Imperialism’s Junior Partners

27 May 2016 by Patrick Bond

Dilma Rousseff and Jacob Zuma at the 2014 BRICS summit in Brazil. GovernmentZA / Flickr

The response to the Brazilian coup shows that the BRICS powers are not a real alternative to US imperialism.

On May 12, Brazil’s democratic government, led by the Workers’ Party (PT), was the victim of a coup. What will the other BRICS BRICS The term BRICS (an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) was first used in 2001 by Jim O’Neill, then an economist at Goldman Sachs. The strong economic growth of these countries, combined with their important geopolitical position (these 5 countries bring together almost half the world’s population on 4 continents and almost a quarter of the world’s GDP) make the BRICS major players in international economic and financial activities. countries (Russia, India, China, and South Africa) do?

Will they stand by as the reactionaries who took power in Brasilia pivot closer to Western powers, glad to warm Dilma Rousseff’s seat at the BRICS summit in Goa, India in five months’ time?

Here in South Africa, few expect Jacob Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC) government to react constructively on the international stage. Making waves isn’t likely at a time when Standard & Poors and Fitch are on a South Africa visit, deciding whether to downgrade the country’s credit rating to “junk” status, as happened in Brazil late last year.

This is a shame because the last two weeks have offered excellent opportunities for diplomatic rebellion: revelations have emerged implicating the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in assisting the apartheid state’s 1962 arrest and twenty-seven-year imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. This isn’t exactly surprising; the State Department did keep Mandela on its terrorist watch list until 2008.

Following these revelations ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa charged that the CIA “never stopped operating here. It is still happening now — the CIA is still collaborating with those who want regime change.”

BRICS and Empire

South Africa’s chief foreign policy spokesperson Clayson Monyela responded to Kodwa’s accusation with assurances that South Africa’s relations with the United States “are strong, they’re warm, and cordial.” But Kodwa’s cry of imperialism, in light of the Brazilian coup, has struck a nerve.

Indeed, the argument that Rousseff’s ouster demonstrates that the purportedly anti-imperialist BRICS are under sustained attack by US empire is being repeated in a number of corners. Commentators like Eric Draitser, Pepe Escobar, Paul Craig Roberts and Hugo Turner, along with officials from Venezuela and Cuba, all make this claim.

A founder of Brazil’s heroic Movement of Landless Workers (MST), João Pedro Stedile, was asked by Il Manifesto about why “a group of deputies from right-wing organizations went to Washington before the last elections.” He replied, “Temer will arrange his government in order to allow the US to control our economy through their companies . . . Brazil is part of the BRICS, and another goal is that it can reject the South-South alliance.”

Another version of this anti-imperialist framing was heard at the South African Black Consciousness movement’s Black First Land First launch conference on May 13:

Brazil and South Africa are seen by the Western imperialist forces as the weak link in the BRICS chain. The strategy of imperialism is to get rid of presidents who support the BRICS process. Imperialism works with internal opposition parties to effect regime change.

The eloquent South African commentator Siphamandla Zondi, who directs the Institute for Global Dialogue (one of South Africa’s main foreign policy institutes), also shares this view.

Zondi defends the BRICS project and disputes the argument put forth by myself and others that the BRICS actually serve a “sub-imperialist” role in the global economy — that they are fully complicit in reproducing inequality both within their own countries and between others in the Global South.

In a challenge posted on Facebook he called for observers to recognize that “imperialism has, in the modern age, taken on racism, crude capitalism and patriarchy as its forms.”

No to the Coup, No to Imperialism

Rousseff is of course the victim of a coup. I hope the Brazilian people will rise up against the illegitimate interim government. But whether the coup was a product of imperialism, as Zondi and many others argue, requires a bit more circumspection.

As WikiLeaks cables revealed, Temer was a mole for the US State Department a decade ago, playing what Washington considered to be an incompetent, ideology-free role as a political “opportunist.”

Indeed, we witnessed a similar problem here in South Africa, with the country’s then lead spy, Moe Shaik, offering the same sort of tell-all function — before becoming a key liaison to the BRICS New Development Bank.

But as concrete evidence of a US-led coup in Brazil this fact seems insufficient. Moreover, Rousseff herself denied the role of imperialism a week after the impeachment, during a Russia Today interview: “I don’t believe external interference is a primary or a secondary reason for what’s happening now in Brazil. It’s not. The grave situation we see now has developed without any such interference.”

She repeated this when pressed by the interviewer, so it was crystal clear that she blames the old oligarchs for her downfall. This point was reinforced by subsequent revelations about the coup plotters’ local motivations.

Moreover, the interweaving of racism, patriarchy, and global capitalism is also not as straightforward as it once was. When Obama’s allies hit the Honduran government in 2009, for example, it was a black man and a woman in Washington who gave international credence to the local capitalist elite’s coup against a progressive democrat.

Similar concerns about Obama’s role on the African continent have also been expressed — appropriate considering the Africa Command’s agenda. But the role of the BRICS countries shouldn’t be downplayed in these geopolitical power plays.

The United States is made more dangerous by the sub-imperialist geopolitical functions that Deputy Sheriff Zuma regularly accepts, such as endorsing NATO NATO
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
NATO ensures US military protection for the Europeans in case of aggression, but above all it gives the USA supremacy over the Western Bloc. Western European countries agreed to place their armed forces within a defence system under US command, and thus recognize the preponderance of the USA. NATO was founded in 1949 in Washington, but became less prominent after the end of the Cold War. In 2002, it had 19 members: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK, the USA, to which were added Greece and Turkey in 1952, the Federal Republic of Germany in 1955 (replaced by Unified Germany in 1990), Spain in 1982, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic in 1999.
’s bombing of Libya which led to regime change in 2011, supporting Israel even during its periodic mass murder of Gaza civilians, happily hosting US-South African military exercises, and even bragging openly that the South Africa army will serve as Obama’s “boots on the ground.”

This isn’t to say that crude imperialism has faded away. Looking just at the 2009–2012 years when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, Washington’s Blog writer Eric Zuesse summarizes repeated US incursions in Honduras, Haiti, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine (and one might add Paraguay too).

Yet, despite this impressive list of imperialist interventions, US “regime change maneuvers in the rest of the black world,” as Zondi phrases it, are not that common. They are not needed at the moment, especially in Africa, where the local leadership is already supine when it comes to Washington’s agenda.

Neoliberal Multilateralism

Simply put, “racism, crude capitalism and patriarchy” associated with twentieth-century US imperialism have been largely replaced by Obama’s neoliberal multilateralism — a style of governance that the BRICS have bought into, not opposed.

This isn’t something to celebrate. Multilateral neoliberalism leaves the BRICS countries far less able to pursue any positive South-South interventions.

Indeed, Rousseff’s ouster demonstrates this clearly and the incoming Temer regime is likely to pursue a desperate course to re-establish its global position. The westward drift announced last week by Temer’s foreign minister, José Serra, plus Brasilia’s renewed neoliberal agenda on the home front, suggest this will be the case.

But while it’s obvious that Serra is going to become much more active as a sub-imperial ally of the United States than was Rousseff, Rousseff also did little of substance on the foreign policy front aside from occasional anti-Yankee rhetoric (such as when she learned from Edward Snowden that Obama had bugged her phone and email).

As the thoughtful (and generally pro-BRICS) commentator Oliver Stuenkel recently lamented:

Rousseff failed to articulate anything resembling a foreign policy doctrine, and Brazil’s foreign policy since 2011 was shaped, above all, by the President’s mind-boggling indifference to all things international and foreign policy makers’ incapacity to convince Rousseff that foreign policy could be used to promote the government’s domestic goals — as both [former Brazilian presidents] Lula and Fernando Henrique Cardoso so skillfully showed.

Serra, on the other hand, has promised that:

Priority will be given to the relationship with new partners in Asia, particularly China, this great economic phenomenon of the twenty-first century, and India. We will be equally committed to modernizing the bilateral exchange with Africa, the big neighbour on the other side of the Atlantic . . .

We will also take advantage of the opportunities offered by inter-regional fora with other developing countries, such as the BRICS, to accelerate commercial exchanges, investments and sharing of experiences.


Many who see Brazil as the victim of imperialism also hold the corresponding view that Brazil, along with the other BRICS countries, plays a progressive role on the global stage. Zondi articulated this viewpoint concisely in a recent piece for the Cape Times:

The [BRICS] platform has become the most powerful platform for the pursuit of global reform . . . Brazil has been a crucial voice in global debates about the reform of global governance, including the IMF IMF
International Monetary Fund
Along with the World Bank, the IMF was founded on the day the Bretton Woods Agreements were signed. Its first mission was to support the new system of standard exchange rates.

When the Bretton Wood fixed rates system came to an end in 1971, the main function of the IMF became that of being both policeman and fireman for global capital: it acts as policeman when it enforces its Structural Adjustment Policies and as fireman when it steps in to help out governments in risk of defaulting on debt repayments.

As for the World Bank, a weighted voting system operates: depending on the amount paid as contribution by each member state. 85% of the votes is required to modify the IMF Charter (which means that the USA with 17,68% % of the votes has a de facto veto on any change).

The institution is dominated by five countries: the United States (16,74%), Japan (6,23%), Germany (5,81%), France (4,29%) and the UK (4,29%).
The other 183 member countries are divided into groups led by one country. The most important one (6,57% of the votes) is led by Belgium. The least important group of countries (1,55% of the votes) is led by Gabon and brings together African countries.
and World Bank World Bank
The World Bank was founded as part of the new international monetary system set up at Bretton Woods in 1944. Its capital is provided by member states’ contributions and loans on the international money markets. It financed public and private projects in Third World and East European countries.

It consists of several closely associated institutions, among which :

1. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD, 189 members in 2017), which provides loans in productive sectors such as farming or energy ;

2. The International Development Association (IDA, 159 members in 1997), which provides less advanced countries with long-term loans (35-40 years) at very low interest (1%) ;

3. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), which provides both loan and equity finance for business ventures in developing countries.

As Third World Debt gets worse, the World Bank (along with the IMF) tends to adopt a macro-economic perspective. For instance, it enforces adjustment policies that are intended to balance heavily indebted countries’ payments. The World Bank advises those countries that have to undergo the IMF’s therapy on such matters as how to reduce budget deficits, round up savings, enduce foreign investors to settle within their borders, or free prices and exchange rates.

, and about fair and just outcomes for the developing world in world trade negotiations . . .

Brazil has spoken out on the agenda of decent work, food sovereignty, a greater Western contribution to the global response on climate change, ecological justice and the end to ecological imperialism. Brazil has also been an advocate of the responsibility to protect.

We may miss this now. Brazil is an important part of the effort today to shift global power from the former colonial powers and their diaspora in North America to all regions of the world. It is a key partner in South-South co-operation.

Many South Africans are impressed with the BRICS, but the reality of Brazil’s global maneuvering is much less rosy. In the most important multilateral settings, BRICS elites have worked against the interests of the world’s majority and against the environment.

Consider Brazil’s actions in the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Since 2010 it has been working to reconfigure voting power (“voice”) in the institution. It has successfully increased its vote by 23 percent (with China also up 37 percent, India up 11 percent and Russia up 8 percent).

This isn’t a bad thing. But the restructuring deal that made this possible was detrimental to African countries: Nigeria just lost 41 percent of its voting power, along with Libya (39 percent), Morocco (27 percent), Gabon (26 percent), Algeria (26 percent), Namibia (26 percent) and even South Africa (21 percent).

From this perspective “BRICs versus Africa” seems a more apt way to describe Brazil’s role in “reform of global governance” at the IMF.

Brazil’s maneuvers at other global governance institutions — including the World Trade Organization (WTO WTO
World Trade Organisation
The WTO, founded on 1st January 1995, replaced the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT). The main innovation is that the WTO enjoys the status of an international organization. Its role is to ensure that no member States adopt any kind of protectionism whatsoever, in order to accelerate the liberalization global trading and to facilitate the strategies of the multinationals. It has an international court (the Dispute Settlement Body) which judges any alleged violations of its founding text drawn up in Marrakesh.

) which is currently headed up by Brazilian Roberto Azevêdo — are equally damaging.

According to the ordinarily pro-BRICS NGO Third World Network (TWN), Brazil conspired with the United States and the European Union at the WTO to “[ensure] that India did not get the language it proposed” to maintain vital food subsidies, which in coming years will lead tens of millions of Indian peasants to suffer.

As TWN’s Chakravarthi Raghavan put it, “on the eve of Nairobi, Brazil unilaterally abandoned the G20 G20 The Group of Twenty (G20 or G-20) is a group made up of nineteen countries and the European Union whose ministers, central-bank directors and heads of state meet regularly. It was created in 1999 after the series of financial crises in the 1990s. Its aim is to encourage international consultation on the principle of broadening dialogue in keeping with the growing economic importance of a certain number of countries. Its members are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, USA, UK and the European Union (represented by the presidents of the Council and of the European Central Bank). alliance to join the US and EU, in trying to act against China and India,” not to mention against the world’s poor.

Of course, Brazil’s behavior is not unique. China and Russia persistently block efforts by Brazil, India, and South Africa to permanently join the Security Council. The point is simply that intra-BRICS solidarity, let alone broader South-South solidarity, is hard to find in reality.

The issue of Brazil’s role in battling the global environmental crisis also deserves greater scrutiny. In 2009 Lula supported — alongside the United States, India, China, and South Africa — the Copenhagen Accord, which voided the Kyoto Protocol’s binding emissions-cut premise, contained utterly unambitious emissions targets, and also wrecked the UN process that year.

Moreover, Rousseff was a booster of the pro-corporate “Green Economy” gambit at the Rio Earth Summit in 2012 that was (semi-successfully) rejected by most of the Global South. She is also a proud signatory to the 2015 Paris UN climate deal, a deal which assures catastrophic global warming and also now legally prevents climate victims in the Global South from suing the Global North for its climate debt.

Brazil has also combined forces with the EU — against Bolivia — to “open the same carbon trading Market activities
Buying and selling of financial instruments such as shares, futures, derivatives, options, and warrants conducted in the hope of making a short-term profit.
loopholes that undermined the last global climate deal,” according to Oscar Reyes of the Institute for Policy Studies.

He notes that “the Paris Agreement explicitly allows countries to count emissions reductions made in other countries as part of their own domestic targets, referring to these by the euphemism ‘internationally transferred mitigation outcomes.’”

Finally, the claim that “Brazil has also been an advocate of the responsibility to protect” simply doesn’t hold water. Consider Haiti and the “right to protect” role countries like Brazil are tasked with carrying out. As Mark Weisbrot (a PT sympathizer) explains,

The UN occupation of Haiti is really a US occupation — it is no more a multilateral force than George W Bush’s “coalition of the willing” that invaded Iraq.

And it is hardly more legitimate, either: it was sent there in 2004 after a US-led effort toppled Haiti’s democratically elected government. Far from providing security for Haitians in the aftermath of the coup, [the UN mission in Haiti] stood by while thousands of Haitians who had supported the elected government were killed, and officials of the constitutional government jailed.

Despite Brazil’s UN-designated “right to protect” responsibilities it has done nothing to expose or oppose these crimes of occupation which include the rape and sexual abuse of Haitian children by UN soldiers.

Meanwhile back in Johannesburg, lefty-sounding rhetoric from the ANC’s Luthuli House is nothing more than politicians blowing dust into the air.

When ANC leaders call the courageous South African public protector Thuli Madonsela a “CIA agent,” or declare that the Mandela Washington Fellowship program of the US Embassy is training kids for “regime change,” they show off anti-imperialist feathers. But in reality, Washington has no beef with Pretoria. The ANC has always excelled at talking left while walking right.

US empire is real and oppressive, but it shouldn’t prevent a clear and critical appraisal of the BRICS countries’ true role in the world.

Source: Jacobin Mag

Patrick Bond

is professor at the University of Johannesburg Department of Sociology, and co-editor of BRICS and Resistance in Africa (published by Zed Books, 2019).



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