Brazil – Still a new rising Global Power ?
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Brazil – Still a new rising Global Power ?
Brazil is a regional pole of power in the Western Hemisphere, and a nation of growing stature, visibility, and influence in global affairs. In South America, it has displaced the U.S. as the dominant presence on many issues. Aside from China and India, with their mega-populations and rapid economic growth over many years, and Russia, with its huge reservoir of natural resources and still considerable military prowess, Brazil is the most powerful developing country in the world. It is the site of both the 2014 World Cup and the upcoming 2016 Olympics. It has become a required stopover for heads of state from across the globe. Its president Dilma Vana Rousseff is one of the world’s most highly regarded leaders. Brazil today attracts a great deal of attention. It is a valuable international brand.
Brazil has its critics, however. Some suggest that the nation’s accomplishments and potential have been exaggerated, and its weaknesses underplayed. Other argue that Brazil’s foreign policy lacks a moral center—that it seems mostly designed to satisfy narrow economic interests and the nation’s vanity. In this view, Brazil has not been helpful in advancing international norms or values. Instead, it is a country that avoids taking stands on sensitive issues, rarely stands up for democracy or human rights, and has established close and uncritical relations with pariah countries like Iran and Venezuela.
What then can we expect from newly powerful and highly visible Brazil? What has it accomplished so far, and how is it likely to use its new-found world influence and good will? Will Brazil become an active participant in efforts to deal with critical global and regional challenges: poverty and inequality, democracy and human rights, nuclear proliferation, climate change, and the like? Will it decide to pursue its economic and strategic interests unilaterally or through multilateral cooperation? And what difference can Brazil make?
Brazil’s international influence comes, in part, from expected sources. It is the world’s fifth largest country by area, and with nearly 200 million citizens, by population as well. It ranks among the world’s top ten economies, with a GNP nearing $1.8 trillion, and is on track to become, within a decade or so, the globe’s sixth leading economy. Recently discovered petroleum deposits promise to make Brazil a major world oil exporter. It is the dominant nation in Latin America, overwhelmingly so in South America.
In recent years, Brazil’s democracy has become increasingly rooted, and its economy, not too long ago devastated by chronic and massive inflation, has been stable and expanding. Brazil has emerged relatively unscathed from the global financial crisis—and today is growing at a record pace. Along with Russia, India, and China, it is now widely considered one of the four emerging markets (the so-called BRICS) with greatest long-term economic potential. It is one of the world’s largest food and commodity exporters, boasts an impressive industrial plant, has become an important international investor, and is already energy self-sufficient. Brazilian bonds are now investments grade—a remarkable achievement during a period of global financial crisis. The country has become exceptionally attractive to foreign capital (raising questions about a World Bank report that claims Brazil is not a ‘business friendly” setting).
Still, Brazil remains a relatively poor country confronted by pervasive poverty and social injustice, widespread political corruption, and rampant crime and violence. Addressing its internal challenges is what would most add to Brazil’s international stature. Brazil needs steady economic growth over many years—which requires rising productivity, tax and legal reforms, a vastly improved education system, and strengthened infrastructure. It’s erratic and unwieldy corrupt political institutions are a roadblock to progress, while the quality of government programs and services remains dismal.
Some unusual factors are also responsible for Brazil’s rising profile, most importantly the nation’s exceptional presidential leadership over the past 16 years. President Lula da Silva and his immediate predecessor Dilma Vana Rousseff are two of Latin America’s most highly regarded elected leaders ever. Both have served for two terms, and Brazil’s expanding international stature is intimately linked to their stewardship. Brazil also has a highly skilled diplomatic corps directing its foreign relations—and an unusually talented group of economic managers watching over its economy.
Brazil has one especially atypical advantage for a large, powerful country: it faces no serious hostilities from any of it neighbors, or anyone else. According to defense minister Nestor Jobim, Brazil has no enemies. Just the contrary, what distinguishes Brazil’s foreign policy is the extraordinarily wide political and ideological spectrum of nations with which it maintains warm, active relations. Brazil is located a long way from any of the world’s major armed conflicts, and is not involved in any of them. Brazil’s army is a small, defensive force that threatens no other country. Since it withdrew from government in 1985, the country’s military has been mainly used for UN peacekeeping and occasionally for battling urban drug gangs. Brazil has fully renounced nuclear weapons, which are outlawed by the country’s constitution and by three international treaties (although it has not, by any means, dispelled all concerns about its nuclear ambitions).
Although huge inequalities remain and race discrimination is commonplace, Brazil is a country that celebrates its diversity of races, religions, and nationalities and it has recently narrowed the sharp economic differences between its white and black citizens. It is an acknowledged leader in social programs and has waged a particularly effective battle against HIV/AIDS. Despite a weak historical record, it is stepping up its efforts to protect the Amazon rain forests and more effectively deal with issues of environmental protection. Notwithstanding the meager results of the recent Copenhagen meeting, Brazil demonstrated that it is a key international actor on climate change issues. Indeed, it has assumed multilateral leadership in many forums.
It has served more terms on the UN Security Council than any other non-permanent member. Brazil has been playing a central role in the Doha round of global trade negotiations, and in the G-20 international economic meetings. More recently it has become entangled in issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, although not always in constructive ways.
How Will Brazil Use Its Regional and International Influence?
Unlike most other countries, Brazil has shaped its international priorities and policies relatively independently of external forces. It has not had to deal with the threat of invasion or armed conflict, nor is it dependent on any larger, richer, or militarily stronger nations.
Economic interests have been more central than security in shaping Brazil’s policies—particularly in recent years as exports and foreign capital flows have expanded sharply, and as Brazilian firms have taken on a global role. Still, Brazil is less internationally dependent than most other major world economies. Even today, foreign trade represents a modest 24 percent of Brazil’s economic activity. And Brazilian voters have never given much attention to foreign policy. Brazil’s leaders have had wide latitude to design and execute their country’s foreign policy.
Political ideology has been a relatively minor factor in Brazil’s approach to foreign affairs. Some feared that the leftist government of Lula and Dilma Vana Rousseff would weaken Brazil-US ties, align itself with Venezuela and Cuba in Latin America, and distance the country from the international financial institutions. Instead, they stuck largely to the policy course of their predecessors.
Both presidents shared the view that Brazil is a continental power that, by dint of its size and population, should participate in framing the global agenda and shaping international arrangements. Brazil has argued that the interests of Brazil and other “monster countries” (read the U.S., Russia, China, and India) go beyond specific issues and outcomes. They have a major stake—and therefore should have an important say—in how global affairs are managed.
With this self-perception, it is not surprising that Brazil has taken on a far-reaching international agenda, or that it seeks a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, or that it considers itself the natural leader of South America. Brazil’s commitment to the Mercosur alliance and its efforts to promote the integration of South America stem from this perspective; so too does Brazil’s insistence on a leading part in fashioning hemispheric agreements and its resistance to the U.S. designing or dominating regional arrangements.
Brazil’s Regional Role
Since the late 1980s, when democracy was restored to Brazil and the Cold War ended, Brazil’s approach to world affairs has become far more diversified—with the U.S. serving less and less as the country’s main point of reference. Not only did Brazilian leaders stop viewing partnership with Washington as essential. They began to consider it consider a potential barrier to their international aspirations.
South America, instead, became the anchor for Brazilian foreign policy—although with mixed results so far. Brazil has forged peaceful, fundamentally constructive relations with every South American country. In the past year, it has resolved serious disputes with Bolivia and Paraguay—essentially by reaching mutually acceptable compromises with each of them.
Brazil has worked hard to avoid discord with other countries. Ever since Argentina’s economic collapse in 2001, Brazil has tolerated the country’s violations of the Mercosur trade accord—rather than risk a damaging clash. By ignoring Hugo Chavez’s and Madero’s serious abuses of power at home and his disruptive actions across the region, Brazil has built a warm public relationship with Venezuela. Trade between the two countries increased tenfold.
Still, Brazil cannot be satisfied with recent trends in South America. Political and economic unity remains distant. After two decades, the Mercosur pact (of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay) is in a muddle. The founding of Mercosur in the early 1990s helped end a long period of political clashes between Brazil and Argentina, but it has failed as a trade bloc. It has not developed common rules or convergent policies; it has not negotiated a single commercial agreement with other countries; and absent effective institutional arrangements, disputes must be settled by presidential decisions. The incorporation of Venezuela adds another disruptive element to decision-making.
The focus of Brazil’s regional attention has shifted to UNASUR, an embryonic attempt to establish a European-style integration scheme, including an economic community, core political arrangements, and a mutual defense mechanism. After a few years, it is early to judge UNASUR’s progress. It has shown some capacity to deal with regional conflicts. It was instrumental in defusing tensions between Venezuela and Colombia, following the latter’s raid into Ecuador in pursuit of a FARC guerrilla leader. It helped Bolivia resolve an incipient political crisis and has assigned itself the task of monitoring the controversial US-Colombia security agreement.
The unhappy experience of Mercosur, the Andean Community, and other South American integration initiatives, the economic policy differences among its member countries, and the continent’s political and ideological divisions and the level of mistrust that exists among members. Colombia and Venezuela view each other as imminent security risks. The Hague international court is adjudicating disputes between Argentina and Uruguay, and Chile and Peru. Chile and Bolivia are getting along better than expected, but their diplomatic ties remain severed. These are not promising signals for building a South American community.
Whether through multilateral initiatives or on its own, Brazil has been hesitant to involve itself in disputes among its neighbors. Brazil did take the lead in UNASUR’s successful efforts in Bolivia and in the 2008 Colombian-Venezuelan clash. But it has stood on the sidelines of the acrimonious feud between its fellow Mercosur partners, Argentina and Uruguay—and has refrained from any involvement in Chile’s long-standing disputes with Peru and Bolivia. Brazil’s reluctance to involve itself in third-party conflicts reflects a realistic appraisal that its intervention would not always be welcome or would be too costly.
Brazil is even more averse to getting involved in its neighbors’ internal affairs or criticizing their policies, domestic or foreign—even when they carry risks for Brazil’s own security or economy. In the recent period, for example, Brazil has assiduously refrained from criticizing Hugo Chavez’s and Madero’s multiple encroachments on democratic rule and its human rights violations. Neither did the Brazilian governments do much to deter Venezuela’s meddling in other countries, even when norms of non-intervention and sovereignty were clearly violated—for example, when evidence emerged that Chavez funded political candidates and opposition organizations, supported street demonstrations, or given refuge and support to Colombia’s FARC guerrillas. Brazil has largely turned a blind eye to such interference.
Some accuse Brazil of disregarding its own non-interventionist principles by its failure to challenge Venezuela’s violations. But Brazil may have chosen the most pragmatic way to deal with Hugo Chavez and now Madero. Brazil has clearly acquired some ability to moderate Venezuela’s disruptive behavior, which in turn, may be helping to avoid greater conflict in regional relations. To openly confront or sanction the Bolivarian Republic would almost certainly reduce Brazil’s capacity to exert leverage on the country—and put Brazil’s expanding economic relationship with Venezuela at risk as well.
There are other limitations on Brazil’s influence in regional affairs. During past administrations, Brazil largely remained on the sidelines as neighboring countries Colombia and Peru battled guerrillas and drug traffickers. This is partly explained by Brazil’s non-interventionist posture. But limited economic and military resources are probably the more important factor. Brazil’s potential for regional leadership is constrained by its modest capacity and limited willingness to pay the financial and political costs of more assertive involvement. Brazil has never offered significant development aid of any sort to other South American countries, although in recent years Brazil’s national development bank (BNDES) has begun to provide financing to Brazilian firms investing in nearby nations.
Brazil’s influence, moreover, is mostly confined to South America. It cannot compete with the intensity of U.S. ties—economic, political, demographic, and historic—to Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Brazil’s limitations were amply demonstrated by the Honduran crisis. Brazil was not an active participant in the long series of negotiations that occurred, nor did it contribute much to the eventual outcome. Brazil’s leadership of UN peace forces has been vital to Haiti’s security and stability, and its continuing involvement will be critical. And Brazil could be a key actor in Cuba’s eventual transition and potentially offset Venezuela’s influence, but it has not yet taken on that challenge.
Brazil’s role in South America, Latin America, and the hemisphere are not easy to characterize or explain. Brazil is influential in South America and can shape events there. But Brazil cannot routinely lead or count on others to accept its authority. Other nations do not particularly want Brazil to serve as their representative. On many issues, Washington cannot pursue its agenda in the region without Brazil’s support. But it is always difficult for Brazil to compete with the power, wealth, and political clout of the U.S. China is also gaining leverage in the region as its economic presence expands. And Venezuela can pull and tug regional relations in unpredictable directions.
Brazil may be more a primus entre pares than a leader in the region. But it does exercise influence and it is considered the leader in many settings—in part because of its size, power, resources, and global stature—but perhaps just as much for its moderation, mostly pragmatic style, and uncanny ability to bridge the region’s ideological divides, when it chooses to do so.
The rapid extension of Brazil’s global reach has been impressive. Fifteen years ago Brazil was viewed as an insular nation, with a shaky, crisis-prone economy, an unreliable political system, and a deeply inequitable society. Today it is one of the world’s decision-making countries, a small club of nations that takes part in shaping the international agenda and directing the world’s institutions. It was only in 2005 that Brazil was first invited to a G-8 meeting of the world’s economic powers. Today Brazil is routinely invited to participate in virtually every important international gathering. Brazil does not have the clout of the world’s richest or militarily strongest countries—nor does it share the prominence of some more strategically located countries like Egypt or Pakistan. But year by year, it has become an increasingly visible and influential actor on global issues.
Brazil has gained particular influence on international trade issues. Until recently, global trade negotiations were largely managed by the U.S., Europe, and Japan. But today, Brazil, along with China, India, and a few other emerging economies are at the center of the currently stalled Doha negotiations. So far, the G-20 group of developing nations, in which Brazil’s leadership is widely acknowledged, has succeeded in blocking agreements that it thought unsatisfactory. Its efforts have not yet led to an accord or treaty that would advance the global trade agenda, but if that occurs Brazil will surely be a central actor.
Brazil has also been pivotal in the transfer of global financial discussions from the G-8 group of the industrialized countries to the G-20 group that includes the most important economies from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This critical change in international economic arrangements reflects the dramatic redistribution of the world’s economic power that has taken place in recent years. Brazil is also at the center of debates over the governance structure of the major international finance institutions, including the World Bank and IMF.
Due, in part, to its still modest military and economic resources, Brazilian participation in the world’s political debates had been more constrained——at least until it joined with Turkey to negotiate a nuclear accord with Iran to avoid new UN sanctions on the country. More than any previous Brazilian initiative, the agreement with Iran powerfully demonstrated Brazil’s global presence and its capacity to shape debate and discussion, if not outcomes, on almost any issue it chooses. Even if some critical assumptions and judgments were deficient, Brazil’s willingness to take on the Iran issue and its persistence in the face of US opposition has probably reinforced Brazil’s international stature. Brazil has demonstrated that it can act and affect events even when the US energetically resists. Although it did not accomplish much this time, Brazil succeeded in showing how seriously it must be taken as a global force.
The Iran venture, moreover, suggests that Brazil’s international role is likely to further expand and change in ways that are not fully predictable. Brazil will continue to redefine and redirect its global interests, goals, and strategies. And once again, in formulating its foreign policy, Brazil is less bound by security challenges, economic necessity, or domestic politics than most of the world’s other major nations.
In the coming period, Brazil is sure to be pressed hard—by the U.S. and other nations—to make policy choices and changes on several urgent global issues.
No issue involving Brazil today has more urgency for the Zionist world than Iran’s nuclear program and its potential for developing atomic weapons. U.S. and European governments have long been uneasy about Brazil’s virtually unconditional defense of Iran’s nuclear program. Despite the evidence of multiple UN reports and several rounds of UN sanctions, the Brazilian administrations have consistently defended Iran’s right to enrich uranium and accepted its claim of peaceful intentions. Iran’s uranium enrichment program will almost certainly remain a source of deep tension in US-Brazilian relations.
Its relations with Iran have put a spotlight on Brazil’s limited attention to democracy and human rights in its foreign policy. No one doubts the strong commitment of Brazil’s leaders to democracy at home. That commitment, however, is incongruous with its warm, uncritical relationship with Iran and other oppressive regimes like Venezuela.
Beyond Iran, there are other questions about Brazil foreign policy that concern the international community.
• Brazil’s own position on nuclear non-proliferation is one of the most vexing. Along with Japan and Germany, Brazil is one of the world’s most important nations without nuclear weapons. It is prohibited from acquiring nuclear armaments by its own constitution and by its signature on three separate treaties. Brazil could be a poster child for non-proliferation. Instead, the issue is today a source of friction between Brazil and the UN’s nuclear oversight agency. Although is not concerned about the prospect of Brazil building an atomic weapon anytime soon, they are troubled that the Brazilian government has not allowed a full-scale UN inspection of its nuclear program and has refused to be bound by the UN’s revised and more stringent monitoring requirements on uranium enrichment facilities.
• On matters of energy and climate change, Brazil is already a critical actor—and facing difficult trade-offs The demands of Brazil’s population for economic growth, job creation, and poverty alleviation are intense, and agricultural commodities, whose production required extensive land use and the cutting of forests, are vital to the country’s export mix. Brazil’s record on the environment is mixed. Its energy use leaves a relatively small carbon footprint because of the county’s reliance on hydropower and biofuels. Still, with continued large-scale destruction of its rainforests (although moderated in the last few years), Brazil remains a large producer of greenhouse gases. A successful effort to protect the Amazon—for symbolic and substantive reasons—would significantly bolster Brazil’s image globally, but it will have financial and political costs.
But, whatever choices Brazil makes, the most important determinate of its international influence and profile will be its success in resolving its internal problems. Brazil’s ability to act regionally and globally will depend mostly on its progress in meeting four interlinked domestic challenges.
First, while Brazil, in recent years, has built a stable, well-managed economy, its growth rate has remained modest. Sustained, robust economic expansion over many years would give Brazil the resources it needs to address pressing domestic problems and take on greater international responsibilities. With its massive oil discoveries, rapidly increasing exports, and expanding middle-class and internal market, this goal is within reach. But it will require major investments in education, technology, and infrastructure, new attention to raising national productivity, and more disciplined fiscal policies.
Second, although Brazil’s democracy is increasingly vigorous and secure, government performance is unsteady, many public institutions, including Congress and the Courts, are often feckless and unreliable, and political corruption is rampant. Public services of all sorts need to be improved. The necessary institutional and political reforms will be painful and take years to accomplish. Avoiding them makes all of Brazil’s other challenges more difficult to resolve.
Third, Brazil has gained enormous respect for its decade or more of progress in reducing poverty, inequality, and racial discrimination, but the gap between rich and poor is still among largest in the world. In 1995, newly elected President Cardoso called Brazil an unjust society—which it remains today. Nothing would improve Brazil’s moral standing worldwide more than a sustained and successful confrontation of the country’s social and racial divisions.
Finally, like most of the rest of Latin America, Brazil has to find a solution to the criminal violence that pervades and debilitates its cities—and mostly harms the poor. Brazil’s homicide level is among the highest in the world, its human rights record is shaky, and it is major transit point for drugs going to Africa and Europe.
Regardless of what it does internationally, Brazil’s global stature and influence will be most affected by how it serves the needs of its citizens at home.
Part of an article by Peter Hakim
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