The 2008–09 global financial crisis and the relative loss of U.S. power and influence on account of the troubled interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have presented new opportunities and challenges to emerging countries. Among them, Brazil has proved eager to take on a more prominent role in multilateral fora spanning a wide range of governance issues. Aside from its clear desire for a UN Security Council seat and its important role in the formation of the World Trade Organization, Brazil has been instrumental to the formation of a new forum, the BRICS—the “S” denoting the recent addition of South Africa to the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India and China.
This still new century has been particularly good for Brazil’s quest to be an influential world power. Its democratic political institutions are now consolidated a quarter-century after the end of the military regime, and its economy has been blooming despite so many troubles in so many other countries. And although Brazil still faces the huge and shameful social unfairness that has plagued the country throughout its history, inequality indices have fallen consistently over the past 16 years. So it is only natural that this enormous nation, whose territory is larger than the continental United States, has become more active in global decision-making processes.
Brazil’s future looks bright from several angles. It is blessed with the largest water reserves on the planet and one of its largest biodiversity resources—the Amazon basin. It is the undisputed leader in biofuels technology and production, and the recent discovery of offshore oil has increased by a factor of three its oil reserves. Brazil is likely to become the world’s eighth-largest producer of oil by 2050. Finally, for the next 24 years, Brazil will enjoy a demographic “bonus phase” due to, among other reasons, a reduction in birth rates and an expansion of its productive bracket (those between 15 and 64 years of age).
Above all, perhaps, Brazil holds an outstanding record of 141 years of peace with all ten countries with which it shares a border, has a constitutional commitment against the production or use of nuclear arms, and lacks any significant internal division, whether religious, ethnic, cultural, linguistic or political. It does not need to spend extensive resources on security and defense challenges, or to divert its human capital inordinately in that direction.
It is true that Brazil still has to overcome several major structural domestic social, economic, political, educational and environmental hindrances, but optimists believe that the very process of mobilizing the willpower, talent and effort to do this will make the country stronger. This is the moment in history, then, when Brazil seems, to most Brazilians if not also to others, to be ready to claim the status due to it as a global powerhouse. But will it actually happen this time?
Brazilian ambition to be in the forefront of world affairs is not new. Many times in the past the country strove to achieve such a position, but the disparity between means and goals frustrated these ambitions. Brazil’s chief representative to the 1907 Hague Peace Conference, Ruy Barbosa, played a prominent role defending the principle of egalitarianism in the international order. Brazil was formally an ally in World War I and played an important role after the war in League of Nations councils. Brazil was the only Latin American nation to have sent troops into combat in World War II, fighting with the American Fifth Army in Italy. The decision to do so was clearly conceived as a shortcut to a prominent role in the new global status quo that would arise with the end of the war. Secretary of State Cordell Hull related in his autobiography that President Roosevelt favored Brazil’s holding a permanent UN Security Council seat as that organization was being conceived, although he ultimately gave in to British and Soviet opposition to the idea.
Brazil’s historic failure to become a global great power had little impact on its actual foreign and security policies, which have been remarkably consistent throughout its 189-year history as an independent nation. To be sure, Brazil has had a diversity of internal regimes: a constitutional parliamentary monarchy for the first 67 years, a military dictatorship from 1930 to 1945, a parliamentary republic for one year in the 1960s, a broader military regime from 1964 to 1985, and a democratic presidential republic during the remaining 85 years. Nevertheless, the basic principles of Brazil’s foreign and security policies have remained remarkably stable. No doubt geography and history explain a good deal of this consistency, giving rise to a policy that former Foreign Minister Celso Lafer insightfully called “constructive moderation.”
Brazil has never faced significant external threats. It is far from European, Asian and even North American centers of military power, and it is too large for any of its many neighbors to pick on safely. It has not had to worry much about internal security issues either, partly because its native people were not culturally and economically advanced by the time the Europeans arrived in America, as they were in most of the rest of Latin America. And its sense of identity, despite its internal regional diversity, has been solidified both by its unusual colonial experience (during which it was less a dependency than a part of Portugal) and by the fact that it is the only Portuguese-speaking society in the hemisphere.
Constructive moderation has been applied first and foremost to South America, always Brazil’s top foreign policy priority. Brazil’s leaders have always striven to avoid cultivating among its neighbors even the suspicion of hegemonic aspiration. Since the end of Brazil’s last regional war, the Paraguay War of 1870, the principle of non-intervention in other countries’ domestic affairs, strict obedience to the international rule of law and the use of diplomacy to handle international disputes have been paramount for Brazil. For at least the past sixty years constructive moderation has translated into three chief purposes: to promote internal economic development, to maintain self-determination with respect to global powers (including the United States), and to secure peace. Loyalty to these principles kept Brazil aloof from various non-aligned or Third World movements during the Cold War, despite many similarities between it and countries like Indonesia, Egypt and Argentina that led, or tried to lead, such movements.
Brazil’s reluctance to join any association that might polarize its region found expression during the military regime (1964–85), when the government was decisively engaged in fighting communism domestically. Its domestic anti-communism did not lead to a wider political alignment with the United States, despite Brazil’s having joined the U.S.-led 1965 intervention in the Dominican Republic to prevent Juan Bosch from regaining the presidency he had won in free elections in 1963. Indeed, during those years, Brazil renounced a prior military agreement with the United States and quickly recognized the independent leftist regimes of Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde and other former Portuguese colonies, and closely cooperated with them even as the U.S. government supported their adversaries in the civil wars following independence.
While the policy has not changed in significant ways, the rhetoric of Brazilian foreign policy has shifted with the winds of international fashion. Though never a member of any non-aligned movement or bloc, Brazil shared for many years several of its principles and spoke its language. As the Cold War ended and the non-aligned movement’s significance ended with it, the remains of old Third World attitudes and platitudes were expunged from Brazilian foreign policy during President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s government (1995–2003). During that period, too, Brazil adhered to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the missile technology control regime in the aftermath of its renunciation of nuclear weapons ambitions. That development, in turn, flowed from a significant watershed in Brazil’s relationship with Argentina.
Brazil and Argentina have long been rivals for leadership in South America. Argentina is the only other country in the region that has been economically and politically strong enough to challenge Brazilian preeminence. Each elite has bathed itself over the years in stereotypes about the other. But the old, latent enmity has dissipated almost entirely in recent years, symbolized and extended by the creation of Mercosur (Mercosul in Portuguese abbreviation), informally in 1985 and formalized by treaty in 1991. The Iguaçu Treaty of 1985 between Brazil and Argentina, coming at a time when both countries had recently emerged from military regimes, renounced nuclear arms in perpetuity. The security dimension of the treaty advanced conditions for better economic ties, and Mercosur emerged half a dozen years later.
Free trade between Brazil and Argentina, and between Brazil and Mercosur’s other two full members, Paraguay and Uruguay, remains largely incomplete. The issue is often a source of misunderstandings and diplomatic conflict between Brazil and Argentina. Free trade is even less free among Mercosur’s associate members: Bolívia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru. (Venezuela also signed an associate member agreement in June 2006.) Nevertheless, the psychology of cooperation and integration has grown stronger, even if practical achievements lag behind for the time being. In 2000, for the first time ever, all the heads of government of South America convened in Brasília to lay the groundwork for region-wide infrastructure integration. Progress toward this goal has been slower than anticipated, but it has not been wholly absent.
Brazil’s South American priority in foreign policy became even more intense during the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–11). Lula, a union leader with a leftist rhetorical bent, turned out to be more conservative in power on a whole range of domestic policy issues than most observers predicted. But in foreign affairs Lula had more elbow room, and so this is the area in which he let fly with some rhetorical pyrotechnics. At first Lula raised more than a few eyebrows in the West, including in the United States, but it soon became apparent that, at base, Lula’s prudence and pragmatism constrained his government from distancing Brazil from the time-tested tradition of constructive moderation. Despite some verbal diatribes against the United States, particularly after President Obama assumed office, President Lula did not harm Brazil’s bilateral relationship with the United States.
Lula had another advantage. Whenever his eagerness to display leadership in the subcontinent came close to offending or frightening some of Brazil’s neighbors, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela made President Lula seem almost unassuming by comparison. In addition, Lula’s potential to make trouble was held in check by his own major foreign policy ambition, which he realized he could more easily advance by putting others at ease. That ambition was to press Brazil’s case for a permanent UN Security Council seat.
The Security Council seat goal never really made much sense. It has not been remotely likely in recent years that the key UN member states would reform the Security Council so decisively as to let in five more countries in addition to the five original permanent members. Only in an expansion of that kind would Brazil, along with India, Japan, Germany and perhaps one or two others, have a chance for membership. But Lula apparently believed that his will—a will that had admittedly been strong enough to take him from poverty and obscurity to the pinnacle of global leadership—would triumph in the end, even during his presidency.
President Lula invested heavily in this bet, but he misunderstood the process. He seemed to think that obtaining a permanent seat was a simple matter of winning an election in which the voting pool was made up of all the countries comprising the UN General Assembly. Thus Lula pursued this goal by means of a charm offensive, making friends and influencing people as a candidate might canvas his electoral district for votes. He declared to the world that Brazil has the resources and the will to participate more actively in the discussion of global issues, and to take on more responsibilities for helping fragile states—even ones outside its traditional areas of influence, South America and the Lusophone countries. Brazil’s global presence grew dramatically after 2003, in the form of increased aid for social and infrastructure projects. Brazil also opened embassies in several countries with which it has practically no business, in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, increasing its diplomatic presence by a full third.
As Brazil’s trade with China increased, too, Lula hoped to win Beijing’s support for a permanent Brazilian Security Council seat. He was willing to offer the Chinese a generous deal, as China had surpassed the United States as Brazil’s main trading partner, but he failed to win the support he sought. Brazil aligned with India, Japan and Germany for Security Council reform, but China opposes an Indian seat, and so Lula’s ambition was crushed between an Indian hammer and a Chinese anvil. Meanwhile, many Brazilians began to resent China’s aggressive economic behavior, which increasingly displaced Brazilian manufactures in both Brazil and its export markets.
During President Lula’s terms, Brazil also distanced itself from a tradition of consistent votes in defense of human rights in international forums. Most observers saw this shift as part of Lula’s strategy to collect votes for a permanent Security Council seat. Brazil managed either to put itself in the company of countries like Sudan, North Korea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Iran or to abstain on a series of human rights votes.
Perhaps the strongest signal Brazil sent to the world about its ambition was its acceptance of a leadership role in the 2004 United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti—MINUSTAH in the French acronym. MINUSTAH’s original mandate was to restore a secure and stable environment in the country after the violence that accompanied the collapse of the Aristide government, to promote the political process, to strengthen Haiti’s government institutions and rule-of-law structures, and to promote and protect human rights. In the past, Brazil had taken part in several UN peacekeeping missions but had sent troops only four times: Suez 1956, Mozambique 1993, Angola 1995 and East Timor 1999. Suez excepted, Brazil’s military participation in UN missions before Haiti had all been in countries where Portuguese is the official language. Taking on the Haiti mission was clearly meant to signal Brazil’s coming out.
None of Brazil’s earlier peacekeeping efforts had been controversial. Suez happened during a period of great optimism and economic growth in Brazil, and when the ideals of the United Nations were still new enough to garner enthusiasm. The memory of Brazilian participation in World War II was still fresh and a reason for national pride, and there was an informal consensus that Brazil should play an important role in the world. So off went 600 Brazilian soldiers to Sinai as part of the first UN Emergency Force deployment. Even when Brazil engaged in more substantial efforts, such as in Angola in the 1990s, few objected, despite the less propitious circumstances. Brazil contributed 1,200 men to the UN Angola Verification Mission III when the UN was in turmoil, Brazil was focused on its push into a better economic situation, and the Brazilian Armed Forces were still unpopular because the dictatorship had only recently ended. The risk of casualties in Angola was also much higher than it had ever been in Sinai.
But most Brazilians saw Angola as a sister nation: It had been colonized by Portugal, spoke the same language, danced to similar musical rhythms and was home to the Bantu ethnic group, which is one of the largest among blacks in Brazil. Helping Angola was largely seen as cultural duty. It also helped in the long run that only four Brazilians died in service: one killed in action and three of malaria.
The Haitian situation differed fundamentally from all that had gone before, however, and it touched off a national debate. The relationship between Brazil and Haiti has always been modest. Trade never exceeded a paltry $17 million per year, cultural ties were minimal, and tourism almost non-existent. Geopolitically, Haiti has never been of any importance to Brazil. But there was, of course, a humanitarian attraction in helping the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, a country devastated by AIDS and other infectious diseases, illiteracy, violence, malnutrition and various social malaises. This attraction was felt most intensely by Lula’s labor party and its leftist allies. President Lula personally addressed the troops in the language of social solidarity as they departed to Haiti:
Instability, even when afar, generates costs to us all. Keeping peace has its price, and the price is participation. When we say ‘present’ in a crisis such as this that is happening in Haiti, we exercise our international responsibilities.
Brazil’s political opposition parties and several of its respected policy analysts were not swayed by such arguments, however. They disagreed then, and they have been disagreeing with the policy ever since, pointing to the mission’s cost, first and foremost.
It is not easy to estimate how much Brazil has spent in Haiti because, in principle, at least part of it is to be reimbursed by the UN. But this reimbursement has been either slow in coming or nonexistent. Conservatively, therefore, the Brazilian federal government has spent around $1 billion in Haiti from 2004 to 2010. That is the equivalent of about half of Brazil’s annual investments in public security and equal to what Brazil spends on controlling its airspace. Brazil may be one of the brightest emerging markets in the world, but it is still a country where social inequality remains intense and where hundreds of thousands still struggle to survive. For many Brazilians, it makes little sense to spend huge amounts of money to help Haitians when so many Brazilians are in need. One would think, moreover, that a party that presumes to speak for the poor would be sensitive to such arguments.
Nor is there a consensus about the political circumstances underlying the Haiti mission. Some have argued that since it has never really been clear whether President Aristide voluntarily resigned from office or was illegally forced from it, Brazil might in effect be supporting a government ruling on the basis of anti-democratic principles. Supporters of this view are quick to remind us that Caricom, the community of countries of the Caribbean, waited years to recognize the government that took over after Aristide’s departure, despite intense pressures from the U.S. government to do so.
Still others object that the mission is distorting the Brazilian military by forcing it to do police work, and that this distortion might double back and affect Brazil. In Brazil, the army is not allowed to operate as a police force, although there have been frequent public appeals for it to do so, especially in cases of gang wars over drugs in Rio and other cities. The army has always refused. Now that it has done that duty in Haiti, many fear that it will be harder to keep the functions appropriately separate back home.
Finally, there is the futility of it all. It has become abundantly clear that fixing a country that is as stressed and impoverished as Haiti requires many more resources than those that were mobilized for the MINUSTAH operation. In October 2009, when Brazil debated whether to renew its commitment to that mission, it became clear that social, political, economic and humanitarian conditions in Haiti had showed little to no improvement since 2004. Nearly 80 percent of its population lived below the poverty line. Unemployment, corruption, political fraud, basic human rights abuses and administrative incapacity were all manifest. The country was a ward run by thousands of NGOs; it did not have a proper government. Brazil renewed its commitment anyway, and then came the January 12, 2010 earthquake. Everything got worse, and what had been inadequate before the quake was now almost totally overwhelmed, to the point that a bunch of drug dealers was able to decisively hamper Haiti’s 2011 presidential election.
Because of its leading role in MINUSTAH, Brazil got stuck with major responsibility for the cleanup effort. It was one of the five co-chairs of the international donor’s conference in New York in March 2010 and donated $340 million of the conference’s total of $5.3 billion in pledges. The severity of the earthquake muted political attacks against the Haiti mission for a while. Part of the reason was that Zilda Arns, an extremely popular civil society organizer and Brazil’s candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize because of her work to improve prenatal and infant health care among poor women in Brazil and abroad, was killed in the earthquake.
Brazilian troops acquitted themselves well in the emergency. They ensured calm and acted efficiently under very trying conditions. Brazilians could justifiably take pride in their performance, and this took the edge off the politics of the deployment. Again, it helped that no Brazilians were killed in action in Haiti, although four died for other reasons, including the then-commander of the troops, General Urano Bacellar, who committed suicide in 2006, and 18 who died in the earthquake. Moreover, no Brazilian solider has ever been charged with any form of misconduct in Haiti, even as human rights advocates have accused nationals from other participating countries of rape and other crimes.
Some say that Brazil’s leadership of the Haiti mission has made the country co-responsible for such crimes, but this argument has not gained much traction. Those who favor the Brazilian presence in Haiti argue that the mission’s benefits have far outweighed any costs. Haiti is certainly no worse off for the effort and probably better off than it would otherwise have been. Brazil has achieved significant boosts to its reputation as a benign “soft power.” These have allowed it to forge a new regional agreement with Argentina and Chile allowing the three to act together in Haiti. It has provided an opportunity to train Brazilian Army personnel and to test new arms, equipment and doctrine. Finally, it fits in with a wider effort to increase Brazil’s regional stature.
As Brazil remained deployed in Haiti, it created the BNDES (O banco nacional do desenvolvimento), a public bank that operates as a kind of Brazilian Eximbank to finance infrastructure projects in several South American countries. BNDES has approved loans worth $8 billion to South American countries. Brazil also donated decommissioned airplanes and helicopters to Bolivia, Paraguay and Ecuador. Some observers denounced this charity as evidence that Lula’s government was supporting his leftist regional colleagues; the administration answered that it was merely building stronger relationships with its neighbors in South America.
Probably the most controversial event in Lula’s foreign policy was the agreement that Brazil, Turkey and Iran reached in May 2010 to have a portion of Iran’s uranium enriched in Turkey. The initiative fit perfectly with Lula’s project of building Brazil’s global prestige, but it did nothing to advance his goal of obtaining a permanent Brazilian Security Council seat.
The Turkish-Brazilian initiative didn’t go over so well, to put it mildly. Powers like France, which had already expressed some support for the Brazilian claim for a Security Council seat, retracted that support after the Iranian episode. Most observers argued, including, quietly, some of Brazil’s most experienced diplomats, that the caper demonstrated Brazil’s lack of sophistication and understanding of complex security issues. Above all, perhaps, on the symbolic level, Brazil voted against the majority in a Security Council decision for the first time ever, after sitting as a non-permanent member ten times since 1946, for a total of twenty years.
This was not the only misfire of Lula’s foreign policy. His incessant search for greater status also backfired, for example, in the 2009 crisis in Honduras, when Brazil bet its prestige on the losing side, thus isolating itself in the hemisphere. Nevertheless, as has been the case with the United States over the years, Brazil is large enough, powerful enough and wealthy enough to absorb its errors and continue moving ahead. For its sheer size, population, geographical presence in the Western hemisphere, its economy, natural resources, and the impressive institutional and political progress it has achieved in the past quarter century, Brazil is and will always be an important actor in global affairs. Its outstanding performance in the G-20 summits after the 2008 financial crisis and in the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit prove how decisive Brazil can be in multilateral forums, even when those forums do not succeed at their stated task.
Brazil will continue to grow and develop, and its natural advantages will ultimately give it broader influence. It will increasingly take on the burden of leadership that other countries have carried in the past, certainly in South America and in the Lusophone countries, but also beyond. As it does so, however, Brazilian leaders must not allow the country to seem presumptuous. In her first months in power, President Dilma Rousseff seems to have been mindful of the need to strike a better balance between Brazil’s capacity to lead and its desire to do so. She has been more in touch with global realities than her predecessor. She has quickly restored Brazil’s traditional attitude toward human rights, for example, and has clearly dissociated herself from President Lula’s posture toward Iran.
That is a very good start for restoring the balance in Brazil’s foreign policy. In that regard, she has solid bases to work from in foreign affairs: a national tradition of constructive moderation and an effective and well-trained diplomatic corps to implement that tradition. She seems to have the wisdom not to try too hard to obtain what is likely to come anyway with time. Such humility is entirely fitting for what may become the world’s first “soft” superpower.