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BRICS just announced an expansion. This is a big deal.

The message from Johannesburg was loud and clear. But is Washington listening?

Analysis | Europe

BRICS, at the conclusion of its summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, announced an expansion with the addition of six new member states — Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and UAE. This is a big deal. It is the first expansion of the grouping since 2010, when South Africa joined, and the biggest step since the 2015 founding of its New Development Bank.

The expansion will bring in deep-pocketed and energy-rich Gulf states, will enhance Africa and Latin America's representation, and showcase the great diversity of the member states’ domestic political systems. It also embeds regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran into what is starting to look like a broader multilateral institution, which could help cement the two's growing thaw.

It was likely that the summit would result in certain concrete criteria being defined for admitting new members. But announcing the actual admission of specific new members was a surprise.

The expansion— and the still-long waiting list of close to 20 states — is a demand signal for alternative structures for solving common challenges and furthering interests of Global South states, which are not being satisfied in the current global order. 

Almost all Global South states in BRICS — old and new — are certainly not anti-American (many of them are close U.S. partners and two have American troops stationed on their soil), but they want to evolve alternative geoeconomic structures that can fill the deep gaps and deficiencies in the current US-led order.

The key for BRICS now is to translate expanded membership into enhanced efficacy of its institutions. Typically as a club expands, delivery challenges grow. There is no question that BRICS still has much hard work to do to create a robust organization on the ground. But this is a grouping on the move.

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, by pointing to the diversity of interests of its members in a recent press conference, seemed to dismiss BRICS' significance. If so, that is a mistake. As the Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi has noted, the admission of Iran, for example, is a sign that the U.S. is no longer able to act as a gatekeeper controlling the entry of states it doesn’t like into major global groupings — yet another sign that the era of unipolarity is coming, or has already come, to an end.

Washington should respond to the message from Johannesburg by repairing its currently deficient, sometimes counterproductive, policy approach to the Global South. By doing so, it will recover its own eroding credibility and influence and help in the faster resolution of major global challenges facing the planet.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a meeting with South Africa's Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 23, 2023. Russian Foreign Ministry/Handout via REUTERS
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