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Published on: June 21, 2010
Brazil Drops Out

In an interview with one of the handful of serious newspapers that every informed person should read, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Celso Amorim told the (paywall-protected) Financial Times that Brazil would no longer seek a lead role in the diplomatic dispute between Iran and the United States.  “We got our fingers burned,” Amorim told the FT.  […]

In an interview with one of the handful of serious newspapers that every informed person should read, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Celso Amorim told the (paywall-protected) Financial Times that Brazil would no longer seek a lead role in the diplomatic dispute between Iran and the United States.  “We got our fingers burned,” Amorim told the FTThe Daily News, an English-language Turkish newspaper published by the Hurriyet group, tried to cast doubt on the story, saying that there were ‘conflicting’ reports about the Brazilian position.  As the smoke cleared this morning, however, both the AP and Reuters confirmed the FT account.

Brazil’s defection from the ‘axis of fixers‘ leaves Turkey in an uncomfortable place.  Limited Israeli concessions on the Gaza blockade have won praise from both the US and Tony Blair without bringing the blockade, including the naval blockade, to an end.  The Security Council sanctions against Iran sailed through despite Turkish opposition and, led by the US Treasury Department and the Congress, it is likely that in both the US and the EU new, tougher sanctions will build on what the Security Council laid down.

What can we learn from all this?

First, we should discount all the hype about emerging powers that so obsesses the chattering classes.  ‘Emerging’ is one of the hypocritical weasel words that foreign policy wonks often use to paper over unpleasant or crude realities.  ‘Emerging democracies’ are undemocratic countries where, we hope, existing trends may lead to greater freedom over time.  ‘Emerging powers’ similarly should be understood as countries that aren’t yet ready to play a lead role on major issues but who, given time, may someday take a seat at the high table of world affairs.  ‘Emerging economies’ are similarly places where, one day, it may be reasonably safe to put your retirement money.

Brazilian_Independence_Prince_Pedro

Prince Pedro announces Brazilian Independence in 1822.

The endless nattering about ‘emerging powers’ is particularly misguided; it probably led to the brash overconfidence which is ending so badly for both Turkey and Brazil.  It also leads far too many people to underestimate the clout that the world’s true great powers have.  In Brazil’s case, there has been more than two hundred years of empty chatter about its impending emergence as a great power; its size, its resources, its internal lines of communication along the Amazon and its population have made it an obvious bet for world leadership since the Portuguese royal family fled to Rio to escape Napoleon in 1808.  By 1815 it had conquered French Guiana and what is now Uruguay; both conquests were lost.  In all the years since somehow the emerger has never quite emerged, and after two hundred years “Brazil is the country of the future and always will be” is a time-honored joke among both Brazilians and Yanquis.

Personally, I think this is a bit cruel and dismissive; Brazil has made some significant progress in the last generation and it is closer to realizing some of the potential so many observers have for so long ascribed to it.  But the light and casual way in which the world’s pundits (many of them utterly ignorant about Brazil’s long history of diplomatic disappointment) concluded from a single, ill-advised diplomatic initiative that Brazil had decisively changed its place in the world is evidence of just how little reflection and experience goes into world politics today.

Second, we should think about why so much commentary (and, unfortunately, serious policy making) is so frequently seduced by quick and silly analysis.  The fundamental analytical flaw is due in large part to simple ignorance of history and an over-dependence on theory.  Historical ignorance frequently plays a depressingly significant role even at quite senior levels in American foreign policy, while at the same time intellectual confidence in poorly understood ‘models’ in the ‘science’ of international relations makes policymakers confident in all the wrong ways.  Ignorance of history often leads to a failure to understand the persistence of certain underlying forces in the world of power politics.  American power, for example, is not some fragile flower that will be withered by the first blast of cold air.  It rests on extremely durable geographical and cultural foundations and the trend towards rising US power in the international system is even older than Brazil’s failure to emerge.  American power is partly rooted in forces even older than our country; many of the factors that enabled the British to triumph in their wars against France during the 18th century bolster American power today.

At the same time, an over-reliance on theoretical constructs (‘liberal internationalism,’ ‘structural realism,’ ‘multipolarity’ and on and on and on) leads many analysts into crude and overdetermined projections about where history is headed.  History is always marching somewhere: toward American triumph and unipolarity, toward the rule of democracy, the clash of civilizations, American decline and so forth and so on.  Even quite senior and serious people will select a few contemporary facts, taken out of their historical contexts, and interpret them as ‘proof’ that the world system as a whole is moving in some theory-modeled way.

If we add to that the media’s restless hunger for new and exciting big stories and headlines, we get to the kind of overheated universe of commentary that surrounds us today.  The death of free markets, the rise of Japan, the triumph of laissez-faire: surely we have all heard enough of these proclamations to realize that they almost always describe short term trends rather than seismic shifts.  The first task for anybody who wants to understand the world today, much less to change it, is to cut through the useless chatter and infatuation with cheap and shiny trends that surround us on every side.

Third, we should not over-interpret Brazil’s retreat.  Something real is happening; as I wrote in an earlier post, the efforts of Turkey and Brazil to cut a swathe in global diplomacy reflect some significant forces in those countries as well as important developments in the international system.  The quest for more say in the world by more countries will continue to complicate the tasks of American diplomats.  Complex negotiating processes on global treaties like the moribund Doha Round of trade talks or the equally becalmed global negotiations on a climate change treaty likely will continue to fail.  At the same time, on regional issues where middle powers like Brazil and Turkey have real clout, the United States must learn to work more constructively and imaginatively with them — or figure out strategies that can bring them on-side.  Brazil and Turkey aren’t great powers who can intervene wherever they like, but they are respectable middle powers whose interests cannot be ignored without cost.

The failure of Brazil’s Iranian venture does not mean that the United States does not have a Brazil, and more broadly a Latin America, problem. Brazil’s foreign minister, Celso Amorim, makes no bones about who is to blame for Brazil’s diplomatic embarrassment: the Obama administration.  According to Amorim, the US had encouraged Brazil’s initiative, only to slap it down when it succeeded.  That is possible; it is possible that Brazilian diplomats misinterpreted the signals from the US.  It is also possible that the Brazilians are reaching desperately for a fig leaf, and blaming the mess on the United States is always an appealing alternative.

Celso_Amorim_WEF

Celso Amorim, Foreign Minister of Brazil (World Economic Forum).

Regardless, the US needs to pay more attention to Latin America and Brazil.  The current Bolivarian swing of the pendulum in Latin American politics and the increasingly anti-gringo tone of political discourse in some countries is not as alarming as some people make out.  The Latin American pendulum has been swinging for a long time — usually between corrupt and incompetent leftish populism and corrupt and incompetent right wing oligarchic and sometimes military rule.  There are occasional periods of liberalism (like the 1990s) as well.  While Venezuela’s Chavez may hope that his country’s oil wealth can subsidize its failing economy for a while, the old pendulum is likely to continue to swing; the failures of each type of Latin American leadership historically prepare the way for alternatives.   Some of the continent’s nastier governments may venture into arrangements with Iran or other dark forces abroad.  The real problem for the US, however, is less the ideological character of some regimes than the breakdown of state authority and the rise of criminal, drug fueled cartels.  Mexico’s government is ideologically friendlier to the US than Venezuela’s, but the crisis of Mexican society poses more risk to us than almost anything Chavez could do.  In the medium term, the prospect that criminal gangs (with their road eased by the many weak states in the Caribbean) could link up with international terror organizations is a far more chilling thought than that Raul Castro would be greeted by cheering throngs in Quito.

Dealing with real threats not only to our security but to the security of many Latin American and Caribbean governments needs to be the focus of our policy in the region.  Spats with Brazil, even if we ‘win,’ do not help.  Washington needs to think much harder about how to build a stable partnership with this important middle power; we need to identify common interests and think about ways in which a closer partnership with Washington can help Brazil come closer to realizing its potential in the twenty first century.

Brazil has been traveling hopefully since 1808; Washington’s job now is to think constructively about how helping Brazil finally arrive can advance important American interests in the region.

The endless nattering about ‘emerging powers’ is particularly misguided; it probably led to the brash overconfidence which is ending so badly for both Turkey and Brazil.  It also leads far too many people to underestimate the clout that the world’s true great powers have.  In Brazil’s case, there has been more than two hundred years of empty chatter about its impending emergence as a great power; its size, its resources, its internal lines of communication along the Amazon and its population have made it an obvious bet for world leadership since the Portuguese royal family fled to Rio to escape Napoleon in 1808.  By 1815 it had conquered French Guiana and what is now Uruguay; both conquests were lost.  In all the years since somehow the emerger has never quite emerged, and after two hundred years there is a well-worn expression to reflect that: “Brazil is the country of the future and always will be” is a time-honored joke among both Brazilians and Yanquis. gets more than a million hits on Google. [ too many things get more than a million hits for this to be a strong statement, I think; plus, when you put it in quotes, it comes out to only 18 ,000 hits.]
show comments
  • Peter

    “The endless nattering about ‘emerging powers’ is particularly misguided; it probably led to the brash overconfidence which is ending so badly for both Turkey and Brazil”

    Exactly so, Mr. Mead.

    After all, few Triple A starters can make it in the Bigs. The curve balls that you could hit in the minors are nothing like you’ll see in the majors.

  • Jules Mopper

    Good post. I’d be curious to hear more about how we can interact with Brazil in a mutually beneficial way. Transfer payments in exchange for ecological conservation is probably not our great collaboration.

    About the drug war: Prohibition does not work. We’ve tried it before, we’re trying it now, and both times the result is violence.

    According to Glenn Greenwald, Portugal’s legalization of drugs did not cause significantly higher levels of drug use. And considering that we use 2/3 of the world’s drugs here in America, it’s hard to see how it could go up.

    All our current policy is doing is destroying Mexico, endangering our border states, and leading us to imprison over 1.5% of our population, the highest in the world, an embarrassment.

  • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com Norwegian Shooter

    Excuse me, but PM Netanyahu’s announcement of easing the Gaza blockade is a huge win for Turkey. And they really can’t lose by opposing the US in the Security Council. Having the US roll over you doesn’t hurt anyone’s standing, and it likely improves it by standing up to the current evil empire.

    And as for Brazil, Celso Amorim’s full quote is nothing-to-see-here: “We got our fingers burned by doing things that everybody said were helpful and in the end we found that some people could not take ‘yes’ for an answer,” said Mr Amorim in a clear reference to Washington.

    “If we are required [to negotiate again], maybe we can still be useful . . . But we are not going out in a proactive way again unless we are required to.” There is no mess at all for either Turkey or Brazil.

    Back to WRM”s prose. “But the light and casual way in which the world’s pundits (many of them utterly ignorant about Brazil’s long history of diplomatic disappointment) concluded from a single, ill-advised diplomatic initiative that Brazil had decisively changed its place in the world” Your strawman routine is getting old. What pundits are you talking about? Especially the utterly ignorant ones.

    “American power, for example, is not some fragile flower that will be withered by the first blast of cold air.” No one says otherwise, especially not in such flowery metaphors.

    “It rests on extremely durable geographical and cultural foundations.” What?!? On geography, you might be going deep with a Jared Diamond ultimate cause, but it seems more relevant to explain American power with the size of our economy and military. On culture, I’m really too scared to speculate what you mean.

    “American power is partly rooted in forces even older than our country; many of the factors that enabled the British to triumph in their wars against France during the 18th century bolster American power today.” CAN YOU NAME ONE FORCE OR FACTOR?!? Is that asking for too much?

    “an over-reliance on theoretical constructs ([Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, Wilsonian, Goo-Goo Genocidaires] and on and on and on) leads many analysts into crude and overdetermined” just-so stories.

    Really, what are increased sanctions from the US and EU going to accomplish? (besides empowering the Iranian regime) Neither is a major trading partner with Iran. China, Russia, Brazil, Turkey and many others will continue to trade with Iran.

  • jp

    ——-
    Ignorance of history often leads to a failure to understand the persistence of certain underlying forces in the world of power politics. American power, for example, is not some fragile flower that will be withered by the first blast of cold air. It rests on extremely durable geographical and cultural foundations and the trend towards rising US power in the international system is even older than Brazil’s failure to emerge. American power is partly rooted in forces even older than our country; many of the factors that enabled the British to triumph in their wars against France during the 18th century bolster American power today.
    ———

    WRM, can you give a brief summary of the United States Real Power, the forces behind it and their roots?

  • K2K

    Brazil has no need for Iran (or Turkey), and certainly does not want to imperil Brazil’s quest for a permanent seat on the Security Council. Perhaps Brazil got burned by the US; perhaps Brazil thought they could deflect Chavez’ influence; was their some domestic politics at work (is the Brazilian-Lebanese swing vote in play? or are the Brazilian evangelical Protestants?). who knows? Certainly Lula does not want his successor to lose the election, and Iran offers zero benefit.

    Trade disputes with the U.S. are a big deal with Brazil. The U.S. needs to cultivate a durable alliance with Brazil, and really needs to stop antagonizing Brazil with unfair trade practices – cotton and sugar ethanol for starters – maybe have Petrobras take over deep water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico :) In the end, who would you rather have in NATO – a Turkey at war with their own Kurds, Armenia and EU member Cyprus, or Brazil? (I hope Mr. Mead is reading the Turkish press which has moved on from Hamas to the war with the PKK and stirring up Azerbaijan-Armenia. Seems Erdogan overplayed his ‘Israel card’, now on to the ‘Kurd card’)

    Brazil has a natural sphere of influence: Latin America, Caribbean, and parts of Africa. The U.S. could not ask for a better ally than Brazil in the transition to a more multi-polar world.

    And yes, the US War on Drugs is destroying Mexico.

    Time for Obama, or, more likely, his successor in 2012, to focus on our own hemisphere.

  • jbay

    Professor Mead,

    While I agree with your points I do have to point out that just because it’s always been said that the world will end is not proof that it never will.

    I am curious of one specific case study, ie, the punic wars and the fall of Carthage and the rise of Rome. It is my understanding that the turning point was when Rome captured a abandoned trireme, reverse engineered it and then began out producing Carthage. This lead to Rome being able to tax Carthage and eventually over about 100 years to defeat Cartage.

    My questions are two fold. Are we not playing a similar role as Carthage and China being Rome? Is my understanding of the roles of technology and trade in the Punic wars in error?

    The similarities that I see between the two are below:
    ~That technology we don’t share China takes through hacking.
    ~Our huge borrowing is acting as a tax.
    ~The Chinese are quickly catching up w. our industrial complex while we shift our complex abroad.
    ~etc.

    I’m curious to read your thoughts?

  • MikeC

    Thanks, Dr. Mead, for cooling off the overheated rhetoric surrounding international politics to-day. We are much obliged.

    One quibble:

    “In the medium term, the prospect that criminal gangs (with their road eased by the many weak states in the Caribbean) could link up with international terror organizations is a far more chilling thought than that Raul Castro would be greeted by cheering throngs in Quito.” – WRM

    Why on earth would they? This would invite military intervention, which would be very bad for business.

    Also, bravo to Jules Mopper above, for his statement that US drug laws have only enriched violent criminals. The Mexican drug gangs are nothing more than latter-day Al Capones.

    To Norwegian Shooter: the ‘cultural factors’ to which Dr. Mead refers include, but are not limited to, such things as the Magna Carta and the philosophies of John Locke and Adam Smith. Individual and economic freedom give citizens a stake in their societies, and thus, the impetus to fight in the defense of that society. Such factors are absent under feudalism, communism, and Shari’a.

  • jbay

    P.S. I appologize for the several typo’s.

  • WigWag

    “‘Emerging’ is one of the hypocritical weasel words that foreign policy wonks often use to paper over unpleasant or crude realities. ‘Emerging democracies’ are undemocratic countries where, we hope, existing trends may lead to greater freedom over time. ‘Emerging powers’ similarly should be understood as countries that aren’t yet ready to play a lead role on major issues but who, given time, may someday take a seat at the high table of world affairs. ‘Emerging economies’ are similarly places where, one day, it may be reasonably safe to put your retirement money.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    Mead is right again, Brazil is certainly an economic power house. It’s a nation of 193 million people with a nominal GDP almost the same as the nominal GDP of New York City which has a population of 8,250,000 people.

    Brazil’s per capita GDP in 2009 ($8,220) was smaller than the per capita GDP of either Chile or Uraguay. Per capita GDP was significantly higher in Equatorial Guinea, St. Kitts, Barbados and Antigua than in Brazil.

    Before Brazil is annointed as a world leader in anything (other than soccer), wouldn’t it make sense to provide a little evidence?

  • http://www.lisastewartlaw.com Elder

    While it is certainly true that the US should not ignore Latin America, we should also not expect the US to push Brazil to “finally arrive.” There is a bit of hubris in that statement.

  • Eli Katz

    Mead writes: “[A]n over-reliance on theoretical constructs (’liberal internationalism,’ ’structural realism,’ ‘multipolarity’ and on and on and on) leads many analysts into crude and overdetermined projections about where history is headed.”

    Indeed! IR theory is one of the most ridiculous branches of political science. This incessant need for theorists to describe how all global relations work with one parsimonious theory is absurd.

    Everybody in IR wants to be Kenneth Waltz, and IR suffers greatly as a result.

  • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Norwegian Shooter

    MikeC, anything that could be listed as a cultural or geographic factor would be shared by Canada as well. Thus, they cannot explain our power on the world stage. Also, WRM is not a Dr., and isn’t a Professor (yet) either.

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  • J Hartman

    To Norwegian Shooter:

    For one factor, I suggest you read John Brewer’s The Sinews of Power … a wonderful study on the fiscal-military state of 18th century Britain

  • J Hartman

    When I was an undergrad (about 5 years ago) I had the privilege to major in both history and political science/IR. I can’t agree more with Prof. Mead’s comments on the ignorance of history in policymaking (which is often engendered by how the policymakers are educated).

    Complexity is often antagonistic to theory, no matter what area of human conduct we are discussing. The “lessons of history” are ambiguous at best. I studied under Jon Sumida, who has written a wonderful book about Clausewitz and his views on theory and history and what lessons we really should be “learning” from history (book is titled Decoding Clausewitz). I find it useful as a guide to approach any sort of theory.

  • http://www.andrekenji.com.br/weblog André Kenji

    Walter Russel Mead shows precisely the problem with most of the American punditry: the fact that few of them are able of reading anything in English, but as good Americans they want to tell people all over the world what they should do.

    If Mead were able to read anything in Spanish he would have noted that Hugo Chavez is very unpopular in Latin America(Take the Latinobarómetro poll) and there is no…ah, ah, ah, “Bolivarian swing of the pendulum” anywhere. Chavez only manages to get very poor countries like Bolivia and Ecuador under his influence. Ahmadinejad is very unpopular in Brazil, and even if Lula wanted to do whatever that Mr. Mead thinks that he wants to do he would have to deal with the Congress, wich is extremely conservative.

    If Mr. Mead were able to read the media of the country that he is talking he would note that few people in Brazil saw his effort about the Iran as something serious. You need better sources than Wikipedia, the Financial Times and news agencies to write about Brazil.

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  • http://www.universocampo.com.ar Pepino Sielbreve

    Agree with André Kenji for his comments about the usual misunderstatement of LatinAmerica by US observers and politicians, beginning in their lack of appropiate sources of information. Financial T? You´re kidding.

    Pepino
    Buenos Aires

  • K2K

    am looking forward to an all-Latin America World Cup semi-final (and a Brazil-Argentina final). if only that will help the Yanquis in Washington pay any more attention!

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  • RC

    The roots of American Power is simple: It is the Heir of the British Empire (read as ease of attracting capital and a legacy of leading the western world, anglo style…aka…”daddy’s lil boy”), with the boost of German technological/military advancements during the second half of the 21st century. This Power first fueled by conquering the access of resources in the Americas, and today, the World.

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