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Published: 01:13, September 18, 2023 | Updated: 09:33, September 18, 2023
Western smugness to BRICS exposes historical myopia
By Lau Siu-kai
Published:01:13, September 18, 2023 Updated:09:33, September 18, 2023 By Lau Siu-kai

The meeting of leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, (BRICS) held last month in Johannesburg, South Africa, attracted unprecedented attention from the Western world. Not surprisingly, it also triggered variegated reactions from Western experts. 

In general, many Western experts tend to ridicule or denigrate the international role and significance of BRICS, insisting arrogantly that the expanded BRICS will have only limited effect on the current “liberal international order” dominated by the United States, and that it will not pose a real threat to the hegemony of the US dollar. They also are adamant that BRICS cannot change the global geopolitical landscape in any discernible way, and that it will not be able to turn the Global South into the “setter” of international rules or enable it to become an anti-Western bloc. At most, this meeting of leaders will increase the status and influence of China and the Global South it aspires to lead to a “tolerable” extent, they believe.

The biggest reason Western experts display contempt, smugness, and arrogance toward BRICS is that they firmly believe that the US-led international order will remain irreplaceable and impregnable. Even though many countries, including some less-developed Western countries, bear grudges against it, they have no choice but to live with it. Of course, it cannot be ruled out that some people who cherish “white superiority” still believe that the US-led international order represents the “end of history” and will eventually benefit all participants. In their view, even if that international order has shortcomings, it can endure after tinkering at the margins.

At the same time, there are several other reasons these experts denigrate BRICS. First, they believe that there are conflicts of interest within BRICS that make it difficult to unite its members, such as the border conflicts and “strategic competition” between China and India. Second, the BRICS countries differ considerably in economic size, development level, economic structure, political system, social configuration, religion, and culture, making it difficult for them to reach agreements on significant issues. Third, some BRICS and Global South countries have relatively close relations with the US and the West and are unwilling to get too close to China and Russia. Fourth, the US dollar’s status as the premier international currency is difficult to dislodge. Without a central bank capable of monitoring all countries, it is just a fantasy for BRICS countries to issue a “common currency”. Even if they use their currencies more for trade and other purposes, the impact on the hegemony of the US dollar will be minimal. Fifth, some BRICS and Global South countries have conflicts with China regarding interests, land, territorial waters and values, and are apprehensive about China’s rise. Even if they hope to latch on to China’s economic rise, they are unwilling to rely too much on China or succumb to its leadership. These Western experts thus assert that BRICS’ political capacity and economic clout should not be exaggerated. To them, the rise of the Global South is just a “myth” or even “fake”.

In my opinion, these experts’ comments are akin to the narrow, short-term thinking of “seeing only the trees but not the forest”, hence seriously devoid of a macro and historical perspective. Indeed, China, BRICS and most countries in the Global South want to achieve specific goals in the short and medium term, including reforming the international order and the rules crafted by the US, reducing the threat of the “weaponization of the dollar”, weakening the ability of the US to slap unilateral sanctions on other countries, combating all kinds of protectionism, increasing the influence of the Global South in the international organizations founded by the US and the West, and expanding the voice of the Global South in the world.

However, the irreversible rise of China, BRICS and the Global South reflects a more robust and insuperable megahistorical trend. The core of this trend is the inevitable demise of the US-dominated international order and the ultimate rise of a new international order that enjoys global legitimacy. In this megahistorical trend, China provides the needed impetus and occupies a pivotal position.

Historically, the “modern state” evolved over several centuries, with critical developments occurring between the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and the subsequent Treaty of Vienna in 1815. It spread around the world and became the standard political organization widely adopted today. The so-called international order refers to an order made up of different states. History shows that there may be more than one international order in the world. The more famous international orders include the Westphalia System, the Concert of Europe in the 19th century, the international system based on the Paris Peace Conference after World War I, the socialist camp and the Western camp dominated respectively by the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War, and the much-enlarged US-dominated international order since the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, historical experience shows that the international order is constantly changing, and that no international order can last forever.

The ongoing megahistorical trend is that the US-dominated international order is unsustainable, and “de-Westernization” is a complex, messy and irreversible process. Of course, the US is unwilling to undertake fundamental reforms to an international order that undergirds its hegemony, and limited tinkering by the West is not enough to enhance its legitimacy in the Global South. To maintain its global hegemony, the US is determined to defend this international order by any means necessary and vigorously suppresses any country that challenges it. In the process of maintaining its hegemony, the US and its Western allies are even more desperate and unscrupulous in weaponizing the international order and rules, including weaponizing the US dollar, launching trade and technology wars, imposing severe sanctions on entities and individuals of other countries, implementing export and investment controls, plundering other countries’ wealth through financial means, and restricting or paralyzing the normal operations of some international organizations such as the World Trade Organization.

China and countries in the Global South are already highly disappointed with the US-dominated international order. They believe that it is unfair, unjust and unequal, and lacks inclusiveness. It embodies the hegemony of the US and the West and primarily serves Western interests. It’s unfavorable to developing countries and can no longer be tolerated. It fails to address pressing global problems such as climate change, pandemics, poverty, drug abuse and the indebtedness of the Global South. Today, the Global South’s grievances against this international order have reached tipping point, and calls for building a new one are strident. Many countries in the Global South have high hopes for BRICS and have expressed their desire to join. Although there are many contradictions and conflicts within the Global South, they have in common an intense disillusionment with the US-led international order and an overwhelming longing for a new one. And this common concern trumps their differences.

After World War II, colonies oppressed by Western imperialism quickly moved toward independence. These emerging independent countries are trying to eliminate the constraints of the West and seek full-scale development. Today, however, the development of countries in the Global South is still hampered by the US-dominated international order. Many of them are still mired in poverty and underdevelopment. It can be said that the current international order is a powerful means for the West to achieve neocolonial domination of the Global South. Accordingly, decolonization still needs to be carried on resolutely by the Global South against the obstruction of the former imperial powers. In her book Remaking the World: Decolonization and the Cold War, Jessica M. Chapman pointed out that from the perspective of decolonization, if the world after World War II has become a global struggle to replace the collapsed imperial order with a new international system, then an international order that can fully realize decolonization has yet to be established.

In fact, after gaining independence, many colonies of Western countries tried to unite to fight for their development rights, strategic autonomy, and influence in international affairs. The Bandung Conference, held in Bandung, Indonesia, in April 1955, with the participation of 29 Asian and African countries, can be regarded as the first significant action by the Global South to push for a more equitable world order. However, the Cold War and the US hegemony after the end of the Cold War have made it impossible for the Global South to unite. Most importantly, the Global South did not have a powerful country in their midst to promote this vast project back then. With China’s rise, the West’s decline, and the emergence of a few other Global South powers, the prospect of forming a new international order has brightened considerably.

The emergence of BRICS and the rush of many developing countries to join it mean that the Global South hopes to unite again to end the US-dominated international order and promote the construction of a new one. Of course, apart from agreeing that the existing international order should end, the Global South still needs a consensus on the configuration of the new international order, especially its institutions and rules. Even so, the basic outline of the new global order is already discernible. Over the last few years, President Xi Jinping has put forward a series of principles for building a new international order, including the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilization Initiative, which have been widely endorsed by the Global South and are essential for building a new international order of equality, justice, reciprocity, inclusiveness and peace. They can serve as a starting point for BRICS and the Global South to explore the configuration of the new international order. An increasingly prosperous and powerful China will be essential in accomplishing this mission. No other country in the Global South is more qualified for the leadership role.

Western experts who disparage BRICS and the Global South keep believing that the large number of internal contradictions among developing countries will hinder their coming together to promote the construction of a new international order. However, one of the main reasons the Global South rejects the current US-dominated international order is that the US uses every means to compel non-Western countries to mimic Western systems, values and development models. An essential feature of the new international order that China and the Global South hope to see is that no matter what institutions, values and development models they adopt, all countries, Western and non-Western, can peacefully coexist, treat each other as equals, respect each other’s sovereignty and autonomy, and prosper jointly. Only this kind of international order can garner global legitimacy, be conducive to world peace and development, and last long.

Realizing this megahistorical trend will not be smooth sailing, but the US and the West cannot arrest it. The contempt and arrogance shown by Western experts toward BRICS only betray their underestimation of the determination of the Global South to build a new international order and expose their historical myopia.

The author is a professor emeritus of sociology, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a consultant of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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