As Brazil prepares for historic first G20 presidency, it sits at crossroads of a shifting global order

The G-20 presidency comes as Brazil works to revitalise the BRICS coalition

BRICS summit Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Chinese President Xi Jinping, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov poses for a photo during the 2023 BRICS Leaders Retreat Meeting | PTI

Fresh after presiding over Brazil's 201st Independence Day festivities in Brasilia, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva promptly boarded a plane for New Delhi on Thursday, embarking on another symbolic transition: taking over the 2024 presidency of the powerful G-20 group of nations as world leaders gather this week.

The back-to-back September 7 events underscore the outsized role Lula envisions for Brazil on the world stage. After four years of diplomatic dormancy under his right-wing predecessor Jair Bolsonaro, the energetic 78-yr-old returning leftist president is vigorously reasserting Brazil as a prominent voice in international affairs.

"Brazil is back," Lula proclaimed in his inaugural address on January 1st, telegraphing his intentions. His globe-trotting first months in office signal Brazil’s ambitions for influence are no longer confined to Latin America. 

Lula’s overseas trips have included the United States, China, Japan, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Angola, and others.  

Now, Brazil will have the ability to host and coordinate the G-20 annual summit, set the agenda, facilitate discussions, and lead initiatives of the group of 19 countries and the European Union, representing the world's major economies. 

The high-profile G-20 presidency comes as Brazil works to revitalise the BRICS coalition of major developing nations, of which it controls the presidency of its New Development Bank, with former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at its helm in Shanghai. Analysts say if handled adeptly, Brazil’s global leadership roles could expand its clout as it finds itself at an inflection point, both regionally and on the world stage.

At the historic August BRICS gathering in Johannesburg, 41 developing countries declared interest in joining what is now portrayed by Lula as the new axis of rising powers. Formal requests for membership showed savvy recognition of the growing clout held by the rising economies of the southern hemisphere. 

China views BRICS as a vehicle to lead the developing world. India harbors its own ambitions for prominence. And Brazil gained renewed diplomatic respect from its key role in shaping BRICS’ expansion.

BRICS is not an organisation, so it does not require new members to ratify its values or policies but it is becoming a platform for developing countries to access the global economic highway that seeks an alternative route to US-dominated pathways. 

As such, Brazil influenced the criteria for admission amid concerns that an unchecked influx could lead to political ungovernability or economic dominance by China, which accounts for 70 percent of the bloc's GDP, even as the group's total GDP tops that of the G7, the world's wealthiest economies.

China and Russia favored rapidly expanding BRICS to signal widespread rejection of a “new Cold War.” India and Brazil urged caution. This motivation helped catalyze BRICS' uneven economies and geopolitical rivals like China and India. 

With Russia otherwise in a bellicose slog and China on a race with itself for global influence, Brazil led a compromise for accepting six new Global South nations in 2023, all with close China ties that have been increasing cooperation in various fields such as trade, investment, and infrastructure development. 

These countries have also been involved in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Global South nations Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, along with wealthy Gulf states Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that are also sometimes included in the Global South, were invited to join BRICS in January, while keeping the door open to additional members.

The confluence of rotating presidency schedules and serendipity have also put Brazil at the presidency of the MERCOSUR regional common market.  This positioning gives Brazil amplified influence. 

Though its term at the helm is temporary, it represents an unparalleled opportunity to advance a Global South agenda of reforming governance norms to increase representation of developing nations. With seven of the 11 BRICS expanded members in 2024 also in the G20, Brazil will have a platform and an opportunity to lead the sub-group within the wealthy forum.

While BRICS unity remains untested, its renewal signals awareness of developing countries’ growing economic weight relative to the entrenched G7 powers. For Brazil, China’s voracious appetite for Brazilian commodities provides incentive for ongoing cooperation. Pragmatic engagement with BRICS aligns with its longstanding preference for non-aligned multilateralism, although there is serious concern that it is China that benefits the most from BRICS and that Brazil’s support amounts to little more than a useful tool for China.

Incoming countries represent Xi Jinping’s growing Middle East presence and effort to lead the Global South. But the dualism between aspiring leaders China and India persists within BRICS. 

While China and Russia have a politically strategic opposition to the dollar, Brazil’s real interests may lie more in line with those of India that would prefer the dollar as a stabilising force rather than to hand the power to the yuan. Lula is officially on the de-dollarize the global economy camp.

Positions also differ on confronting the West -- from outright opposition by China and Russia, to just wanting an alternative for others. Incoming new member Argentina is poised to elect a candidate who favors the dollarization of its currency.

Brazil will be the third straight BRICS country leading the G20, following India this year and China in 2023. This gives the rising powers an influential streak that may reshape G20 priorities and communiqués.

In an increasingly bipolar world, however, the "multilateralism" of BRICS may be a useful illusion to distract from a consolidating hard pole around China to counter the US and the West. 

That does not take away the opportunity for Brazil as it is uniquely positioned to leverage its identity and relationships to chart an independent path forward, though it also risks becoming a proxy for Chinese interests in an anti-US bloc, an economic "Warsaw Pact" of sorts, bent on bringing down the West by downing the dollar.

Stewardship of the Amazon, and the global stakes in its preservation, give Brazil credibility in climate policy debates. And Brazil’s advanced technological capacity makes it well-suited to address closing the digital divide.

Those factors, and its leadership within a renewed BRICS added to its first G20 presidency, place Brazil at the nexus of a fluid 21st century world order. 

Under the G20 spotlight in 2024, Brazil has the opportunity to consistently project its voice on the global stage and assert its influence. It also risks letting itself be carried by greater global interests at the expense of its neutrality and the credibility that comes with it.


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