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A Brazilian perspective

Published onJun 02, 2023
A Brazilian perspective

This paper is an edited version of the transcript of Minister Sarquis’s presentation (the video recording of which is available on this site). As Minister Sarquis has not yet had an opportunity to review the edited transcript, this paper may be subject to change in coming weeks.

I want to start by saying a few words about the meaning of multilateralism. Then, I will say something about groupings such as the G7, the G20 and BRICS. Finally, I shall sketch some ideas about how BRICS has contributed to multilateralism and about the way forward.

Ruggie, Keohane and others have proposed a minimalist definition of multilateralism as any arrangement among three or more states willing to pursue coordination and cooperation on the basis of agreed principles and rules.

But I think we have to be more ambitious. There is an idealism behind the idea of universal multilateralism. I accordingly prefer a definition of multilateralism as a universal project, very much inspired by the UN Charter and by the establishment of multilateral fora such as the WTO and other such global institutions.

As Carlos Milani has rightly pointed out, there are many threats, many downside risks to multilateralism coming from different sources. But Brazilian diplomacy has been traditionally very much attached to multilateralism, and I feel proud of that. I always feel motivated to be engaged in that work. As I will try to explain, I do see a role for BRICS and other groups in that matter. I think they are part of the universal multilateralist process.

My approach to multilateralism is not a Kantian one, in the sense that I do not see multilateralism as a static project confined to agreeing on rules for multilateral institutions either in a liberal sense or in any other sense. In my conception, multilateralism is more of an Hegelian historical construct — created through the establishment of multilateral fora which are historical constructs in the same sense that nation states are historical constructs.

According to this conception, multilateralism is a phenomenon that is shaped by historical factors and that needs to accomodate not only the heterogeneity of the international community but also the fact that this heterogeneous community evolves over time as it faces evolving challenges.

This implies, of course, that — for multilateralism to survive — the nation states within that community need to reconcile the multilateral rules with their own priorities. They need to identify and re-identify their interests and objectives continuously within that environment of changing international relationships, particularly when they are exposed to shocks such as financial crises.

This is why the G7 has been, historically, an important group in contributing to multilateralism. It was created after the break-up of the original Bretton Woods understanding led by the US. Eventually, G7 countries regarded themselves as the anchor of the financial system, the stability of the global economy. And they worked as such for many decades in support of the stability of universal multilateralism.

But — to offer a highly synthetic summary of recent history — BRICS and the G20 emerged more or less simultaneously in response to the need for reform of the international financial architecture. And why? Because — not least by the G7 member-states themselves — they were perceived as important forces in reconfiguring both the international financial system and the way in which the global community handles issues related to development. Recently, we have seen, in the G20, important debates about how to promote development in LDCs, and important discussions about how to engage China and other emerging countries in that debate. The recognition of the need to engage in such discussion is why the role of the G20 (and also the role of BRICS) has been expanding considerably in recent years. I see these groups (the G7, BRICS and the G20) as now constituting the premier fora for coordination on economic affairs, development, and economic financial cooperation.

These three groups — the G7, BRICS, and the G20 which encompasses both the G7 and BRICS — are expressions of the fact that universal multilateralism now operates in a multipolar context. They are multipolar forces. You can see them as a unity, as part of multipolarity or as a set of groups gathering multipolar forces. Of course, they operate on the basis of diverse geometries depending on the topic. There is an important dynamic interaction within the G7 and within BRICS in relation to the reform of the international financial architecture. And there is a similar dynamic of interaction within the G20 between the G7 and BRICS, not only with regard to international financial architecture reform, but also more broadly in the area of sustainable development.

The contribution to universal multilateralism of these interactions within and between the G7, BRICS and the G20 has become clearer and clearer since the international community agreed multilaterally on the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda at the UN. The great contribution of the BRICS process to South-South cooperation has been concentrated in enhancing the development of the BRICS countries, in enhancing mutual knowledge, and in enhancing exchanges between peoples. But, more systemically, within the sphere of universal multilateralism, the cooperation of the BRICS countries has contributed to the reform of the international monetary system — the reform of IMF quotas — and to the important debate about the role of MDBs (about which Janet Yellen has recently made a strong speech, reflecting the US view and perhaps also the view of other G7 countries).

In this debate about the role of MDBs, there is a clear need to complement the views of the G7 economies with the views of the emerging economies represented in BRICS. The bulk of the needs in SDGs still lie in the emerging, developing world — and BRICS has been an important facilitator, an important instrument to leverage concerns, enabling the political concerns of the BRICS member-states to be powerful forces in the global discussion, raising awareness of the needs of developing countries in sustainable infrastructure, in food security, and in poverty alleviation. In this context, we should emphasise the significant contribution of the NDB — an institution founded on principles that align closely with the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, and which is (at least in tangible terms) the most significant structural achievement of BRICS.

So I would argue that BRICS is an important grouping — which not only contributes to enlarging engagement and mutual understanding amongst the member-states themselves, but also contributes significantly to strengthening universal multilateralism, through complementing the work of G7 and through enhancing the role of G20 as a multipolar forum. I see these contributions as especially important today, given the current threats of fragmentation of the multilateral institutions — threats that are clear, for instance, in the WTO, but also in other universal multilateral fora.

I believe that this shows us the way forward: the way in which BRICS can make further contributions to multilateralism. There are, I believe, four principles that should guide these further contributions. First, cooperation should be a demand-driven process, in which it is up to countries to demand contributions, for example from MDBs, or from countries that are willing to be partners to cooperate. Second, it should rely on established country-systems rather than imposing new structures from outside. Third, countries should be owners of their own sustainable development trajectories, rather than having these trajectories imposed upon them. And fourth, the interventions of the NDB and other MDBs have to be consistent with the SDGs, and hence with the multilaterally agreed principles of the UN 2030 Agenda.

If these four principles are followed, I see plenty of space for BRICS collaboration on climate change, on the SDGs and on the reform of the international financial architecture. We need not only to make further changes in the governance of the international financial architecture, but also to mobilize resources — multilateral resources, public sector resources, and private sector resources — to accelerate the achievement of the SDGs within the BRICS and the developing world. To achieve this, BRICS, G7 and G20 countries as a whole have to work together and focus on cooperation and development. Only in this way can we construct a resilient, multi-polar force to keep the essence of universal multilateralism intact.

Felipe Ribeiro:

For anyone interested I have developed an open source historiographical Wikipedia articles links database of the “Brazilian Peace Culture & Nonviolence Institutions” that may assist.