The geopolitical story of the month and the year was the 15th BRICS summit that took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, last week. Who can forget the moment in June when French President Emmanuel Macron left mouths agape when he requested an invitation to the summit as an observer? Despite very real uncertainty about how a new version of BRICS will evolve, this expansion means that it has more than doubled its membership and has staked out a potentially dominating position over the Middle East.
Whatever one thinks about its stability or fragility, the summit clearly marked a bold step in a new direction. It should go without saying that any media claiming to report international news should be focused on elaborating the historical significance of this event. Not in the West, it seems.
Given the regional impact of the summit, Al Jazeera predictably devoted multiple articles and interviews to the event. The Guardian reported it, but in a way that seemed to insist that the expansion was “more symbolic than anything.” The New York Times decided simply to ignore it.
The Washington Post dared to acknowledge the summit, but avoided engaging its own reporting. Instead it reprinted a Bloomberg piece by Pankaj Mishra bearing the title: “BRICS Shows It’s Little More Than a Meaningless Acronym.” The title alone invites the potential reader to ignore the article’s contents.
Mishra is an Indian working for Western media who is married to former British prime minister David Cameron’s cousin. His take reflects the Westernized Indian media’s anguished reaction to the entire BRICS phenomenon, equally reflected in Palki Sharma’s dismissive reporting on the event for billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s news website, Firstpost. Even though India is a major player in BRICS and has expressed its commitment to the defined path, Westernized Indians are embarrassed by what they see as an implicit alignment with China. They also do not want to provoke the ire of the US and prefer to avoid even thinking about BRICS’s growing influence.
The Financial Times tried a slightly different tactic, assuming the tone of a bored consultant in the City of London. “The Brics may grow,” it acknowledged, “but it is unlikely to achieve much. Plenty of talk, little action. Not too different, then, from some business meetings.”
With its expansion, BRICS has announced the equivalent of opening of a boulevard through which the economic actors of the future will be invited to move. But because the roadworks are currently being carried out and no vehicles are traveling over it, FT dismisses it as nothing but talk. In contrast Al Jazeera cited Professor Karin Costa Vasquez, a specialist of Diplomatic Practice, who understands that it’s about getting to places that previously were not accessible. Vasquez pointed to the most obvious and significant outcome: the expansion of BRICS quite simply “opens up new avenues for trade.”
Today’s Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Avenues for trade:
Channels of international exchange that can be opened for the profit of all or controlled and even shut down by some powerful nations who design and run them as selectively managed toll roads.
This reference to avenues is no trivial point. The US and its post-World War II allies defined what can be described as a metaphorical roadmap of the global economy at Bretton Woods in 1944. The tree-lined “avenues of trade” in a new world order featured the World Bank on one side of the street and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on the other. Traffic was governed by a police force monitoring the rules of the road. It was called the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) that later morphed into the WPO.
The new roadmap was designed to accommodate the types of vehicles the US economy would literally be “driven” to produce in the following years. These included brightly chromed, elongated Cadillacs with razor-sharp tail fins, heavy-duty pickup trucks and gas-guzzlers in general. Metaphorically, the new avenues of trade were designed to feed a hegemonic monetary monopoly by injecting dollars into the global economy. The dollars, in the form of Treasury bonds, held by exporting countries served to augment the wealth of the US, allowing the Fed to print more money for domestic consumption and lavish military expenditure. A world composed of impoverished former colonies and developed nations heavily indebted by their recent history of war found itself in a state of permanent dependency on both the dollar and the global US military framework.
This BRICS summit stands, first of all, as a declaration, by an expanding community of nations, of their desire to reconfigure the geopolitical balance of power and establish their autonomy. To achieve that, the tools and practices of trade within the global economy must evolve. Investment manager and prominent author Willem Middelkoop has evoked the idea expressed by esteemed financial strategist, Zoltan Pozsar, that the world is headed towards a regime he calls Bretton Woods 3.0.
Most commentators agree that BRICS was not about the illusory goal of dedollarization, but the more modest one of finding ways to maximize trade among its members in local currencies. Thinkers like Pozsar believe that the end of the hegemonic reign of the dollar is a process that has already begun. Middelkoop sees the expansion of BRICS as a major step in that direction.
The Bretton Woods conference in 1944 established the dollar as the global basis for trade. The IMF became the world’s exclusive broker of dollars for the developing world. The real significance of BRICS lies not just in finding new ways of brokering trade. More profoundly, it intends to eliminate the neo-liberal ideology behind the IMF’s decision-making.
BRICS has created an alternative funding institution, the New Development Bank (NDB), headed by former Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff. She has stated NDB’s philosophy in these terms: “We repudiate any kind of conditionality. Often a loan is given [by the World Bank or IMF] that certain policies are carried out. We don’t do that. We respect the policies of each country.” She nevertheless admits that the current international financial system exists and humbly admits, “you have to live with it.”
The new, improved BRICS is not a revolution. It is an acceleration of an already existing evolution.
Despite the indifference of Western media, this BRICS summit marks a true historical moment. It hasn’t directly affected the global balance of power. But our perception of how the balance of power is likely evolving has clearly changed.
Western media long ago decoded that its role was not to inform the public about geopolitical reality but to shape the perception of it. It is rather attached to the shape of the past. It doesn’t seem to have noticed that the BRICS+ will control upwards of 42% of the world’s oil production. That statistic alone signifies that the iron grip of the petrodollar on the global economy has been loosened and may soon be broken. Nations that can buy oil with their respective currencies will no longer have to hoard US treasury bonds just to be sure of meeting their energy needs.
In the background of the Johannesburg conference lurks another question. Has Africa finally found the formula that will permit it to emerge from the colonial yoke? South Africa has begun promoting a pan-African settlement system that could threaten both the dollar and the dominant role the IMF and World Bank have played in the management of the African economy. They managed a system devoted to ensuring extraction of resources for global industrial needs. It was little more than a subtle variation on the cynically predatory colonial policies of the past.
So, what does the expanded BRICS tell us about geopolitical trends? Though its coherence as a long-term project has become even murkier with the addition of new members, BRICS is on a path that should permit it to exercise considerably greater geopolitical influence than in the past.
Reconciling many obviously conflicting interests will not be an easy task, but the challenge will likely motivate both the old and new members. With more than one hundred nations expressing an interest in joining the coalition, BRICS+ has become the institution best capable of establishing and amplifying the voice of the Global South on the world stage. This implies challenging the existing world order dominated by the West. That alone may explain the embarrassed silence of Western media, increasingly self-obsessed and more than ever intent on ignoring humanity’s history, past, present and future.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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