In the past month or so, the world has witnessed two summits convened by major global economic forums -— the Group of 20 (G20) and Brics (named after its five core member states: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). The goal of each of these summits was to shape the global economic, political and security environment to best meet the needs of their respective memberships. These goals are not complementary, but rather in opposition, representing as they do the strategic visions of their members. The US-dominated G20 seeks the sustainment of the rules-based international order, which has the US perched on top of a compliant global community, while the Russian- and Chinese-dominated Brics forum seeks a multipolar world where the US no longer reigns supreme. The battle between these two competing blocs will define the future of global geopolitics.
Let there be no doubt: The world is in the midst of a global struggle that pits the US against Russia and China. This struggle is not simply a replay of the bipolar arrangement that defined the decades of the Cold War, where the forces of Western democracies (led by the US) faced off against the forces of international communism (led by the Soviet Union and China). Today’s conflict pits the proponents of a global singularity -— the so-called rules based international order, led by the US -— against a new multipolar community, led by Russia and China, in a competition between the major powers to shape what comes next. The players may be the same, but the game is very different.
The administration of US President Joe Biden understands the scope, scale and consequences of this new confrontation. “We are in the midst of a strategic competition to shape the future of the international order,” Biden declared in the introduction to his National Security, published in October 2022. To position itself for victory, the US has sought to reinvigorate what it calls its “unmatched network of alliances and partnerships” that constitutes “a free and open rules-based international order.”
Key among this network is the G7, an organization of the world’s seven largest developed economies — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and US, as well as the European Union — which coordinate closely on issues of global trade and the international financial system to strengthen and perpetuate the rules-based international order it helps anchor. The G7 in 1999 established the wider G20 as an informal mechanism for dialogue among what it described as “systemically important countries” to manage their development within the framework of the Bretton Woods institutional system — in short, to ensure that the global economy was kept under the auspices of the rules-based international order. As well as the G7, the G20 includes such countries as China, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Indonesia, among others. Given its broad base, the G20 has become the litmus test on how effective the US and its allies have been in managing their collective competition with Russia and China.
Russia and China have not sat on the sidelines. In February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, where they issued a joint statement that openly challenged the US-led rules-based order. It noted that the “world is going through momentous changes” defined by “rapid development and profound transformation.” This, the statement said, has led to the rise of “multipolarity” as a concept, which will define “the global governance architecture and world order” and lead to the “redistribution of power in the world.”
Russia and China agreed that the G20 was “an important forum for discussing international economic cooperation issues and anti-crisis response measures.” As such, they promoted the role the G20 could play in furthering the world economy and inclusive sustainable development, and improving the global economic governance system “in a fair and rational manner to collectively address global challenges.”
The G20, however, was not the only economic forum of note. In their statement, Russia and China supported “the deepened strategic partnership within Brics,” including expanded cooperation in politics and security, economy and finance and humanitarian exchanges. The two nations agreed to “strive to further strengthen the Brics Plus/Outreach format as an effective mechanism of dialogue with regional integration associations and organizations of developing countries and states with emerging markets.” In short, the Brics was viewed as a direct competitor to the G20 for global economic influence.
In the months since the US, Russia and China defined the scope and scale of their competition for global influence, both the G20 and Brics have had the opportunity to flex their muscles at summits. Here, the G20 has struggled, unable to forge a consensus over Russia’s ongoing conflict with Ukraine, despite the concerted efforts of the US and its G7 allies. Brics, on the other hand, has maintained a strict policy of neutrality on the war in Ukraine, refusing to endorse Western efforts to isolate Russia economically or politically.
One of the major strategies undertaken by the US in the past year has been a concerted effort to draw India away from the orbit of Russia and China. This has led to India straddling the fence, with one foot firmly in the domain of the rules-based international order, and the other in the emerging multipolar world.
The G20 and Brics are also competing over Africa. China has made major inroads in Africa through its Belt and Road Initiative, an economic aid program. For its part, Russia has been promoting security and economic cooperation initiatives in Africa designed to draw nations away from the US-European orbit. Brics has reflected this priority, with its most recent summit held in South Africa and focused on development of the African continent. The G20 has responded by inviting the African Union to its ranks.
But expansion of the G20 remains hypothetical. Not so for Brics, which recently opened its door to six new members. Two of these, Saudi Arabia and Argentina, are G20 members, while another two, Egypt and Ethiopia, are African states. The other two invitations, to Iran and the United Arab Emirates, reflect Chinese diplomatic interventions in the Middle East, which brought an end to decades of regional animosity between Iran and Saudi Arabia, something the US and its allies were unable to accomplish.
While the competition between the US-led order and Russian-Chinese multipolarity will continue for years, the early score card suggests that multipolarity, as represented by Brics, is pulling ahead of the US-dominated G20. If this trend continues — and there is no reason to believe it will not, given the expansion of Brics — it will define global geopolitics for many decades to come.
Scott Ritter is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer whose service over a 20-plus-year career included tours of duty in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control agreements, serving on the staff of US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War and later as a chief weapons inspector with the UN in Iraq from 1991-98. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.