The annual BRICS Summit in Ufa, Russia this year marks a breakthrough in the development of the group’s political and financial institutions. The big question now is whether these institutions will choose to partner with the West or go it alone.

The BRICS and the West have an odd symmetry. Both groups view the other as essential to the future prosperity and stability of the world, yet at the same time, as the greatest threat to that stability. Photo: AP

The BRICS summit in Ufa, Russia this week might bring about long-awaited changes in the development of the BRICS partnership comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. With the beginning of the New Development Bank’s activities and the establishment of a currency reserve pool, these countries will have more access to opportunities to boost their domestic growth as well as achieve their plans of reforming the global financial system to meet their interests.

Should the West be worried? Russia Direct asked both Russian and international experts to share their views and assess how the relationship between the West and the BRICS should be characterized.

Gleb Ivashentsov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Deputy Director of the Russian APEC Study Center.

The formation of the BRICS is often considered in the East and the West to pose a challenge to Western leadership in world affairs. This challenge is coming from the global East as the bloc unites the economies of the non-Western world representing four continents. Such an assessment might be true to some extent. If in 2000 the BRICS together accounted for 8 percent of global GDP, today it is more than 25 percent. At that time, it was suggested that in 2035 the total GDP of the BRICS would be more than that of the G7 states. Today, it is predicted to happen in 2017. Non-Western corporations from the BRICS states already have joined the ranks of the world leading companies in a variety of industries, most importantly, in energy and electronics.

Such developments posed a question of reforming international financial institutions, which openly put restraints upon the “new economies.” The BRICS partners started their work with this. As their suggestions for IMF and World Bank reforms were not accepted by the global West, they announced the establishment of the New Development Bank and a currency reserve pool of $100 billion. Today there are more than 20 frameworks for cooperation within the bloc in the areas of economics and finance (from annual summits to working groups, including in such areas as international information security, health, agriculture, science and technology). The BRICS Business Council and the Exchanges Alliance started their work. There is also a platform for cooperation in education, culture and ecology.

The five member states discuss not only economic issues, but also geopolitics – all those challenges that the world society faces today.  All too often the positions of BRICS do not match those of the U.S. and other Western powers (Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran nuclear program). However, the fact that the BRICS states do not accept the economic and political pressure coming from the West does not mean that the bloc aims to create a political or economic alliance against the West.

The BRICS members believe that the absolute monopoly in world political and economic decision-making (whoever has it – the West or the East) would only lead to global degradation and deterioration. In order for the world to follow the development path we need, on one hand, competition, and, on the other, cooperation of all international actors. That is what the BRICS push for – building a polycentric, more democratic, fair and, consequently, safe world. 

 Related: "Ahead of Ufa Summit, future of BRICS in limbo" 

Jack A. Goldstone, Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, Woodrow Wilson Center Visiting Scholar.

The BRICS and the West have an odd symmetry. Both groups view the other as essential to the future prosperity and stability of the world, yet at the same time, as the greatest threat to that stability.

The nations of  “the West” – meaning essentially NATO minus Turkey, plus Australia and, for some purposes, South Korea and Japan as well – believe that stability and prosperity are best supported by democratic governments that are accountable to the rule of law and the interests of their people. Unfortunately, in advocating this position, Western nations do not always recognize that a rather sophisticated set of institutions, manned by competent officials of high integrity, is necessary for democratic governments to function well. In opposing dictatorships and supporting popular movements, Western nations thus have often inadvertently promoted regimes that have produced instability.  

To the BRICS countries, such Western missteps appear more like a deliberate effort to sow chaos. BRICS countries directly felt the colonial impositions (or in Russia, the German and Japanese aggression) by Western nations up through the 1940s, and remain deeply suspicious that Western nations want only to project power at their expense. They also (with the exceptions of Brazil and India) understand democracy very differently than Western nations, seeing democracy more as the responsibility of state leaders to advance national interests than as the limitation of state power by popular choices and independent judicial authorities.

Thus, today the West and the BRICS have quite different views and strong mutual suspicions. High-level diplomacy can sometimes overcome these differences, as with recent cooperation on Syrian chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear program. Yet repeated collisions seem inevitable; with no convergence on fundamental views in sight, the BRICS and the West will have to learn to live with their differences, while still making progress on vital global issues such as climate change, nuclear weapons control, and terrorism. This will require far greater efforts by both groups to understand each other’s views and differences, rather than simply presuming the other is wrong and they are right.

Renato Baumann, Director of Studies on Economic and International Policy Relations at the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA), Brazil.

To start with, it is difficult for Brazil  – and probably also South Africa  – to consider themselves as non-Western: geography matters. With this clarification, I understand that the question refers to how the main economies – the U.S. and Western Europe – see the BRICS initiative.

My guess is that the economic agents in those countries view the BRICS right now with a mix of curiosity and skepticism. Curiosity, because the group comprises some of the most important economies. But since it is very recent, it is still to be seen how the group will evolve and consolidate. Skepticism, because it is a set of five countries with different histories and objectives, with lower rates of growth now than when the group was formed.

The very reason for forming the BRICS has always been the joint perception by the five countries with regard to the needed changes in global governance. This has led to a demanding position, sometimes rather critical of the status quo. This has also led to a number of initiatives to try and increase mutual knowledge. More importantly, the group has initiated a substantive, unprecedented initiative, with the creation of a joint institution – the New Development Bank – that will allow for some degree of freedom in having an additional source of resources for investment projects in infrastructure. At the same time, it will be a big challenge to joint action by the five countries.

This means that the BRICS countries hardly see “the West” as rivals, with perhaps the exception of one or other members, involved in specific conflicts. As a group, the overall sentiment is that this is a “building up exercise,” and not a contest.

The BRICS leaders at the 2013 BRICS Summit in Durban, South Africa. Photo: Reuters 

Petr Topychkanov, Associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program.

The BRICS and the West have neither a rival nor partner relationship. There is no basis for such perceptions between the BRICS and the West. The BRICS is not an alliance. It's not a military bloc. The members of this group don't have any intention to transform it into something formalized.

They are not interested in any confrontation with the West, because all of them except Russia have close ties with Western countries. Even Russia, which has problematic relations with many Western countries because of Crimea, is still connected to them via economic, political and cultural links.

The West doesn’t have any reason to see the BRICS as something challenging it. There is only one reason to worry [for the West]  its own growing weaknesses. BRICS was created in response to changes in the world order and global economy.

The space for such an initiative was cleared by Western institutions, which turned out to be unable to play the role that they used to play after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The need for the growth and development of Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa can’t be satisfied with the sole help of the West. These countries’ growth demands injections from many sources.

The BRICS’ economic demands dictate the political agenda for its member states. The group’s creation reflected their understanding the world as polycentric and free of dominance of one center over others.

This understanding is basic for the BRICS. From this point of view, the West is accepted by the BRICS as one of the other centers in international affairs. Those politicians in Western countries who want to secure the West’s superiority over other centers of the world may oppose the BRICS as a manifestation of the world order change.

In short, the more active role of the BRICS is becoming possible because of the growing demands of its member-states and inability of Western institutions to satisfy them.

 Related: "Three big goals for the BRICS New Development Bank"

Nandan Unnikrishnan, Vice President and Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, India.

First, there is no uniformity of views within the BRICS about whether the West is a rival or a partner. The same goes for the West's perception of the BRICS.

The BRICS is not a bloc. While there is commonality of views on some issues, there are divergences of views on others. Moreover, two out of the five BRICS countries are not even geographically contiguous. So, it would be difficult for the BRICS to come to a common security arrangement like NATO. In any case, for each of the five BRICS countries, their bilateral relations with the West, particularly the U.S., is far more important to them than their relations with any of the other BRICS countries.

BRICS is united by a desire for reform in the global governance structure. It wants the world order to reflect the realities of today's world and to recognize the role of new powers and the shift of global power. It feels that the post-1945 global political and economic order must be changed. BRICS does not want a radical change in the global order, but change which is evolutionary. They want to be agenda-setters and not rule followers. So far the West has resisted ceding power and giving them a seat at the global high table. The Western resistance to allow reform of the global order might be perceived in some quarters as a sign of rivalry or bitterness towards the BRICS. But this may not be the case. In fact, no great power will willingly cede power to new and emerging powers and will resist this till the end.

In my view, BRICS does not see the West as a rival. In fact, it would be interesting to see if the BRICS will continue as a forum if the West acceded to its demands for reform of the global governance structures. Also, it would be interesting to see how the BRICS evolve if tensions between some of the great powers exacerbate further.

Dr. Victoria V. Panova, Deputy Head of the International Relations and Foreign Policy Department at MGIMO-University and Strategy Planning Advisor at the National Committee on BRICS Research.

If we look at official discourse – by all means, all sides will tell you that they aren’t meant to be opposed to each other and that only their cooperation would be able to secure sustainable and peaceful development and reform of the world order in everybody’s interests.

Although, it is fair to say, that this discourse is more characteristic of the BRICS. The West or the G7 prefers to try to not notice the BRICS as much as possible, concentrating on bilateral cooperation (or confrontation) with each of the five countries. This approach could be found in EU official documents. Meanwhile, U.S. officials and experts would be eager to either “hear about it for the first time” or try to prove BRICS inconsistency and a lack of prospects for consolidation and convergence due to the absence of common interests apart from “unhappiness with the Western-based institutional order.”

The BRICS, in turn, while proclaiming that they aren’t “uniting against anyone, quite the opposite – concentrating on a positive agenda in international relations” (and this is very true, each of them has their proper interests in stable relations with the West), objectively pursues interests that are adversarial to the West at its core. Mere insistence on sovereignty, multilateralism and non-interference, preferences for world diversity and fair representation in the world arena and global institutions in accordance with their objective economic, political and ideological weight – all of those issues undermine the status quo and lead to a lesser role for the “geriatric powers” of the West. Despite all the peaceful intentions of the BRICS, this makes the Big Five unwelcome by the West.

Such an approach is a road to nowhere – neither the BRICS nor the G7 and the West as a whole could provide for mutually beneficial, prosperous and sustainable global development. If this understanding fails to reach the minds of our Western partners, the world is going to suffer severe setbacks.

It is worth remembering our Chinese colleagues suggesting a metaphor for the BRICS as five fingers of one hand. This hand is stretching out to the whole world for partnership and cooperation, but if rejected, could well gather into a fist to drive forward necessary reforms.