be good for us.”

Lula said publicly this week that countries that want to join the BRICS can and should be allowed to — provided they meet certain benchmarks to be set by the original members later this month. That caveat is indicative of Brazil’s concern that it have a say in determining the composition and eventual expansion of the bloc.

On top of everything else, Lula named former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff to head the BRICS bank earlier this year, a potent symbol of the country’s investment in the bloc and a reflection of Lula’s oft-stated goal of finding mechanisms to work around U.S. dollar supremacy in global trade. 

In short, Lula appears to want a small BRICS made up of big countries, as well as a rejiggered UN that gives greater weight to smaller voices. The latter would help level the playing field of global governance while the former would enable Brazil to preserve the special kind of relationship it enjoys through BRICS with major global players.

These are both key goals for Lula, who sees the status quo dominated, for example, by a UN Security Council whose permanent membership includes countries that have launched unprovoked attacks on sovereign nations in flagrant violation of international law. 

“The U.S. invaded Iraq without UN authorization, France and England invaded Libya without UN authorization, and now Russia invaded Ukraine,” Lula told a Portuguese outlet in April. But at another point in the interview he added, “Why do we want to change? Because on the climate question, if the UN decides on something and it isn’t mandatory, countries don’t do it. They still haven’t implemented the Kyoto protocol.” 

Against the common refrain that a dilution of U.S. power in international affairs would lead to worse human rights outcomes around the world, Lula argues that greater influence for a broader array of nations would actually strengthen democratic commitments around the world. He seems interest not in undermining the so-called liberal international order, but rather in expanding its democratic appeal. 

The countries that make up the BRICS bloc obviously find themselves in very different places than they were some two decades ago. Russia, of course, is waging war on its much smaller neighbor, while China’s relationship with the U.S. has not only cooled, but may be moving toward cold war. India faces an alarming rise in ethno-religious violence, and South Africa “is on the road to becoming a failed state,” according to a March headline in the Washington Post

For his part, Lula clearly sees the UN as a central, still-relevant pillar of international governance, but that is not the purpose he envisions for BRICS. Per the Reuterspiece, “Brazil’s government will argue that any expansion should be gradual, maintain regional balance and keep pre-eminent roles for the five permanent members.” 

It is a longstanding foreign policy approach that Brazil should resist choosing sides in international disputes in which it is not directly implicated. The essential premise is that Brazil stands to gain materially from an independent streak on the world stage. It’s continued dedication to BRICS in its original form exemplifies this deep-rooted position. 

Furthermore, Brazil’s enduring embrace of the UN suggests that it does not aspire to a global order hostile by definition to the United States, but rather one in which Washington is more inclined — even if compelled — to listen to others.

The 6th BRICS summit in 2014 included leaders from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. It was hosted by Brazil, as the first host country of the current five-year summit cycle; the host city was Fortaleza.(Credit: Casa Rosada, Argentina Presidency of the Nation/Creative Commons)
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