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Vijay Prashad on BRICS & Why Global South Cooperation Is Key to Dismantling Unjust World Order

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As a two-day BRICS summit gets underway in South Africa, we speak with author and analyst Vijay Prashad about whether the bloc — which comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — can meaningfully challenge U.S. and Western domination in world affairs by building an alternative forum for countries of the Global South. BRICS countries represent 40% of the world’s population and a quarter of the world’s economy, and the group is now considering a possible expansion to more than 20 other countries. ”BRICS is an instrument to push forward their political views, which they feel are not taken seriously,” says Prashad, director of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. Prashad explains the history of BRICS and its New Development Bank and responds to criticism that BRICS falsely portrays itself as an anti-imperialist project. The BRICS countries “are not a socialist bloc,” says Prashad, but they “don’t want to do whatever the West tells them — they’re driving their own agenda.”

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StoryAug 21, 2023South Africa Hosts Major BRICS Summit as Bloc Eyes Expanding in Global South to Counter Western Powers
Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, Brazilian President Lula da Silva and Indian President Narendra Modi have arrived in South Africa for a major summit in Johannesburg of BRICS. That’s the acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Russia is sending Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, after Vladimir Putin decided not to make the trip to avoid facing possible arrest. South Africa is a signatory to the International Criminal Court, which has issued an arrest warrant for Putin for alleged war crimes in Ukraine, and so South Africa would be obligated to arrest him if he arrived there.

While the BRICS alliance was formed in 2006, and it appears poised to expand, more than 20 countries have formally applied to join BRICS, and others have expressed interest. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa talked about the importance of BRICS during a speech Monday.

PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: This BRICS summit is particularly important, as it is being held as the world is confronted by fundamental challenges that are bound to determine the course of international events for years to come. Our world has become increasingly complex and fractured, as it is increasingly polarized and competing with each other in various competing camps.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Vijay Prashad, director of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. His most recent book, co-authored with professor Noam Chomsky, The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power. Vijay Prashad’s recent article is headlined “The BRICS Have Changed the Balance of Forces, but They Will Not by Themselves Change the World.”

If you can explain, Vijay, the significance of this meeting taking place in South Africa right now, and also in the context of what’s going on quite far away, but the war in Ukraine?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, Amy, it’s great to be with you.

This is the 15th BRICS summit, the first one in person since the summit in Brasília in 2019, brings together heads of governments of these important countries. Yes, it’s true it’s also the first BRICS summit since the war began in Ukraine 18 months ago.

It’s important to recognize one of the reasons why this particular gathering is so important. You know, two of the BRICS countries — Russia and China — are members of the Security Council. They are part of the P5, the five permanent members of the Security Council. It’s important to point out that the three other members — Brazil, South Africa and India — have long applied to be permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — in other words, to have a veto. There is no Latin American with a permanent seat on the Security Council. Brazil has asked for that seat. There is no African power on the Security Council with a permanent seat. South Africa has long lobbied for that position. And India is the country with the world’s largest population and has for 20 years asked for a place at the Security Council. These are three very important powers that, in the context of the war in Ukraine, have tried to put themselves forward — that is, Brazil with a peace plan, South Africa with a plan that has come from leaders of African countries, and India taking a role, through the BRICS but also the G20, trying to develop a peace plan. These are countries frustrated not to have a seat at the Security Council. And for them, the BRICS is an instrument to push forward their political views, which they feel are not taken seriously, particularly by the Western countries, whom they feel have blocked them from permanent seats on the Security Council.

So, I think if you’re asking about the Ukraine war itself, it’s important to see the BRICS in the context of aspirations denied through the U.N. Security Council, also, to some extent, aspirations denied through the G20. During the financial crisis, when U.S. banks went south, there was an argument made by G7 countries that if countries like India, China, Indonesia help liquefy Western banks, the G7 will be wrapped up, and the G20 will take its place. That promise was also not put forward. It was not, you know, in a sense, made real. And the G20 continues to meet, but it’s still, in a sense, in the shadow of the G7. All these frustrated political ambitions of large countries, like India, Brazil and South Africa, these frustrations run through the BRICS. And that’s why this summit is so important. Lula is back on the world stage, committed to make his mark, particularly on the continent of Africa, which this Brazilian president takes very seriously.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Vijay, I wanted to ask you — Democracy Now! had two guests on yesterday to also talk about the BRICS summit. And to say the least, both of them were skeptical and practically dismissive of the importance of BRICS. One of them, Trevor Ngwane, said, quote, that this was a — that BRICS was “projecting a false hope to the masses.” And the other, Patrick [Bond], the director of the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg, said that the new applicants were basically a group of, quote, “tyrannies” and “carbon-addicted economies.” You have a much brighter sense of the hopes of BRICS. What’s the importance of the increasing development of BRICS? And could you talk a little bit about its origins, which most people are not aware of?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, of course, Patrick and Trevor are entitled to their opinions, and I’m sure they have very positive things to say about other things, but the fact is that neither of the two of them nor I established BRICS, nor, in a sense, are we able to drive the BRICS agenda. But when one analyzes something like BRICS, I think rather than taking a moralistic position towards it, it’s important to understand what it’s doing.

Twenty-two governments have elected to join BRICS one way or the other. Some of them are very complicated countries at this present moment. Saudi Arabia is in a very complicated situation. It’s sort of dancing between the worlds. Seven of the 13 members of OPEC have applied to join the BRICS. This is very significant for shifts in the world balance. Whether you like it or not, that’s a separate issue. Let’s first try to understand as best as we can what’s happening.

Well, the BRICS has its origins in 2003, when India, Brazil and South Africa came together to try to break the World Trade Organization’s really quite, you know, strict approach towards intellectual property rights. India is one of the world’s largest producers of pharmaceuticals. Brazil and South Africa at the time were keen to get access to low-priced AIDS drugs, the HIV/AIDS cocktail. India could produce it, but was not able to sell it to these countries at a cut price because of the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS regime, the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights. Breaking the TRIPS regime through this alliance called IBSA — India, Brazil and South Africa — that was the origin story of the BRICS. Then, in 2006, Brazil, Russia, China and India had a meeting at the sidelines of the United Nations where they talked about the need for a new monetary and trade order. This was a preparatory discussion. In 2009, these countries come together to launch the BRICS summit.

Now, what’s really important to understand, and why we shouldn’t exaggerate the potential of the BRICS, initially BRICS comes together in frustration with what they think of as the leadership of Western countries over the world fiscal and monetary order. The economic crisis of 2006, 2007 was pretty shocking for countries like India and China. They had put a lot of their eggs in the basket of the Western economic growth, of the U.S. market as the market of last resort. The collapse of the Western financial system, of the United States market as the market of last resort, allowed these countries to think through their own sense of being tied to the U.S. in particular, and they started to look for alternatives. The alternatives were — and there are a number of them — through the BRICS process, certainly, but also through China’s Belt and Road, which was a direct reaction to the collapse of Western financial systems and the U.S. market. In that sense, BRICS is largely a trade bloc — excuse me — largely a trade bloc. The rest is basically an aftermath.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mentioned the issue of the world monetary system. The importance of the BRICS bank, the New Development Bank, that is based in China and headed by Dilma Rousseff, in terms of breaking the stranglehold or the monopoly that groups like the IMF and the World Bank have on international finance?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, it’s important, when we start looking at the New Development Bank, to understand what the development regime has been since 1944, since the Bretton Woods meeting, where the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were created. You see, the IMF, which had pretty interesting origins — commitment to helping countries develop and so on — by the 1970s had been running a very narrow policy space, kind of program, which is to say that they were offering debt to countries struggling to break out of the shackles of colonialism. They were offering them debt. This debt was being offered in a very narrow way. It was being offered basically to build — you know, to continue to allow an economy of export of raw materials and import of finished products, largely from the West at the time. And what this program, this structural adjustment program, allowed the IMF to do in many of these poor countries is force the countries to cut back on spending for education, healthcare and so on, and only build up the economy towards export. When these countries went into quite catastrophic debt, a kind of cycle of permanent debt, they began to borrow, not for infrastructure, but for debt servicing, to pay off their debt. The IMF then produced a debt austerity cycle, rather a permanent structure of debt for many countries.

What the New Development Bank was set up to do, and very recently, only in 2015, with $100 billion of capital, it was set up to try to break the Gordian knot tied by the International Monetary Fund, not to lend money for debt servicing, but to lend money for infrastructure. And ever since Dilma Rousseff has come to the helm less than year ago, she said that the New Development Bank is going to lend without conditionalities, without telling countries that they can’t spend on education or they can’t spend on healthcare. This is a huge departure.

Now, will they be able to succeed? The bank was only created in 2015. It has barely been working since then. The contingency reserve arrangement, which was to be the substitute for the IMF, with, again, $100 billion of capital to itself — the contingency reserve arrangement hasn’t even started working yet. So, people who criticize these institutions without them actually having any time to develop themselves, start building their own history, as it were, I find this premature. Let’s see how they go. Let’s see if the contingency reserve arrangement will be a substitute for the International Monetary Fund. Dilma Rousseff has said she is interested in experimenting with local currency lending. She’s interested in using, for instance, currency swaps as an instrument, something that the People’s Bank of China has already been doing. She’s interested in providing debt, as I said, for infrastructure, not for debt payment. That’s the one conditionality, I suppose, even though she said no conditionalities. Let these institutions germinate. They’re going to meet again and talk about the new monetary system at this BRICS meeting. Let’s listen to what they’ve learned.

AMY GOODMAN: This is what Trevor Ngwane — something else that he said yesterday. He’s the Soweto-based activist, chair of the United Front, speaking about BRICS.

TREVOR NGWANE: Yes. So, anti-imperialism is not necessarily anti-capitalism. In other words, you know, Putin, Modi, Ramaphosa, South Africa, they can say certain things against the U.S.A., but it doesn’t mean that at home their domestic policies favor the poor, favor the working class. So, that is the big issue for us. Also, there’s a level of geopolitics which turns ordinary people into cannon fodder, you know, working-class children, sons and daughters, being turned into soldiers to fight wars, sometimes proxy wars all over the globe, without any real benefit to their class, to their parents, to their communities.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Trevor Ngwane, the Soweto-based activist, chair of the United Front. Vijay Prashad, in other cases, I expect that you share some of his analysis. So, your thoughts on what he said?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, to be honest, Amy, I think his is a strawman argument, because nobody is saying, and certainly the BRICS don’t consider themselves to be an anti-imperialist platform. I mean, these are very large countries in the world. You put together their gross domestic product, the global share of the GDP of the BRICS countries is greater than the global share of the GDP of the G7. These are operators, large countries. These are not — you know, this is not a socialist bloc or an anti-imperialist bloc standing against the West. Quite the contrary, this is a group of large Southern countries that are basically saying that no longer do they believe that the West’s interest is equivalent to their interests. They are putting forward their national, to some extent, their regional interests, you know, to the fore. They don’t any longer want to be, quote-unquote, “the verandah boys,” a phrase used by a Ghanaian politician in the 1960s. They don’t want to sit and do whatever the West tells them — they’re driving their own agenda. I think it’s a little absurd to judge them based on a socialistic standard. This is not a socialist bloc.

Now, obviously, one has critiques of the operations of the BRICS states domestically. I mean, look at the Indian government. It has been savaging democracy. It has been going after the farmers and so on. But that doesn’t mean that one doesn’t have a dialectical understanding of the role of a country like India on the global stage. On the one hand, India is pursuing a full-scale capitalist project against its own people and so on. On the other hand, it is also turning around to the Western countries and saying, “Your issues are not our issues.” I was very interested to see recently when the U.S. — some U.S. congressman said, “Oh, maybe India should join NATO Plus.” The Indian foreign minister, foreign minister of a government of the right, Mr. Jaishankar, said in a television program, “India is not interested in the NATO template.” I thought that was an interesting statement. Let’s take that statement seriously. How do we understand that statement?

Well, the way to understand it, there’s a kind of new mood that is visible in sections of the Global South. In our institute, we are calling this the new nonalignment. You know, when the nonalignment group was created in 1961 in Belgrade, all the countries that came to Belgrade weren’t all countries with a socialist agenda. On the one side, you had Fidel Castro’s Cuba, led by Dorticós, Prime Minister Dorticós, at Belgrade. On the other side, you had very much pro-Western Ceylon, later Sri Lanka, at the meeting. So, you know, this is a nonaligned emergence; this is not a socialist emergence. So I think that kind of criticism is literally tilting at windmills. It’s a strawman criticism, might have, you know, bright spots here and there, but it doesn’t help you understand what this is. This isn’t claiming to be an anti-imperialist bloc. On the other side, it is perhaps indicating a kind of new nonalignment.

And what I was interested in is the statement made by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres at the release of a report called “A New Agenda for Peace.” At that event, António Guterres said that the post-Cold War world has ended. The post-Cold War world, that means the world that was created after 1991. He said that world has ended. And he said we’re in a new period. And he said some people are calling this the era of multipolarity. Maybe. I think it’s premature to name something right now. We’re in a new era. Well, let’s try to understand that new era. It’s certainly not a great era of anti-imperialism, but it might be the emergence of a new nonalignment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Vijay, I have one last question. We only have about a minute. But you mentioned India, but China has always — has also been at the focal point of a lot of the media attention about aggressiveness in the world. And you have made the point, repeatedly, that there is a lot more democratic debate going on in China, a richness of debate that most Americans are not exposed to. And you have tried to raise some of those issues on the world stage. Could you talk about that?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, of course, I would love to talk about that, because this, itself, raises eyebrows. People get suspicious of you when you merely say people in China, a country of 1.4 billion, have a range of political opinions. If you just go to Bilibili, if you go and read Chinese periodicals, there’s a range of opinion, including of the BRICS, including of countries that participate in the Belt and Road Initiative. There are some sections in China who think this is a waste of time. China is a very strong economy, some of these other countries simply not able to pull their weight. Why is China bothering with them? I mean, you know, recently, Xi Jinping said China is an ocean. Other countries might be like, you know, little puddles. An ocean might have turbulence, but at the end of the day it’s still an ocean. This kind of attitude is there in China, of course. And so, if you believe that, you’d wonder, “Why are you bothering with Argentina? Why would you bother with the United Arab Emirates? You know, you should only play with the very big players in the world.” There are other opinions out there, very strong opinions, which say, “No, China must play a role in the Global South. China has enormous surpluses. It must lend for infrastructural development and not for debt repayment and so on.”

This is an interesting period we’re in. There are lots of debates. And the BRICS meetings are places where a great deal of debate happens. This is not a place where people just come, and all nod and agree. It’s a place of great debate. Dilma Rousseff has said repeatedly she is going to Johannesburg to discuss and debate the importance of local currencies, pushing the idea that people need to trade in their own currencies. They shouldn’t be mediated merely through the dollar. I think these are rich and important discussions. I’m actually just surprised how little these discussions carry over into the West.

AMY GOODMAN: Vijay Prashad, I want to thank you so much for being with us, director of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. We’ll link to your new article, “The BRICS Have Changed the Balance of Forces, but They Will Not by Themselves Change the World.”

In 20 seconds, we go to Ecuador, where voters have passed a historic referendum to block oil extraction in the Amazon’s Yasuní National Park. Stay with us.

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