Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Reflections on Brazil’s Global Rise

Reading Time: 11 minutesThe man who led Brazil into its new global era discusses his diplomatic vision and Brazil-U.S. relations.
Reading Time: 11 minutes

Eduardo Anizelli for Americas Quarterly (LATINCONTENT/GETTY)

Reading Time: 11 minutes

This is the first article I have written since leaving the foreign ministry of Brazil. As someone who was very active in formulating foreign policy during what might be called “the Lula era” (and still without the benefit of much hindsight), it is an opportunity to begin taking stock of what has been achieved so far. The most remarkable fact about Brazilian foreign policy in recent years has been Brazil’s new and more prominent stance in the international arena. To be sure, this qualitative change, which resulted in The Economist describing Brazil as “a diplomatic giant,” is not solely—or even principally—due to foreign policy.

In recent years, Brazil has grown economically while keeping inflation under control, improved income distribution and, above all, strengthened its democracy. Who could have predicted after years of military dictatorship, immediately followed by the impeachment of the country’s first popularly-elected president, that Brazil’s next three heads of state would be an intellectual who fought against the dictatorship, a labor leader routinely labeled as a dangerous revolutionary, and now a woman who once was a political prisoner?

These changes have had a major impact on Brazil’s stance toward other countries and also on how other countries view Brazil. As I said in a recent interview, Brazilian foreign policy may not have created the wave, but it learned how to ride it. It should come as no surprise that international interest in Brazilian foreign policy has increased notably in recent years, culminating with the 2010 elections.

A professor interviewed by Le Monde in the period leading up to the presidential vote called the Lula administration’s diplomacy “imaginative.” Others have been less generous. Either way, it cannot be said that Brazil’s foreign policy in recent years has been ineffective or has maintained a low profile.

But to what extent and why has its foreign policy contributed to that prominence?

Some of the factors are objective and others subjective. Let us begin with the latter. Brazil, like many other developing nations, especially in our hemisphere (a term I am ambivalent about, which I’ll come back to later), historically suffered from a lack of self-esteem. “We cannot;” “We must be careful;” “This is very dangerous.” These and other similar statements were most often heard every time a bolder-than-usual leader brought forth some truly innovative diplomatic initiatives.

This occurred during the “independent foreign policy” of Jânio Quadros and João Goulart. It was next seen—military rule notwithstanding—during the Geisel-Silveira period. And it again manifested itself, in a more emphatic fashion, during President Lula’s administration. We had a preconceived notion of our place in the world and our ability to influence international events. In fact, if anything, non-Brazilian analysts were more aware of the discrepancy between the country’s size (territorial, demographic, economic, etc.) and its position in the world. I remember reading an article in the International Herald Tribune during President Itamar Franco’s administration, saying that Brazil “punched below its weight.”

The Gloves Come Off

From the first months of President Lula’s mandate, when his administration courageously opposed the Iraq invasion, we demonstrated that Brazil’s new foreign policy would not be timid or overly cautious. This change of attitude and posture did not occur overnight. It was the result of a lengthy process of democratic maturation and increased self-confidence on the part of the Brazilian people. The process of change, the subterranean shift and currents, if you will, had started some time before and culminated in the election of an ex-lathe operator as president. The “yes we can” slogan used in Barack Obama’s campaign could just as easily have explained the sentiments of most voters who cast their ballots for Lula in 2002.

Our foreign policy captured this state of mind and tried to translate it into concrete actions that could affect the course of regional and world events. In doing so, we changed the international agenda. One example of this is the one-time plan of the United States to establish a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Rarely has a policy priority of the greatest power in the hemisphere been taken off the agenda because of the firm stance of another country. We don’t need WikiLeaks to know that Brazilian resistance prevented what was an essentially unbalanced trade negotiation process—based on the then-outdated ideas of the “Washington Consensus”—from becoming reality.

Contrary to what many believe, Brazil did not obstruct the FTAA. It simply sought to redefine the terms of the agreement. We believed that it was necessary for us to maintain the autonomy to make decisions about our own development model. And we almost achieved it at the Ministerial Conference in Miami in October 2003. Based on a “three-track approach,” our compromise would have allowed the FTAA to concentrate on aspects of market access and some basic common trade rules, while leaving more complex subjects such as intellectual property and agricultural subsidies to the World Trade Organization (WTO). U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and I had agreed on a common outline. But this simplified version, dubbed by some critics as “FTAA light,” ran into the opposition of the most ideological defenders of the original version of the FTAA. Although we came close to a compromise, we eventually could not agree. Few today remember this, but as head of the Brazilian delegation, I spent more time trying to convince our friends in Venezuela not to block consensus than arguing with my U.S. counterpart, Zoellick (though Venezuela eventually just submitted a note of reservation). We were also criticized by members of the business sector in Brazil and by Brazilian media. Nevertheless, by sticking to our principles rather than giving into the original rigid model, we preserved our policy development options.

At first, Brazil led this fight almost alone. Little by little, we gained support from others, above all from our partners in Mercosur: Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. Events since have proven many of the criticisms at the time to be misguided. Even without the FTAA—or perhaps precisely because of the absence of one—Brazil has experienced sustained growth, expanded its foreign trade, become a major recipient of direct investment, and has itself become a major source of investment in other countries. Moreover, the financial crisis that rocked the U.S. economy at the end of the decade and the minimal effect it had on the Brazilian economy justified our growth model and the choices we made to concentrate more on our domestic market and to diversify trade partners. Personally, though, the most significant and gratifying validation was the award I was presented by Latin Trade in Miami exactly seven years after the 2003 Ministerial meeting.

In August 2003, shortly before that meeting, the Lula administration first asserted itself in the global arena during the WTO Ministerial meeting in Cancún, Mexico. There, in the midst of discussions to reduce global trade barriers, we worked with other developing countries in an unprecedented joint political-diplomatic effort that averted a protectionist treaty. The draft agreement that was presented by the chairman of the WTO Council for discussion at the Ministerial conference would have, if approved, preserved huge subsidies to European and U.S. farmers. Those subsidies would have harmed developing countries and limited their ability to grow, including some very poor West African cotton producers (known as the “Cotton Four”).

Our success resulted in the formation of a new grouping in the WTO, with a specific mandate to negotiate on agricultural matters. This group, which came to be known at the meeting as the G-20 nations (not to be confused with the G-20 of leading economies), after its original membership, had a great influence on the negotiating process in Cancún and beyond.

As a result of our position, we faced enormous criticism; some even depicted us as enemies of a multilateral trade agreement. Curiously, several of those critics, especially in Brazil, later accused us of being obsessed with a global agreement to the detriment of bilateral or regional arrangements involving developed countries.

To be sure, we have not been able to conclude the Doha Round of WTO negotiations. But that failure stems largely from ineffective leadership in the richer nations, not from real economic needs. I am confident that there will be a successful conclusion to the round, and when that happens, it will no longer be possible to treat the interests of poor countries or of developing countries as mere footnotes.

Promoting Regional Solidarity and Asserting Global Status

Cancún and Miami were two events that had symbolic importance for Brazilian foreign policy. Concurrent with these two processes (one regional, the other global, but both involving the most powerful nation on earth), Brazilian diplomacy was working to promote South American solidarity and integration. A great deal of President Lula’s personal efforts (and mine as well) were dedicated to this objective, with remarkable results in the economic, commercial, infrastructural, and political spheres. Our main goal is to transform South America into a true “Peace Zone”—a goal Brazil is gradually achieving.

I emphasize these facts not only for the practical results they produced—reflected in trade and investment figures—but also because they are unprecedented. Rarely, if ever, during my approximately 45 years of diplomatic life (from which I should subtract seven during which I was busy performing other government functions) have I observed such dramatic change in such a short span of time. In the early days of the Lula administration, Brazil’s foreign policy was marked by an essentially defensive agenda in the FTAA and the WTO—a situation we reversed in only one year. At the same time, we also managed to place South American regional integration at the forefront of Brazilian diplomacy. We restored confidence in Mercosur and initiated the process that led to the creation of the 12-member Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which includes the whole continent from Colombia to Argentina.

The basis of UNASUR is a series of economic and trade agreements, but it also has a strong political component. That political role proved to be of central importance during recent crises, both internal (Bolivia, Ecuador) and between countries (Colombia-Venezuela). But our “diplomatic activism”—in the best sense of the word—was not restricted to South America. At the Sauipe Summit in Bahia, all the Latin American and Caribbean nations convened to discuss cooperation plans aiming at greater development and political understanding across the region.

In broader terms, in the first years of the administration, we strengthened—and in some cases established—strategic partnerships with China, India, Russia, and South Africa. As a result, we created new channels of cooperation among developing nations, such as the IBSA Dialogue Forum—a mechanism for cooperation and political consultation involving India, Brazil and South Africa. Another channel was the establishment of a summit process involving Arab countries and South America and, separately, African countries and South America. On the economic front, our designation as a member of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) has become an essential reference point for us, while it has given our four nations a new economic and political status. Another group of emerging nations, BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China), has also played a leading role in the international negotiations on climate, with our support and encouragement. Relations with other nations with growing influence in their regions, including Turkey, have brought new and somewhat unexpected opportunities for political action.

Our work with countries across the global South has helped to strengthen the perception of Brazil as a nation whose interests and influence go beyond its own region. This, in addition to our growing strength in the areas of trade, economics and the environment, has contributed to the European Union’s decision to make Brazil a strategic partner and to the establishment of a dialogue with the U.S. to work together on global issues.

Analysts and government officials from several countries, including the U.S., have noted Brazil’s arrival as a global player—though only time and other factors, including subjective ones, will confirm the permanence of our newfound status. Most of the comments have been positive. But one notices a natural ambivalence from some, especially in the United States. If Brazil continues on its current path, it will be the first time that another country in the Americas becomes a global player. To be sure, in terms of “hard power” Brazil cannot compete with the United States. This is obviously true in military terms, where the supremacy of the U.S. is undeniable. Furthermore, in economic terms, the differences between the GDPs of the U.S. and Brazil remain large. In other spheres, too, the gap is considerable.

Nevertheless, Brazil’s presence has been felt on a number of issues and in various regions. In May 2010, working with Turkey, we drafted the Tehran Declaration, in which the Iranian government committed to abide by the objectives originally proposed by the U.S. and its allies and accepted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This was no small achievement and was applauded by, among others, Mohammed El-Baradei, the former IAEA chief. The commitment by Iran to remove 1,200 kg of low-enriched uranium to a third country (Turkey) within one month (before Iran would receive the corresponding amount of fuel), even if it was considered insufficient by some, demonstrated our potential influence in promoting a peaceful and negotiated approach to the international deadlock.

The sanctions against Iran agreed to one month later in the UN Security Council effectively quashed the possible benefits of the agreement in the short run. But it is my firm belief that our approach remains valid, as implicitly recognized in some of the statements of the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany).

More recently, the Brazilian government’s decision to recognize the Palestinian state triggered a series of similar acts by other Latin American countries. The gesture even contributed to some European countries reviewing their stance.

Given Brazil’s new willingness to act on the international stage, it is natural that it would raise concern in some quarters. The official and unofficial statements by U.S. authorities have been mostly positive in nature, but the unease is palpable. It is possible that the Brazilian action undertaken with Turkey toward Iran has caused some discomfort in Washington DC. The agreement obliged the U.S. government to explain, not always convincingly, its reasons for refusing an agreement that met all of the points raised in President Obama’s letter to President Lula less than three weeks earlier.

But Brazil’s increasing resourcefulness and independence will benefit the United States. On a number of occasions, Brazil’s stance has permitted a consensus that seemed impossible in the face of more radical positions. This was what happened at the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly meeting in June 2009 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, when the decision was made to revoke Cuba’s suspension from the OAS. In other matters, such as Haiti or the conflicts involving Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, Brazil’s firm yet sensible position has been a steadying factor that has helped mitigate—if not fully eliminate—tensions and conflicts. Brazil’s influence in the region derives from its own economic and geographic weight, but is also influenced by its role in the international arena.

Leafing through old clippings in my files, I came across a photo taken at the U.S. State Department in which former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a minister from Guinea-Bissau and I are signing a tripartite agreement to help strengthen the Guinean parliament. I believe that was the first trilateral cooperation agreement involving Brazil, the U.S. and an African nation. More recently, our two countries signed another agreement, this time with Senegal, regarding ethanol production (just as we had done with other countries in the Caribbean and Central America).

Actions such as these, which benefit poorer countries, do not just bring immediate gains to the local populations; they also serve the cause of stability and development, provided they respect each nation’s priorities and autonomy. In the case of many African nations, where tremendous need coexists with enormous potential, structured cooperation between Brazil and the U.S. could bring real benefits and make strong strategic sense. During President Rousseff’s inauguration, I briefly shared the idea with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who seemed open to it.

Of course, we will not always be in agreement, but even in those cases where we disagree, Brazil and the U.S. will have more to gain from dialogue than confrontation. The fact that there are two—not just one—powers with global reach in our macro-region (the word “hemisphere” has echoes of the Cold War era, which do not bring back good memories) will be beneficial for all and will help strengthen the position of our countries and the values we defend.

PostScript (written on January 31, 2011)

This text was originally sent to the editors of Americas Quarterly before two important facts were known (one of them more of a process than a fact): the announcement made by President Barack Obama that he would visit Brazil (as well as Chile and El Salvador) in March, and the spreading unrest in various Arab nations following the demonstrations that brought about the fall of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

When commenting on the announcement of the visit, several U.S. government officials stressed the global reach of their relationship with Brazil. On the other hand, there has been no lack of criticism by U.S. pundits regarding the direction of Washington’s relations with Arab nations. Is it not time to use Brazil’s good relationship—and that of other South American countries—with the Arab world to begin a new dialogue that promotes the values we share while respecting the rhythms and processes of each country? In this, Brazil can serve as an effective broker or third party in negotiations. Moreover, the example of Tunisia is doubly illuminating: first, because it occurred endogenously, without being externally induced through sanctions or other pressures; and second, because it occurred in a country whose leader was considered an ally in the war on terror. Perhaps a less Manichean and more nuanced view of reality, such as the one Brazil and other South American countries have shown, would be useful in dealing with these thorny situations, especially in the Middle East. We may have finally reached a time to move beyond dialogue to a global strategic partnership.

Ambassador Amorim spoke on this article at AS/COA headquarters on Monday, May 16, 2011.

Tags: Brazil, BRICs, Celso Amorim, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva
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