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The Middle Classes and Foreign Policy: Engaging in it but not Changing it...Yet

November 5, 2012

As the middle class grows in Latin America’s prospering democracies, especially in prominent and globalizing states like Brazil and Mexico, citizens are growing more aware of the wider world they live in.  Through ever expanding travel, trade, migration and international communications, they are discovering new lands and languages and building networks next door and around the world.

The increased information flow has also brought with it growing interest on the part of the middle class in how their governments represent them and their families abroad.  Citizens’ demands for public debate and influence on foreign relations continue to grow, and some governments are gradually adjusting to this new reality.  Parliamentarians, journalists, academics and business leaders, along with a small but increasingly vocal set of nongovernmental organizations, are educating themselves on complex matters of foreign policy and speaking out when their interests are on the international agenda.  This increasing competition for a voice in international affairs is the start of a long-awaited trend toward the democratization of foreign policy, offering both opportunities for greater transparency, accountability and pro-human rights policies, as well as risks of politicization and capture by special interests.

The threshold for civic engagement on matters of national security and foreign affairs, however, is high across the region.  Government officials, especially in the defense and intelligence sectors, jealously guard their traditional prerogatives in this domain, and most citizens continue to concern themselves mainly with local affairs.   For now, it appears, the weight of middle class opinion and activism on foreign policy remains unrealized.

Foreign Policy: An Arcane, Secretive World Starts to Open Up

For generations, the prevailing behavior in the exercise of foreign policy in Latin America was secretive cabinet meetings and classified briefings among a small circle of military and civilian advisors around the president, along with formal diplomatic speeches and receptions.    The Cold War emphasis on national security, as well as outdated but well-stoked tensions over border conflicts and a tendency toward isolationism and parochialism, dominated.  Media coverage of international news barely registered at home.  University students had little exposure to coursework on international relations.  And the voice of parliaments and civil society were rarely heard, let alone organized.

As democracy took root across the region in the 1980s and 1990s, cracks in the hidden world of foreign policy gradually began to open. Isolationist and militarist emphases in foreign policy gave way to notions of regional integration, peaceful settlement of disputes, and democratic civilian control of the national security apparatus.  The legacy of human rights violations committed under military dictatorships and civil wars led to persistent demands for truth and justice, an agenda which opened the door for engagement with already established global and regional systems for defending human rights. 

As the interaction between global and local forces grew, a professional class of civil society activists emerged, supported primarily by donors from Europe, Canada and the United States.  These actors helped bridge the gap between the elitist politics and mass protests of the past, and the fair elections and checks and balances of today.  This coincidence of interests and values— driven mainly by a coalition of upper and middle class elites—tilted policies toward greater liberalization and transparency.  This helped foster a regional and global environment favoring peaceful, stable relations among democracies, where change happened through the ballot box rather than the military boot.

The relatively small community of specialists engaged in the politics of foreign policy, however, does not tell the whole story.  During the 1990s in particular, ordinary citizens began organizing themselves, taking to the streets and the voting booths to call for reforms across a wide range of public policy.  While predominantly domestic in nature, their reforms also addressed the negative effects of globalization, free trade and demands from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.   The thorough debunking of the “Washington Consensus” and rise of populist themes of Bolivarianism and anti-imperialism were articulated mainly by educated leaders of the middle classes, Indigenous groups and labor unions, despite the economic benefits countries eventually earned by adhering to stricter monetary and fiscal guidelines.

The dawn of the 21st century was marked by new dynamics—globalizing economies and trade exchanges, a massive expansion in the flow of information around the world, rising migration and foreign travel—that exposed more and more sectors of society to new information and ideas.  Political systems grew more open to these newly empowered sectors.  Economies began to take off, lifting tens of millions of Latin Americans out of poverty and into the lower ranks of the middle class.  The private sector gave birth to corporations now known as “multilatinas” that were engaged globally, particularly with emerging economies in Asia and Africa.  Chinese and other foreign investments, particularly in the region’s prodigious natural resources, awakened new movements for land and labor rights.  As the engine of economic growth shifted south, states like Brazil, Argentina and Mexico began seeking a greater voice in global affairs and a more balanced multipolar world. 

Middle Classes Going Global

Latin American citizens entering the middle class are quickly plugging in and looking ahead with optimism to a better future for them and their children.  Across a range of indicators, they are connecting to their neighbors next door and in other dynamic regions like Asia, Africa and the Middle East.  Ownership of mobile phones is booming while access to the Internet has grown three and four-fold in the last decade.  Internet access in Brazil, for example, has gone from 2.9 percent in 2000 to 40.7 percent in 2010, according to the World Bank.  Argentines and Chileans, whose middle classes have higher average incomes than other Latin American countries, are the most connected to the world wide web, according to recent data from Latinobarometro, with 58 percent and 54 percent having access to Internet.  If these trends continue, citizens will be clicking on readily available information to educate themselves and get involved in public affairs, including foreign policy.

In the field of education, where teaching about world affairs has generally lagged far behind more established democracies, more and more students are choosing to study some form of international relations and foreign languages.  There are more than 100 international relations undergraduate programs in Brazil today, compared with only a handful in the 1990s, according to Oliver Stuenkel, Professor of International Relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation
in São Paulo.  International Baccalaureate programs, which require at least two years study of a foreign language, are also becoming more popular; in Mexico, such programs have grown four fold since 2000. 

The emergence of China as a key factor in Latin America’s economic success has stimulated interest in learning Chinese.  Enrollment in language programs sponsored by the Confucius Institutes in Argentina, for example, grew 15 percent from 2010 to 2011 while participation in the Institute’s other activities was up 28 percent during the same period.  Learning English is also on the rise. To prepare its citizens to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, Brazil is requiring children between 6-8 years old and living in Rio de Janeiro to learn English.

More and more middle class Brazilians are getting a firsthand taste of life in other countries, opening new windows of transnational understanding and engagement. Brazilians traveling abroad more than doubled between 1995 and 2010 to reach 5.3 million, while arrivals of foreign tourists to Brazil grew 2.5 times over the same period to 5.1 million.  A key factor in driving the growth of middle classes in Latin America is the demand for migrant labor in wealthier countries in the North. 

Students listen to former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet speak at the UN. Photo: Courtesy of UN Women Gallery. Homepage Photo: Courtesy of USDAgov.
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Between 2005 and 2010, Latin American emigration grew  from 28.3 million to 30.2 million, with notable increases in migration of female workers, who now represent 50 percent of the Latin migrant population for the first time.  Remittances back to the region correspondingly have mushroomed to $69 billion in 2011 with growth registered predominantly in Mexico, Colombia, and Central America.  These flows of people and money between north and south not only are driving upward mobility but are cultivating greater appreciation for such values as free enterprise, liberal democracy and peaceful relations between neighbors.  They are also placing increased demands on governments to expand their consular and visa services, facilitate voting rights and protect migrants in receiving countries.  Brazil—which has the highest population of Afro descendants outside of Africa—has doubled the number of new embassies on the continent since 2003, and Mexico has consular representatives stationed in 45 U.S. states.

The public is demanding better public policies to address the demand and supply sides of drug consumption, including improved international cooperation and border security.  With new passports and more pocket cash come more illicit goods flowing across borders, particularly guns and narcotics.  Cocaine use, for example, is on the rise throughout South America, especially Brazil, second only to the United States in terms of the gross number of users of cocaine in its various forms, according to the State Department. In response, Brazil, is ramping up its counter-narcotics cooperation not only with its neighbors (most of the cocaine in Brazil comes from Bolivia, the marijuana from Paraguay), but with such countries as Italy, Japan and Lebanon.

The Values Equation

While hard data is difficult to come by, evidence suggests that these developments are sensitizing more and more Latin Americans to the importance of foreign affairs in their own domestic progress.  As they become increasingly aware of the interdependencies of the global village we live in, and the stakes involved in shaping a world order to their benefit, they are likely to become more politically active.  As they do so, what values will they bring to the table?

Data from the 2009 Pew Global Attitudes project reflect that the middle classes in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Venezuela, are more likely to embrace liberal values entrenched in more developed societies as citizens emerge from the daily struggles of earning a meager living. The answer may lie in the middle classes’ own experience with democracy and individual rights in their respective countries.  In their polling of middle income people in 13 emerging economies, “members of the middle class assign more importance to democratic institutions and individual liberties, consider religion less central to their lives, hold more liberal social values and express more concern about the environment” than poorer people in emerging countries. They “were also notably more likely than those who earned less to say that living in a country where honest elections are held regularly with a choice of at least two political parties is very important.”  [For an opposing view, please see “Assessing the Impact of the New Middle Class on Politics and Democracy” by Elizabeth J. Zechmeister, Laura Sellers, and Mitchell A. Seligson in the Fall 2012 Americas Quarterly.]  According to the Pew survey, middle class respondents were also more likely to consider global warming and pollution very serious problems.    

Whether and how they get organized enough to be heard, and whether foreign policy elites listen to them, are still open questions.  These findings imply, however, that a politically active middle class will want their governments to reflect these values not only on the domestic front but in international affairs as well.  While no comprehensive study has been conducted on the causal relationship between these elements, anecdotal evidence tells us that, indeed, the middle classes in Latin American societies are beginning to express a preference for defense of democracy, human rights, corporate social responsibility, citizen security and a greener environment in their governments’ foreign policies.

Brazil’s efforts with Turkey to broker a nuclear deal with Iran is a telling example of the impact  a more informed public, coupled with transnational activism and a more globalized media, are having on policymakers as they seek a higher profile on the world stage.  President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s aspirations to carve a more independent path on the Iran question caused a firestorm not only in Washington and Brussels but at home as well.  Public intellectuals in Brazil used the airwaves to poke holes in the strategy.  Human rights activists, joined by ethnic and religious groups with close ties to the Iranian human rights movement, entered the fray with advocacy campaigns emphasizing Brazil’s constitutional obligations to promote human rights in its foreign policy.  Jose Serra, in his campaign for the presidency, also criticized Lula for his naiveté and disregard for human rights in Iran.  In the end, Lula decided to back down from a high profile role, followed by an early signal from incoming President Dilma Rousseff that she would emphasize human rights in her administration’s foreign policy.  Brazil’s subsequent vote in favor of a UN resolution criticizing Iran’s human rights record and appointing an independent monitor on the issue may have signaled a turning point toward greater consideration of the public’s views on hitherto privileged matters of national security. 

Brazil’s relative silence on the human rights situation in friendly countries like Venezuela and Cuba, however, suggest that it is not yet prepared to elevate human rights on the foreign policy agenda above other concerns.  Likewise, the tumult of the Arab spring, a region of the world from which many middle class immigrants in Brazil hail, has not moved Brazilian diplomats toward a more proactive stance. 

Brazil abstained on the use of force resolution in Libya when it sat on the UN Security Council and has taken a soft line on President Bashar al-Assad  regime’s brutal crackdown on civilian opponents.  Its proposal to complement the “responsibility to protect” doctrine with a “responsibility while protecting” doctrine, which seeks to constrain the use of force in such situations, has been interpreted by some as an effort to hamstring any new UN humanitarian interventions.  These positions reflect a traditional emphasis on sovereignty and non-intervention along with a heightened concern for balancing the West.  It also has other interests to protect, notably the rapidly rising trade ties between Brazil and the Arab world, including billions of dollars in construction contracts signed by Brazilian firms like Odebrecht, matters that also affect the middle classes.

It remains to be seen whether Latin America’s growing integration in the global economy and its aspirations for greater influence in international decision-making will draw more citizens into the political debate over foreign policy.  If it does, there is some hope that citizens will take a stand in favor of a more values-oriented approach to foreign affairs—one that reflects their own positive views on the mutually reinforcing benefits of living in a society with democratic institutions, the rule of law and economic opportunity.  As civil society grows and matures, and younger generations become more educated and fluent in global affairs and increasingly connected with their counterparts around the world, they will inevitably seek a greater voice in shaping foreign policy.  It remains, however, an untapped resource.

On the downside, a more open and, therefore, more politicized environment for foreign policy-making may lead to capture of some issues by special interests.  Multilatinas bidding for business with foreign governments will push their diplomats and representatives in parliament to promote and defend their interests, while domestic actors like trade unions and local industries will seek a more protectionist stand.  Even criminal networks are already getting in the act by donating money to candidates who will support softer approaches to illicit trafficking.  On balance, however, breaking up the tradition-bound world of top-down decision-making should eventually lead to more transparent and accountable foreign policies that reflect middle class values of social progress, moderation, education, economic opportunity and human rights.

Tags: Latin America, middle class, Latin America foreign policy

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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