How should small states articulate their interests through BRICS?

15 March 2013

I SPENT this past week in Durban, attending the Brics Academic Forum, which is part of a series of official events leading to the Brics Head of State Summit on 26-27 March 2013.
The Brics, which groups Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, is not independent from existing global power structures. It seeks to reinforce these power structures through a voice that is not substantively an alternative, but merely one of continuity. Still, it has made significant advances and the Durban Summit is likely to further institutionalise the body through a Brics Development Bank.


Since the Brics is a club of big states, it begs the question as what place it leaves to small states across the globe. Is it likely to articulate the agenda of the small? If so, how will it speak for small states? Specifically, these questions are more important in as far as small states in Africa are concerned since they don’t have the requisite capacities to negotiate meaningfully in international relations. Sections of the scientific literature in international relations advances the hypothesis that the strong will do what they want to do, while the weak will do what they have or are forced to do. This argument has provided a comfortable justification for less focus on the foreign policies of smaller states, which are considered within such a perspective not really as relevant for international relations.

Unless a smaller state is endowed with natural resources, its foreign policy will not invite a lot of interest in international policy-making and academic circles. Yet, there are smaller states that are crucial to the stability of their regions and are in some instances able to play essential roles within their regions.

As carriers of norms reflected in normative frameworks not always adhered to by those who claim to hold the power of definition globally, and through the provision of socio-economic opportunities they contribute to the prosperity and stability in regions. The (relatively speaking) smaller states of Western Europe, notably the Nordic countries, are a kind of ‘middle powers’ which have contributed to a stable Europe by harnessing their comparative strengths.

This argument is also valid for the smaller member states of ASEAN, including Singapore. In light of the normative comparative strengths of smaller states, it can be concluded that governance matters. Policy issues in smaller states should not only be of concern when they are caught between extremes – natural resources and pervasive political instability.

Smaller states in Africa, and specifically those in SADC can act positively to promote certain norms, thereby contributing to regional stability and consequently to relative peace and economic growth. When endowed with natural resources, smaller states can, without doubt, be game-changers in their own right, thereby enhancing a variety of regional prospects. But the adverse is similarly true, namely that smaller states can be the source of and contributing factor to regional instability and decline.

It should be emphasized nonetheless that smaller states generally matter less in regional, continental and global processes and their agenda setting. Their structurally weak position makes them particularly vulnerable to regional, continental and global shocks. In a changing global environment, understanding small states, their structural position and their take on issues, including the institutional and political impulses that drive their foreign policy positions becomes more urgent.

The Brics group of countries as a power bloc, which potentially shifts the ground away from the United Nations led multilateralism further weakens the place of small states in international affairs. In light of the potential dilution of the United Nations as an avenue for international problem-solving, Africa’s small states in particular should start to think innovatively how they can engage the multitude of global power blocs which merely seeks to negotiate the place of the strong at the high table.

There is no 10-point plan articulating the contours of how Africa’s small states should engage the Brics. However, the potential starting bloc could be an alliance of like-minded small states that could start to frame concerns for discussion within the Brics.

Alfredo Tjiurimo HENGARI is Head of the South African Foreign Policy and African Drivers Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, based at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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