On the basis of what we have seen thus far, some questions arise as to whether the BRICS are actually capable of exercising a new hegemony or if instead, as a block they are giving rise to a transition of power. Even if these are important questions to answer, in our opinion, there are two issues which actually highlight key limitations with respect to these points. Firstly, it seems that their interest is not (for now) directed to completely upsetting the current global order, and therefore to the creation of a "parallel" one. And secondly, there are unresolved questions regarding how they plan to deal with the challenges posed by the current world order and what their true vision is of how future GG should look like.
We will discuss these two points in the following paragraphs.
Regarding the first point, we can take the creation of parallel bodies such as the aforementioned NDB and also the CRA (Contingent Reserve Arrangement) as an example. These institutions reflect a new financial order which contrasts with that led by the West and which is represented by the IMF and/or the WB. Contrary to these institutions, it seems that they are pursuing goals that would make us believe that their true objective is not to give rise to a parallel order. Even if they had been created to speed up the promotion of projects for cooperation and investment in infrastructures, in reality, the very fact that they are inspired by principles of non-intervention in the sovereignty of other states certainly offers an opposing vision when compared to the role of the traditional Bretton Woods institutions (Matthew and Parízek 2017). The latter, in fact, by promoting "good governance" also required specific structural reforms within each state that requested loans. Thereby, effectively widening the sphere of influence of those liberal policies promoted within Western countries. In this way, they have affected the sovereignty of other states, especially those in the Southern hemisphere. Thus, Western countries have given the impression of wishing to condition the political choices of Southern countries, and at the same time, creating a dependence (due to the debts contracted) that bound them even further to international institutions such as the IMF.
On the other hand, taking these facts into consideration, the BRICS have instead claimed the need to recognize their increased power and influence, and therefore of their right to make their voices heard on the international scene. In practice, according to their vision, it is necessary to maintain the current order but at the same time, to increase the democratization of governance and decision-making processes as they have been thus far conceived. Therefore, their request seems to be directed more toward greater participation within an already established international context, rather than completely upsetting the existing order.
However, while on the one hand their demands seem to be directed toward reshaping the existing world order from within, on the other hand, it is not yet clear what their contribution will be to the international system that they wish to create.
In fact, several questions arise in many areas. We could list many, but in this paper we limit our enquiry to asking a few questions concerning key areas that may contribute to building a GG with a “human face” (Falk 1995). If the current international system and the GG paradigm is in crisis, and the BRICS demand its reform, what vision do they have of its future? In particular, what is their real commitment to areas such as climate change, the role of civil society (CS) and their engagement in international institutions and/or in international forums such as the UN or the G20?
We have selected these areas because, in our opinion, these three points represent some of the key sectors from which it may be possible to truly reshaped GG for the future.
With respect to the first point on climate change, there is a real contradiction between what the BRICS promise in theory and what they have put into practice. In fact, based on what we have already investigated in other works (Petrone 2019a, b), we have seen that the BRICS have claimed on multiple occasions that they wish to become leaders and promoters of a global order that deals first and foremost with global issues such as climate change (Xinhua 2017). However, if we take into account their results in terms of adaptation and mitigation, we must admit that their results remain discouraging, especially with regard to the 2015 Paris agreements (COP21).
In fact, China, India and South Africa are still largely dependent on coal, which represents half of the total energy demand in all three countries, and both in Russia and Brazil oil and gas represent the main source for the primary energy demand: 73% in Russia and 62% in Brazil (Downie and Williams 2018). At the same time, there are no encouraging answers when taking into consideration their shift toward alternative energies and the reduction of their emissions. In fact, four of the five members achievements are classified as “insufficient” (Brazil), “highly insufficient” (China and South Africa) and “critically insufficient” (Russia) on Climate Action Tracker (2021) web page. Only India is rated “2˚C compatible”. After adopting its National Electricity Plan (NEP) in 2018, India’s climate action was considered to be on track to achieving the Paris COP21 Agreement (Climate Action Tracker 2021). This means that for the BRICS, there is still a long way to go in order to fulfill their COP21 commitments, and above all to reach common targets.
Thus, their dependence on obsolete forms of energy represents a significant limitation on their promises. Therefore, it should be asked whether in the future they will really be able to turn themselves into promoters and leaders in this area. Moreover, it is worth asking if they genuinely wish to start a real process of energy transition as hoped for in the COP 21 in Paris, the famous historical event that should have marked a watershed with regard to climate change policies, but which in fact still proved to be wanting.Footnote 4 Thus, in the context of climate change governance, if in the future the BRICS really want to make a contribution, they should then actually commit to putting into practice clear and specific policies toward an energy transition. Otherwise, their statements will remain at odds with what they put into practice and consequently, it would seem that they were mainly aimed at increasing their soft power rather than at having real and concrete effects (Petrone 2019a, b).
As regards the role of CS in decision-making processes, it seems to us that CS must also have an important role in the BRICS countries. If they really want to be the promoters of a world in which there is a real democratization process, CS involvement is key. In fact, "civil society activities are an enactment of citizenship, that is, they are practices through which people claim rights and fulfill obligations as members of a given polity." (Scholte 2011, p. 34).
According to the definition that the Commission on Global Governance gave in 1995, by CS we mean “a multitude of institutions, voluntary associations, and networks–women's groups, trade unions, chambers of commerce, farming or housing co-operatives, neighborhood watch associations, religion-based organizations and so on. Such groups channel the interests and energies of many communities outside government, from business and the professions to individuals working for the welfare of children or a healthier planet […] citizens' movements and NGOs now make important contributions in many fields, both nationally and internationally. They can offer knowledge, skills, enthusiasm, a non-bureaucratic approach and grassroots perspectives, attributes that complement the resources of official agencies” (Commission on Global Governance 1995, pp. 32–33).
In short, CS represents a fundamental area for creating accountable governance. In particular, in the countries of the Global South, the role of CS is important in bringing those social questions that concern the most marginalized parts of the population to the center of the agenda of their respective countries. At the same time, a strengthening of the role of CS in the countries of the global South, and of the BRICS in particular should also result in a greater capacity to propose a vision of governance that does not depend on the civil societies (CSs) of the North of the world. In fact, according to Scholte (2011, p. 57), "Southern stakeholders do not wish to be considered a constituency of Northern NGOs, and want direct voice for themselves".
Our idea is therefore that CS should play an important role in GG. And regarding CS, BRICS statements on the matter seem oriented toward building a system that can take into account the contribution of all those associations that should have an important role in decision-making.
However, even in this case, although in theory they declare the importance of CS in decision-making processes, in practice it seems that the role of CS is not yet all that decisive in the BRICS countries. In fact, in this area there have been criticisms of the modus operandi of the BRICS governments (BRICS Policy Center 2016) and at the same time, in our opinion, CS itself suffers from its own limitations. Among these limitations, a solid network between the CSs of the different BRICS countries is certainly missing (Poskitt et al. 2016), this in spite of the efforts made to kick start initiatives aimed at promoting participation in decision-making contexts.
In the future, this role will also have to be taken into consideration so as to be able to offer a response to the role of CS. According to what we have already stated, CS should bring the needs of those actors who are traditionally excluded from decision-making processes to the center of the discussion.
Finally, we consider the role of these countries in the context of international institutions such as the United Nations (UN) or the G20.
Regarding the UN, it seems to us that with respect to their role in the Security Council (SC) of the United Nations, the true supervisory body, there are contradictions. First of all, we have to remember that two of the SC permanent five members are BRICS countries, namely Russia and China. At the same time, we should also note that over the years countless proposals for reform of the United Nations system have been made (without any effect) (Abb and Jetschke 2019). Once again another interesting aspect of the BRICS modus operandi appears here. While on the one hand China and Russia support the demands of India and Brazil for a reform of the CS system, on the other hand, they have done nothing to bring about this reform (Petrone 2021; Abb and Jetschke 2019). More than likely, their privileged role within this institution has prevailed over their real interest in giving access to the SC to these other countries.
As for the G20, even within this group the BRICS have very often given the impression of having rather contradictory objectives. Indeed, on the one hand, it seems that their aim has frequently been to seek greater transparency in decision-making processes, and therefore, also to make the G20 a means of creating a more inclusive GG. However, on the other, very often their line of action has also turned to the purpose of achieving higher standards of recognition within the group of the most economically powerful countries on earth (Cooper 2014).
In short, even in this case, it seems that if on the one hand their statements express a greater desire for international inclusiveness, a greater democratization of decision-making processes and in general a reshaping of GG, in practice, their way of acting has very often shown significant limitations which can be linked precisely to their national interests, and therefore to a lack of cohesion among them. In the future, the challenges that these countries will be called upon to carry out will be to try to find a common position and pursue it, both in theory and in practice.
These examples, climate change, the role of CS and the behavior of the BRICS within international institutions show us (although, as mentioned, other areas could also be considered) that the BRICS still have a long way to go and therefore, that there are issues that they will have to address where they will have to increase their cooperation.
At the same time, we wish to point out that, although these countries will surely find greater homogeneity, they will still have lots a multitude of problems that they will not be able to deal with by remaining isolated (nor also as a block). This means that in order to make the world order work, they should try to promote a global approach toward “global development”, especially with regards to the global issues that concern us most closely nowadays.
What has been discussed so far not only highlights that we are not, at least for now, facing a transition of power or a new global hegemony, but also that there are numerous gaps to be filled by the BRICS in order to be a truly accountable and compact group. At the same time, it is important to highlight another point that could emerge from these analyses: the fact that rather than demanding different spheres of power, and therefore increasing the divisions between different blocs in the current world, nowadays, we should instead start thinking about a truly global approach to global problems. The pandemic has done nothing but reconfirm this pressing need.