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Home Opinion The pillars of Brazil's international activism

The pillars of Brazil's international activism

Giorgio Romano Schutte - 11 July 2011

Over the last decade energetic international activism has transformed the role and position of Brazil in world affairs

In recent years, Brazil actively pursued a bigger global role. The drive to become more influential on the international stage stemmed from a belief that foreign policy needed to support an evolving national project of sustainable and socially inclusive development. Leading government strategists were convinced that the existing asymmetry of global power was not conducive to the country’s national development. As a result, Brazil adopted a more assertive posture in bodies like the WTO and sought to forge links with other countries that had similar aspirations in an effort to counter the interests of rich nations. In addition, there was also a growing realisation that Brazil was “punching below its weight” in the international arena, as pointed out by President Lula.

Proponents of this international approach argued that as one of the world’s largest countries, in terms of population, territory and economic output, Brazil had every opportunity to act as a more creative and active protagonist of change in the reconfiguration of global power. This became the guiding philosophy behind the government’s diplomatic efforts. The search for partners who shared its aims of promoting greater justice and fairness in the international system (in line with the development strategy Brasil para todos - or Brazil for all), certainly led to a more active role, but such activism was also steered by pragmatic guidelines and a high degree of flexibility. Alliances could shift and change, depending on the specific policy areas or issues at stake. The key pillars of Brazil’s international activism were pursuing autonomy from the established powers; promoting further regional integration in South America; reaching out to Africa; expanding links with the developing world; and seeking the reform of global governance.

Pursuing autonomy

At the outset Brazil sought to secure greater autonomy from the United States. Bilateral relations remained constructive, but became based on a clearer distinction of national interests. One of the first measures of the Lula  administration was to halt the agreement on a US satellite launching facility in northern Brazil. In the same way, Brazil opposed the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), proposed by Washington. The country openly condemned the Iraq war and firmly challenged US cotton subsidies at the WTO. This was certainly not a case of confrontation for confrontation’s sake. It was part of efforts to rebalance the bilateral relationship toward mutual respect. For example, Brazil's insistence on including the United States in the Group of Friends of Venezuela, illustrates the balanced approach. There was an extensive use of presidential diplomacy to ensure that bilateral relations would be conducted at a higher level, resulting in a comprehensive dialogue of bilateral policy, formalised in March 2010 by the Global Partnership Dialogue.

Promoting further regional integration

Brazil pursued further regional integration in South America on the basis of the “option for South America”, which is a constitutional mandate (1988) that stipulates that the country must prioritise the process of regional integration in the subcontinent. 

There has been a process of gradual political integration among the two main existing regional blocs, the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) and the Andean Community of Nations (CAN). Member countries of one bloc came to be part of the other as associate members. The next step was taken in 2004 with the formation of the South American Community of Nations (CASA), subsequently renamed the Union of South American Nations (Unasul). Unasul can be seen as an attempt to strengthen South America as a political bloc and to foster policy coordination for the promotion of a multipolar world, in which countries have greater opportunities in pursuing their development strategies.

Conscious efforts to prioritise South America have played an instrumental role in rise on the global stage. Unasul represents more than an innovative regional integration project: it represents the development of a strategic vision which aims to consolidate the region’s own identity in the world. There remains a need to build a shared economic and political space across the region Unasul’s main priorities are in the areas of infrastructure, energy and defence – all of which need to be regionally integrated. But there are also important initiatives in the areas of public health and the fight against drugs. In addition, the institution has also proved to be a useful platform for crisis management,  such as during the Bolivian political crisis  in 2008 and heated confrontations over the installation of US military bases in Colombia in 2009. Unasul can contribute to the sustainable use of the resources of the 12 member countries in the fields of energy, food, minerals and biodiversity as part of a project of development with social inclusion, transforming the region into a hub of the new world. Unasul will not replace or interfere in the process of consolidation of Mercosul, but rather create better conditions for its expansion. The extension of Mercosul’s mandate is worth noting, involving practically all spheres of public policy and strongly promoting a Southern cone identity and citizenship, which should gain more strength with the direct election of the Mercosul Parliament, starting in 2012. The recognition of asymmetries within the region led member countries to establish in 2004 the Fund for Structural Convergence of Mercosul (Focem).

Meanwhile, the Brazilian private sector took advantage of new opportunities for internationalisation, first in South America where it acquired scale and expertise and then in global markets. This helped to establish the beginning of a process of economic integration, which many consider fundamental to the advancement of integration in Mercosul and South America as a whole.

Reaching out to Africa

The process of reaching out to Africa (a continent with which Brazil has strong historical ties) built on past experiences that had been abandoned for decades.  In this case, presidential diplomacy was essential to place the continent high up on the foreign policy agenda and in the public domain. Previously, the norm had been to emphasise close relations with developed countries as the prime strategy to overcome Brazil´s development challenges. This Africa initiative had a domestic counterpart in a discourse that sought to recognise the existence of deep racial inequalities within Brazil. A range of public policies coordinated by a new public body, the Secretariat of Policies for the Promotion of Racial Equality (SEPPIR), were introduced to try and overcome racial inequalities. Emphasis was placed on education policy, including access to universities and the introduction of compulsory Afro-Brazilian history in school curriculums, something which carried great symbolic value. Brazil’s relationship with Africa cannot therefore be interpreted solely in geopolitical terms. During his two terms, President Lula embarked on no less than 33 visits to the continent (totaling 23 countries). In many cases it represented the very first visit of a Brazilian head of state. Efforts were taken to turn this government policy into a sustained state policy, among other things by opening or reopening 16 embassies, expanding the Brazilian presence with permanent representation for 35 of the 53 African countries.

The new relationship with Africa was expressed in a significant growth in trade and investment and in numerous cooperation initiatives for development. In fact, while Brazil had traditionally been on the receiving end of development assistance, it now started to assume responsibilities as a donor. Thus, the Brazilian Cooperation Agency (ABC), over recent years, has gone from being an agency organised to receive aid to an agency dedicated to development in other Southern countries, particularly in Africa. The emphasis is on cooperation, which expressed the know-how acquired by Brazil, such as supporting the fight against AIDS based on the success of its own prevention policy and universal access to medicines for victims of HIV, in part made possible by the production of generic drugs. Thus, Brazil is contributing with the installation of a factory in Mozambique to produce antiretroviral medicine. At the multilateral level, it actively participates with other countries in UNITAID, a central purchasing of drugs to combat malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS in Africa. It is also helping to transfer agricultural expertise by opening a regional office of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) in Ghana and through a range of partnerships to disseminate the technology of producing ethanol. This reaching out to Africa initiative was in fact shared with partners in South America through the creation of a forum for discussion called ASA.

Expanding links with the developing world

The expansion of relations with the developing world more included a new rapprochement with the Arab world. In the first year of his administration President Lula made a historic visit to Lebanon and Syria, the fist by a Brazilian leader since the 19th century. Brazil has the largest community of Lebanese origin immigrants in the world, which leant the visit great significance. There was also a joint South American initiative, with the organisation of Summit of South American – Arab Countries (ASPA) in Brasilia in 2005, followed by a second meeting in 2009 in Doha. The growth of Brazil's international profile has led the government to engage more actively in the peace process in the Middle East, firmly defending the historical position of the two-state solution. In the view of the Brazilian government, there is room for the entry of new players who bring new perspectives to the negotiations. In this context, beyond political support for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), Brazil has provided assistance, technical and financial cooperation for the reconstruction of the Palestinian Territories, and the ANP political-institutional strengthening, deemed essential for the construction of an independent Palestinian state. In the same spirit, Brazil along with Turkey articulated a liaison with the Iranian government, which provoked a harsh and ambivalent reaction at the same time by the US government and other traditional partners. Despite the fact that the involvement with the negotiation with Iran has been perhaps the boldest in recent active diplomacy, it is consistent with Brazil´s position on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, particularly the right to use uranium for peaceful purposes.

Seeking global governance reform

Brazil also allied itself and cooperated with other middle and regional powers in order to promote a change in global governance towards a less asymmetrical world. In 2003, this perspective expressed itself in initiative at the WTO and in the establishment of a more permanent relationship with South Africa and India, two democratic countries and middle powers with strong positions in their respective continents called the Ibsa Forum (India, Brazil, South Africa). The forum has worked for political consultation, cooperation on specific sectors and policy areas, and the promotion of development through the IBSA Fund. The political consultation allowed Brazil, and the other members, a stronger projection on the international arena regarding several issues on the global agenda. With India, Germany and Japan, Brazil formed the G-4 in efforts to promote reform of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Resistance in this area is strong and, following departure of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder from office, Germany reduced its interest. On the other hand, during the visit of President Barack Obama in late 2010, India earned US backing.

The commitment to the UN was given a new quantitative and qualitative push when Brazil, in 2004, assumed command of the UN troops for the Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), with the clear aim to make the peace process in Haiti an initiative led by Latin America. The responsibility assumed by Brazil caused interesting domestic debates that reflected the rapid change of its international operations. Brazilian involvement in Haiti already contributed to wider discussions and civil society participation in foreign policy issues. In an interview with the magazine Desafios do Desenvolvimento, IPEA (May / June 2010), the former Foreign Minister, Celso Amorim, said that participation in Haiti presented challenges and opportunities for the Brazilian Army, but also meant that the “the Foreign Ministry itself was given better conditions to reflect on the dynamics of contemporary conflicts.” At the same time, the Brazilian government has mobilised several other ministries, working in the areas of food security, job training, health and infrastructure, to put into practice its vision of a close link between conflict prevention and socioeconomic development, referred to by minister Amorim as the Brazilian doctrine.

The way that Brazil handled the recent global financial crisis contributed to its increasing international prominence. The crisis hit Brazil at a time when it was prepared both internally and externally. It weathered the global downturn due its adoption of development-oriented economic policies, counter-cyclical social policies, income distribution measures and the accumulation of international reserves, all of which helped shield an already dynamic internal market. At the international level, the government rapidly sought to articulate its positions alongside partners and coordinate a global response. The transformation of the G-7 into G-20 allowed Brazil along with Argentina, South Africa and the other BRIC countries (Russia, India and China) to defend their positions, for example, with respect to governance reform of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which resulted in increasing Brazil´s voting power, (from 18th to 10th place). Or, more broadly, to include in the agenda of the G-20 issues related to the challenges for sustainable development, such as  decent work. Brazil reacted strongly to the crisis, both economically, creating around a million jobs in 2009, and politically, by consolidating its presence in the international economic arena.

Dilemmas ahead

In recent years, Brazil opened many doors and many doors were opened for Brazil. However the country has not always been prepared to occupy and consolidate these new opportunities, and to take on the responsibilities that these opportunities entail. Two issues are still a subject of much debate. First, the question of human rights advocacy, a subject on which there is some tension between avoiding an automatic alignment with the positions of western forces, particularly the United States on the one hand, and on the other, show respect for the trajectories of countries being put in the dock. Second, and perhaps more crucial, there is the question of Brazil’s relationship with China. On the one hand, this country is major partner in fighting the existent asymmetries, but on the other it shows potential to be the source of new asymmetries that do not necessarily coincide with Brazil’s interests.

No doubt, there are many dilemmas to be overcome, both domestically and internationally. Yet it is clear that Brazil has succeeded in transforming its role and position in world affairs through its activism over the last decade.

Giorgio Romano Schutte is professor at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC), an associate scholar of the Institute for Applied Economic Research (Ipea) and a former special adviser for international affairs of the General Secretariat of the Presidency

Tags: Giorgio Romano Schutte , global governance , political economy , Mercosul , regional integration , Brazilian development

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