In the midst of chaos there is also opportunity - Sun Tzu

The leaders of Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa
Virtual reality: the BRICS leaders height-adjusted avatars

BRICS - Adjusted Heights

On 23 June the leaders of Brazil, South Africa, China, India and Russia met (virtually) in Beijing to foster “solidarity and cooperation based on our common interests and key priorities”.

Not only did the BRICS leaders met virtually, they issued a virtual group photo, in which the heights of the leaders had been diplomatically adjusted to avoid embarrassment and foster a sense of unity (President Xi is nearly a foot taller than Presidents Modi and Putin). In a long and platitude-filled “Beijing Declaration” invoking multilateralism and the rule of international law, the group admitted - briefly - they had discussed both Ukraine and Afghanistan, making it clear that they aren’t going to judge and aren’t going to interfere (emphasis added):

22. …….. We support talks between Russia and Ukraine. We have also discussed our concerns over the humanitarian situation in and around Ukraine…..

23. We strongly support a peaceful, secure and stable Afghanistan while emphasizing the respect for its sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, national unity and non-interference in its internal affairs.

Reading the Western media one would not have known about the BRICS meeting, nor of its non-judgmental approach to Russian over Ukraine: all focus was on the G7 and NATO. Immediately after the leaders of the BRICS had their virtual meeting, the G7 was meeting physically in picturesque Bavaria in southern Germany, its leaders cheerfully making jokes amongst themselves about President Putin’s fondness for posing for photographs shirtless. The only virtual attendee was President Zelensky of Ukraine, who was invited to speak.

The G7 - Adjusted Morals

The G7 has made Russia and President Putin pariahs, and its leaders - and majority of their electorates - obviously believe that it is politically appropriate to make personal jibes at Putin’s expense. However, just before Trudeau, Johnson and Von der Leyen laughed a their own jokes with the delighted media looking on, the Russian President himself was being greeted by the BRICS - which include the world’s largest democracy and world’s second largest economy - with all the diplomatic courtesy afforded to the leader of an independent democracy (which technically he is).

On the day the G7 meeting started a Russian air-launched cruise missile - a guided not arbitrary weapon - hit a shopping center in the Ukrainian town of Kremenchuk. That feels like a very deliberate message. Beyond the G7’s childish quips, the official rhetoric against Russia and President Putin could not have been harder. In a joint statement the G7 described President Putin as a war criminal; “Arbitrary attacks on innocent civilians are war crimes. Russian President Putin and others responsible will be held accountable,” they said in a joint statement.

With profound irony - or perhaps political pragmatism over moral consistency - the G7 had no qualms about inviting two of President Putin’s BRICS friends to join them. President’s Modi and Ramaphosa attended the G7 meetings as India and South Africa are “partner countries” of the G7 and “strong democracies that are aware of their global responsibilities”, in the words of German Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Strong democracies that hang out and have shared priorities with war criminals, that is.

Human Freedom Metrics

The BRICS nations have a decidedly patchy record on matters of personal and political freedoms. Despite 4 of the 5 BRICS countries being democracies, their collective tendencies are decidedly illiberal: based on the 2021 Human Freedom Index published by the Washington DC based Cato Institute, South Africa and Brazil rank poorly at number 77 and 78 in the world (some way below post-traumatic Bosnia and El Salvador), with India at 119th (below Sierra Leone and Cambodia), Russia at 126th (below Nicaragua and Nigeria) and China at 150th (below the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe).

The G7 all rank in the top 35: it would be higher but France lets the side down with its 34th place ranking: Canada ranks 6th, the UK 14th, the US, Japan and Germany joint 15th, and Italy 26th.

NATO’s Renewed Sense of Purpose

A day after the G7 summit nearly all the G7 leaders and their entourages migrated from Germany to Madrid for the NATO meeting: Japan and the EU were allowed to go home. And Finland and Sweden are joining, now that Turkey has lifted its objection to their NATO membership. The Nordic countries apparently agreed to stop supporting armed Kurdish groups in south eastern Turkey - which had enraged Ankara - in exchange for their membership of NATO.

In sharp contrast to the BRICS Beijing Declaration of the week before, which hardly mentioned Ukraine, the rhetoric of the Madrid Declaration of NATO was predominantly about Russia. The original raison d’etre of NATO - fighting Bolshevik Russia (see - has reignited its purpose, and expanded its membership further (emphasis added):

The Russian Federation is the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area

However, in another signal that the world is now changed, NATO is also explicit about China and its disruptive influences on the Western-led world order:

We are confronted by cyber, space, and hybrid and other asymmetric threats, and by the malicious use of emerging and disruptive technologies.  ……including the People’s Republic of China, who challenge our interests, security, and values and seek to undermine the rules-based international order.

As I noted in my last Scriber piece Ukraine - for all its corruption, dysfunctional politics and long running civil war - has done enough to illustrate it has “European values and standards”, by resisting Russia. Turkey - a NATO member with an on/off relationship with Russia - still hasn’t made the cut.

China vs The West

The new lines are now being drawn between those who aspire to “Western standards and values” - led by the G7 - and those who want to make “global governance more inclusive, representative and participatory to facilitate greater and more meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries” (the Beijing Declaration) - led by China.

The natural beneficiary of the consequences of the conflict in Ukraine is China: it remains friends with Russia, will buy more of its gas and use it to win more friends in Central Asia, Africa and Latin America, many countries of which have longstanding arms and energy deals with Russia. It also remains the second largest investor in US public debt (Japan owns a little more), and intimately connected to the economies of the West, which depend on it. The next years and decades are going to be defined by the complex wrestling match between China and the West and their friends who may have to pick sides.

Further Reading: