‘West scared of BRICS since it can’t control bloc from within’ - Ex-Indian Foreign Secretary

Representing a fifth of the world economy, the BRICS states pose a challenge to the US-dominated world. Submarket growth in Russia and the West could also change more rapidly, shifting the whole world system Eastwards. Is this the start of a new era? Former Foreign Secretary of India Kanwal Sibal is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:You have said the Western policy towards Moscow is aimed at toppling the Russian political order from within and making Europeans less dependent on Russia. Why does the West want that?

Kanwal Sibal: Because they haven't got over their Cold War mentality. Russia is still the largest country in the world despite the fact that the Soviet Union collapsed. It has very powerful strategic forces and it still has a considerable influence globally and sitting right next to Europe, where there are small countries, there is a sense of Russia looming very large. The Baltic states, especially, and some central European states like Poland and some others, are looking to the United States to defend themselves against what they might think can be a possible Russian threat in the future because they probably understand Russia will not be kept down and sooner or later they will face a resurgent India. And they want to make sure that Russia is geopolitically so weakened, and the threat to the Western Europe and to the NATO alliance reduced as much as possible.

SS: But isn't economically strong and politically stable Russia beneficial to the West?

KS: Yes, indeed. This is a common sense and we are looking at it. Because President Putin, when he first began in 2002 [sic] his stewardship of Russia, he was very pro-European. He wanted Russia to become a European power, to be accepted as a European power, to participate in equal measure with the West in dealing with European security. He had broad ideas about Western security going from Canada right to the Urals. And culturally, of course, Russia has always been a European part. But his view of how to construct European security was not accepted by the West fully. And then they did what we all know, progressively extending the borders of the EU and NATO, not only next to the former Soviet borders, but also trying to penetrate the former territories of the Soviet Union, the heartland of the former Soviet Union if you like.

They tried Orange Revolution in Ukraine, you have the situation in Georgia, then they had this Velvet Revolution and all that in Central Asia. So I think when President Putin spoke recently after the annexation of Crimea, listing up his grievances with the West, I think they were well-founded. And he has been experiencing that over the last 15 years he has been in power.

SS: You wrote about Western media bias against Russia. What are your thoughts? Is the media just saying what the viewers want to hear or is it shaping the viewer’s prospective?

KS: It's both. I've been speaking a lot to some European leaders. And some sensible ones actually feel that media at times is a step ahead whereas they in political part and understanding the responsibility of power want to be more moderate towards Russia, but at the media level the tirades against Russia, and propaganda against Russia is very strong. A lot if it is led by NGOs and human rights organizations, and people like that, who have their own agenda. Behind them there are, of course, agencies and institutions of the West, so I would say that are not only the governments that are making policy against Russia – I mean, the Western governments.

But there are whole other elements in the equation including the media. And the media gives a forum to some diehard anti-Russian elements in the West. And then they come out with that articles repeatedly listing out what they think are shortfalls in the Russia’s performance, that Russia has not lived up to Western expectations in terms of democracy and the market economy. And then they vilify President Putin personally and demonize him, and constantly bring up his past, KGB background, etc., to fuel the antipathy towards him and create an anti-Russian bias in the public mind.

SS: You also said that West threats China as less menacing than Russia despite its rising power. Why is that? Is that because the West economy is so intertwined with China's?

KS: I have been saying for some years, not recently, that by weakening Russia, what is really happening is that a power vacuum that is being created is being filled by China. And in fact, in the longer term, China has a population of 3 billion people. Its economy is already the second-largest in the world. And the fact that they are now spending double-digits on their defense, and they are the largest exporter in the world, the others are really the competitors and the potential adversaries of the West and the United States of America.

Russia is not. In fact there is a huge shortsightedness in Western geopolitical attitude towards Russia. Because Russia could actually be a vital balancing factor in international relations. And that is why we in India, and I personally, feel that Russia is critical to an international balance between the big powers, in terms of economic and financial fusion between the United States and China…I think that is where the problem is. Because the total trade relationship between Russia and the United States is very little comparable to what it is with China. It is maybe five to six times less. And the US corporations are in China, looking at China in very large scales. The bilateral trade is enormous, which then, of course, puts a lot of constrains on the US attitude and policies towards China, because at the end of it, the US corporations have a great deal of influence on the American foreign policy.

SS:The West is trying to impose all these sanctions on Russia even if it could actually hurt their own economy. But do you think these sanctions can actually only reinforce the tighter cooperation between Moscow and the East?

KS: Well, up to a point, yes. But remember - this is a delicate subject - that although Russia and China are working closely together in the UN Security Council and share many points in common in terms of how to conduct international relations and counter some of the very negative US and Western policies towards the rest of the world, but at the end of it whatever Russia is losing, China is gaining.

China is emerging as the Number 2 power in the world, a position that the Soviet Union held. And Russia is demographically in a huge disadvantage comparing to China: 145 million versus 1.3 billion, the kind of economic activity that China is generating...So unless Russia is willing to accept being second fiddle to China in the years ahead, that's a different matter.

But if Russia also wants to be accepted fully, as it should be, it has to play its cards in such a way to be not too weakened by the West in a way that its dependence on China becomes more than it should be. So there is a limit to the degree to which Russia can allow its relations with Europe and the West to deteriorate, notwithstanding all the provocations.

SS: So Russia has been expelled from the G8 global gathering. Realistically speaking, how big of a blow is that? And also isn't the membership in G20 where economies on the rise have a say, more important?

KS: Actually expelling or suspending Russia from G8 to my mind does not make any sense. After all, if there are differences between the West and Russia – what is required is dialogue and negotiation. And to some degree this negotiation is continuing, as [Russian] Foreign Minister Lavrov is meeting [US] Secretary [of State John] Kerry, President Putin has spoken to President Obama, and then the Western countries are themselves pointing out, the US is pointing out, that there are so many areas in which they expect cooperation with Russia to continue.

So therefore suspending Russia from the G8 to my mind is pandering to domestic lobbies and to extremist opinion within the US and others. It is, to my mind, not serious diplomacy. You cannot afford not to talk to a country like Russia. Therefore, frankly I think they are admitting that is a failure of diplomacy on their part.

SS: Russia is saying the G20 may eclipse the G8 as a leading international forum. Do you feel the same? Could that happen?

KS: Yes. In fact that was the intention, that after 2008 global crisis, which was caused by the banks of the United States of America, and the very weak regulatory mechanisms, and the liberty given to hedge funds to engage in all sorts of financial speculation - which caused such havoc in global economic markets, and the realization that the Western countries, US and Europe, were heading for low growth, economic stagnation, recession, that the G8 itself could no longer deal with the global economy and that, what was needed then was international cooperation, much more deep international cooperation in terms of meeting the challenges – and hence the idea of the G20.

So the G8 to that extent receded into the background. And the primary discussions and decisions with the regard to jobs, global growth, combating the financial crisis, devolved onto G20. And in the G20, the emerging markets and others, and would-be emerging markets, would-be members. So yes, to my mind the G20 was intended to supersede the G8.

SS: You have said that the United States conduct is reinforcing the need to rebalance the international system which at the moment is tipped towards the West. What are the main mistakes US is making?

KS: I think, in their obsession with human rights, minority rights and democracy and the crusades that they have launched to impose these ideas globally, they are causing a great deal of instability all over the world. If you look at all the hotspots of the recent years, whether it was Iraq or Libya or Syria, or the break-up of Yugoslavia, etc., etc., or for that matter, the rise of terrorism, which is a country that is responsible for the rise of terrorism by actually involving extremists and fundamentalists, Islamic elements into the fight against the former union in the first place.

So if you look at the whole package of problems that we are facing today. Who is behind this, whatever the intentions, leave aside. Even for a moment, if you accept that this was done with good intentions, who is behind it? It is the United States of America and the West, Russia is not involved. So the cause of instability is the tendency to interfere in the internal relations of others, to question the sovereignty of countries, to develop new norms, which then are used as instruments to change regimes and impose democracy and push forth market economy in the countries so that US and other corporations get access to these markets. These are the factors if instability.

SS:You also believe that the term “international community” has essentially been hijacked by the West and its allies. Are the opinions of such populous countries as India and China marginalized, you think?

KS: I don't think so. This is a rearguard battle that the United States and the West are fighting to preserve their domination of international affairs. If you really look at the economic changes that are occurring and the shifts in the balance of power, that have taken place in the last couple of decades, it is quite clear that the West cannot afford to maintain the same degree of domination of the world affairs as before.

But of course great powers will not yield political, economic security ground so easily and they will fight back to the extent that they can. I don't mean they will militarily fight back, I mean fighting back with the instruments of power at their command, which they are currently using against Russia: sanctions and things like that. But this is a losing battle, we have to move forward to a situation where the international institutions have to be reformed, developing countries, the emerging economies have to be given greater share in decision-making and norms have to be developed by consensus, not on the basis of advancing the agenda of the Western powers.

I think the historic movement is in favor of rebalancing power within the international system and emerging economies and BRICS countries will play a role in that.

SS: Like you have said the BRICS countries represent a fifth of global gross domestic product and have high geopolitical importance in their separate regions. Yet the West is dismissing it and calls it artificial grouping. Is it a self-defense mechanism?

KS: If you notice that if Western countries are left out of any international organizations or the multilateral organizations they feel threatened, because they want there in every multilateral organization that is formed so that they control it from within. And they have the enormous resources, clout and influence to be able to do that.

Now BRICS therefore causes concern to the Western countries - at least it has caused a great concern when it was first set up because we thought this was a good platform for promoting multipolarity and that each of the countries was going to become a fulcrum of influence within the regions in which they are… Those who started attacking it, saying we are not democracies, that our geopolitical systems are very disparate and their interests collide with each other. I think BRICS has shown the capacity to move forward. Of course, we should not minimize the hurdles that lie ahead. But BRICS is becoming more and more a reality.

SS:You've also written that the BRICS nations are against regime change, interference in the internal affairs of sovereign nations, politicizing human rights and humanitarian intervention. So is BRICS club essentially anti-West?

KS: No, I don’t think so. Look we have to be very realistic, because whatever the degree of commonality in our thinking and views on many issues which are confronting the international community there is also the fact that individually most of these countries, almost all of these countries have extremely strong relations with the West. China, for example, is the strongest, the biggest economic partner of the United States of America. After that is Japan. Russia’s biggest economic partner is Europe. India’s biggest economic partner is the United States of America. So it is not as if it is a ‘neither/nor’ situation.

I don’t think that BRICS are anti-West. Nobody needs to be anti-West. What they are against are the excesses of the West and the tendency of the West to dominate and, as I said, to create the kind of norms which give them the moral platform, they believe, to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and go in for regime changes and this and that. And that has caused immense misery to the populations of the countries in which they intervene.

So BRICS, I think, can act as a corrective. But certainly I don’t think that BRICS intends to confront the West in any way. I think the BRICS countries want a cooperative system in which their role and their views count.

SS: Among all BRICS members, India and China are the ones who have sharp differences. What effect could that have on the BRICS partnership?

KS: I think that is where the weakness of BRICS lies. Because although at one level India and China have now become the largest partners in terms of trading goods, not in the whole economic relationship, yet there are serious differences between China and India relating to the border. In fact, China has territorial claims on India. And China’s conduct in the South China Sea and the East China Sea... And this very self-assertive position on territorial issues is a matter of concern, because these attitudes that are being exhibited by the Chinese government have to be studied by us very carefully as they have implications for our own territorial differences with China.

And China is now very conscious of its great power status and has begun speaking the language of the great part it wants at G2 with the United States. All these things we want to look at, but at the same time we are cooperating with China internationally on climate change issues, on the WTO issues. We have both to oppose to regime change, this responsibility to protect and not showing respect for the sovereignty of other countries.

So therefore we have different levels at which we are working with China: cooperative at some levels, competitive at others. But yes, for BRICS to become then to a very cohesive, strong force which would begin to count more than it does at present, there has to be a resolution to India-China differences.

SS: But all five BRICS states have internal of challenges to overcome. They need to focus on lack of social progress for example in Brazil, there is corruption in China, India, Russia, inequality, racial tension in South Africa. Would those domestic problems impede the bloc from solidifying?

KS: I don’t think that the internal problems are standing in the way of these countries coming together as a force on the international platform, because these internal problems are there even in the Western countries in different degrees. You know, for example Europe is going through a huge problem internally. The eurozone is in trouble. Germany is dominating Europe; Spain and Italy are in a mess. Greece was in bigger a mess. United Kingdom wants to walk out the European Union. United States has been exhausted with all these military adventures in various parts of the world. It still has a problem on the economic side - domestically jobs are a huge issue.

The Western democracies have become dysfunctional. The separation on parts which, on paper, looks very good makes in fact functioning of the United States as an entity more and more difficult also in terms of relations with the outside world.

So all countries have their own internal problems. So if the West can continue to exert its force internationally despite all the problems they are facing internally, so can the BRICS countries to continue to exert their influence progressively more and more on international affairs, even as they tackle their domestic problems. I don’t see it as a ‘neither/nor’ situation.

SS: The BRICS are also about to launch a separate financial powerhouse: the BRICS Development Bank. Can it ever dream of countering the IMF, the World bank or the World Trade Organization?

KS: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so. Not in the foreseeable future in any case. And in any case, for the time being we are only discussing the $50 billion capital for the BRICS Development Bank which is nothing compared to not only the IMF and the ADB and others, but in terms of global needs. It is a very small step. But, yes, it can be built up. But then, down the road, I think there will be some concerns at who would potentially dominate this bank given the China's $3.3 trillion foreign exchange reserves and huge amounts of capital at its disposal. To have a system where there is some degree of equality in the management of a new financial institution will be a lot of work to be done ahead. So it is not going to happen tomorrow or day after. But yes, it is a good step.