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From issue: The New Brazil and the Changing Hemisphere (Spring 2011)

AQ Feature

One Foot in the Region; Eyes on the Global Prize

Matias Spektor

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

In an era of new global threats, Brazil and the U.S. need to collaborate.

Read any Brazilian foreign policy college textbook and you will be surprised. Global order since 1945 is not described as open, inclusive or rooted in multilateralism. Instead, you learn that big powers impose their will on the weak through force and rules that are strict and often arbitrary.

In this world view, international institutions bend over backwards to please their most powerful masters. International law, when it is used by the strong, is less about binding great powers and self-restraint than about strong players controlling weaker ones. After finishing the book, you couldn’t be blamed for believing that the liberal international order has never established the just, level playing field for world politics that its supporters claim.

This intellectual approach is responsible for the ambiguity at the heart of Brazilian strategic thinking. On one hand, Brazil has benefited enormously from existing patterns of global order. It was transformed from a modest rural economy in the 1940s into an industrial powerhouse less than 50 years later, thanks to the twin forces of capitalism and an alliance system that kept it safe. On the other hand, the world has been a nasty place for Brazil.

Today, it is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Millions still live in poverty and violence abounds. In 2009, there were more violent civilian deaths in the state of Rio de Janeiro alone than in the whole of Iraq.

No doubt a fair share of the blame belongs to successive generations of Brazilian politicians and policymakers. But some of it is a function of the many inequities and distortions that recur when you are on the “periphery” of a very unequal international system.

The result is a view of global order that vastly differs from perceptions held by the United States. Take, for instance, Brazilian perceptions of “international threats.” Polls show that the average Brazilian worries little about terrorism, radical Islam or a major international war. Instead, the primary fears concern climate change, poverty and infectious disease. Many Brazilians, in fact, fear the U.S., focusing in particular on the perceived threat it poses to the natural riches of the Amazon and the newfound oil fields under the Brazilian seabed.

Perceptions matter enormously. It is no wonder that the Brazilian military spends a chunk of its time studying how Vietnamese guerrillas won a war against far superior forces in jungle battlefields. Nor should it be a surprise that Brazil is now investing heavily in the development of nuclear-propulsion submarines that its admirals think will facilitate the nation’s ability to defend oil wells in open waters.

But Brazil is nowhere near being a revolutionary state. While its leaders believe that a major transition of global power is currently underway, they want to be seen as smooth operators when new rules to the game emerge. Their designs are moderate because they have a stake in preserving the principles that underwrite Brazil’s emergence as a major world player. They will not seek to radically overturn existing norms and practices but to adapt them to suit their own interests instead.

Could Brazilian intentions change over time? No doubt. Notions of what constitutes the national interest will transform as the country rises. Brazil’s international ambitions are likely to expand—no matter who runs the country.

Three factors will shape the way national goals will evolve in the next few years: the relationship with the U.S., Brasilia’s strategies for dealing with the rest of South America, and Brazil’s ideas about how to produce global order.

When it Comes to the U.S., Lie Low

Brazilian officials are used to repeating that to be on the U.S. “radar screen” is not good. In their eyes, being the source of American attention poses two possible threats. It either raises expectations in Washington that Brazil will work as a “responsible stakeholder” according to some arbitrary criteria of what “responsible” means, or it turns Brazil into a target of U.S. pressure when interests don’t coincide. As a result, there is a consensus among Brazilians that a policy of “ducking”—hiding your head underwater when the hegemonic eagle is around—has served them well.

Whether this judgment is correct or not is for historians to explore. But the utility of a policy based on such a consensus is declining fast. You cannot flex your diplomatic muscle abroad and hope to go unnoticed. Furthermore, being a “rising state” is never a mere function of concrete things, such as a growing economy, skilled armies, mighty industries, a booming middle class, or a functional state that is effective in tax collection and the provision of public goods. The perception of other states matters just as much. And nobody’s perception matters more than that of the most powerful state of all: the United States.

Brazil’s current rise is therefore deeply intertwined with the perception in Washington that Brazil is moving upwards in global hierarchies. Securing the acceptance or the implicit support of the U.S. while maintaining some distance will always be a fragile position to maintain. But as Brazil grows more powerful, it will be difficult to accomplish its global objectives without the complicity—and the tacit acceptance—of the United States.

For Brazil this means that the “off the radar” option will become increasingly difficult.

Not the Natural Regional Leader

Brazil accounts for over 50 percent of South America’s wealth, people and territory. If power were a product of relative material capabilities alone, Brazil would be more powerful in its own region than China, India, Turkey or South Africa are in theirs.

But Brazil is not your typical regional power. It has sponsored layers of formal institutions and regional norms, but its leaders recoil at the thought of pooling sovereignty into supranational bodies. Yes, Brazil has modernized South American politics by promoting norms to protect democracy and to establish a regional zone of peace, but its efforts at promoting a regional sense of shared purposes have been mixed and, some say, halfhearted at best.

Brazilian public opinion and private-sector business increasingly doubt the benefits of deep regional integration with neighbors, and plans for a South American Free Trade Zone have gone asunder. And yes, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), from 1998 to 2007, Brazil spent far more on its armed forces than Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela combined. Yet, Brazil’s ability to project military power abroad remains minimal.

The end result is that many challenge the notion that Brazil is a regional leader. From the perspective of smaller neighboring countries, it remains a country that is too hard to follow sometimes. If you are sitting on its borders, as 10 South American nations do, you find it difficult to jump on its bandwagon.

This is problematic for Brazil. As a major and growing regional creditor, investor, consumer, and exporter, its own economic fate is interconnected with that of its neighbors. Crises abroad impact its banks and companies at home as never before. Populism, ethnic nationalism, narcotics trafficking, guerrilla warfare, deforestation, unlawful pasturing, economic decay, and political upheaval in neighbors will deeply harm Brazilian interests.

Whether, when and how Brazil will develop the policy instruments to shape a regional order beneficial to itself remains to be seen. But curiously enough, Brazilian leaders do not normally think their interests in South America might converge with those of the United States. On the contrary, Brazil in the twenty-first century has geared its regional policies to deflect, hedge, bind, and restrain U.S. power in South America to the extent that it can. This is not to say that Brazil is a stubborn challenger of U.S. interests in the region. That would be silly for a country whose success depends on the perception of economic gain and regional stability.

But it means that future generations of Brazilians might discover that if they want to unlock some of the most pressing problems in the region, perhaps they will have to reconsider their attitude towards the United States...

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