Oliver Stuenkel was part of Brazil’s delegation to the Track II academic forum in preparation for the New Delhi Summit for the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) which was held on Thursday.
Stuenkel specialises in Brazil's relations with India, but also more broadly focuses his research on the BRICS. He is currently a professor of international relations at Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo. He also runs a blog called Post Western World, which looks at how emerging powers are changing the world.
Below is part of my interview with Stuenkel, where he sheds light on Brazil and the prospects and challenges the BRICS face. He also pushes back against those who say that the BRICS countries have failed.
How important is the BRICS alliance to Brazil’s overall foreign policy?
Oliver Stuenkel:  Being part of the BRICS is very important because the BRICS concept has geopolitical implications. It’s seen as a potential threat to the established powers. And Brazil has traditionally been very far away from the hot spots in the world. Brazil was never seen as a potentially dangerous or powerful country that seriously impacted the global situation. But being part of the BRICS changes that to some degree. So now that Brazil has this BRICS alliance, Brazil is suddenly seen as a much more important actor from the European and American perspective.
So I think there is a great awareness in Brazil that being part of that alliance, or grouping, can allow Brazil to participate in the debate about, for example, the rising Asia. This is important because, until the inclusion of South Africa, the BRICS were basically three countries (China, Russia and India) that were part of the Eurasian land mass. Plus Brazil is very far away geographically. That, combined with the fact Russia, India and China have known each other for a long time has made for a situation that, until South Africa joined, Brazil was sort of the odd man out. So the inclusion of South Africa has helped the BRICS become more of a global brand, capable of representing more continents and also helped Brazil feel less excluded.
China has surpassed the United States as Brazil’s largest trading partner. Has Brazil’s relationship with the BRICS become more important than Brazil’s relations with the United States, or even the Mercosul [Latin American bloc]?
OS: [It's] difficult to answer that, but the Brazilian government continues to focus on its own region. There is strong acknowledgement in Brazil that this country will always be part of South America and the economic and political ties with that region will always be a priority. In regards to the US, I think there is a divide with the Brazilian leadership. During the [era of former President] Fernando Henrique Cardoso [from 1995-2003] the majority of policy makers would have said the US is absolutely a priority. But now under Rousseff and Lula administrations, there are people who are seeking to balance the two. I think Brazil will never be a country that chooses between the BRICS or the United States – it will always be a balance.
Do you think the United States and Europe would prefer to see the BRICS alliance fail?
OS: Specifically from the American side, I think there is a strong American interest to reduce the links between Brazil and the rest of the BRICS. So I think it’s clearly understood within the US that Brazil’s attempts to strengthen ties within the BRICS is seen as problematic … If you think about it, there are very few powerful alliances in the world without any European or American participation. The BRICS is the only one. And that is not in the interest of the US.
Do you see evidence of powerful interests trying to divide the BRICS?
OS: There are efforts underway, for example in the US, to see what options there are to weaken the links between Brazil and other BRICS counties. We see it in the media. It’s very difficult to find today any US or European commentators who say the BRICS maybe are really on to something, let’s give them a chance. The way commentators and academics in the US and Europe view the BRICS is much more sceptical than in India, for example, where there is a new group of thinkers emerging.
What is the biggest challenge the BRICS face?
OS: To articulate a common vision that will show the rest of the world that it is a powerful alliance that can articulate a clear vision of what it wants … I also think the BRICS need to be more innovative, because right now they are being measured against expectations on past experiences like the G7 and the EU and NATO. So many people say, ‘The BRICS don’t look like the EU or NATO, so they must have failed.’ So I think the real challenge for the BRICS is to think outside of the box and to consider new ideas and to create something that doesn’t even exist yet and doesn’t fall apart as soon as a bilateral problem comes up.
And if they are able to this, what would be the results?
OS: If the BRICS are able to speak with one voice on any issue in global affairs, they immediately turn into an agenda-setters and a very powerful voice that neither the U.S. nor Europe can ignore. It would be the first time we would have a serious alternative to the established powers narrative in how to view the world. The American control of the public discourse globally is still quite strong because the emerging countries are unable to articulate an alternative vision at this point. The BRICS can change that.
Some people say that because the BRICS have not established a unified narrative and vision, they have already failed. Do you agree?
OS: No. I think there is an interest in the US and Europe to see that the BRICS don’t establish that narrative. And I think there is a lot of analysis that seeks to depict the BRICS as an alliance that is incapable of finding that common vision. I think it’s quite natural for countries that have only been meeting formally for four years that there are still issues to be resolved. They will never reach the day when they agree on everything, just like the EU, NATO and OECD members don’t all agree on everything.
Why should anybody living in a non-BRICS country care about the BRICS or the fact they meet every year as a group?
OS: Because the BRICS have the potential to turn into a very important voice. You can’t solve climate change without the BRICS. You can’t deal with global financial instability effectively without the BRICS. So if these five countries can say, ‘We have a common position on climate change’, that is crucially important to the next climate change summit in terms of the global debate.
You can not solve climate change without the Brazilian president at the table. Even if the BRICS are unable to find common ground on a certain topic, that will strongly influence the attempt to find solutions.
Where do you see the BRICS in 2030?
OS: In 2030, of the world’s four largest economies, three will be BRICS counties. I think that will fundamentally change the world.
Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel
This interview was condensed and edited for space and clarity.