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. The 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.
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, 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.