Watershed Interview on Brazil’s growing role in the world

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February 27, 2012

Watershed - What would be the advantages for Brazil, should it obtain a permanent seat in the UN Security Council?

Oliver Stuenkel - A permanent seat on the UN Security Council would significantly boost Brazil’s international profile, provided that this permanent seat would give Brazil veto power. Aside from more prestige, the right to veto would grant Brazil an important say in global security matters. To take a recent example, it could have blocked the resolution that provided the legal basis for military intervention in Libya. However, it would also place considerably more responsibility on the country’s shoulders, increasing international pressure to take a clear position regarding many complex dilemmas.

WS - Why have international relations issues always drawn so little attention among Brazilians? Is it a matter of culture, lack of interest or low self-esteem?

OS - First of all, Brazil has historically been a fairly isolated country. In the early days of the colony, Brazil only traded with Portugal. Even after trade diversified, Brazil remained geographically distant from the United States, Europe and Asia, the global centers of power. The import substitution model, employed by the Brazilian government during part of the Cold War, reduced Brazil’s trade and interaction with the rest of the world, limiting the importance of international issues.
Secondly, similar to the United States, Brazil is such a large and diverse country that the incentive to go abroad has always been much smaller than in smaller countries such as Uruguay or the Netherlands. While a growing Dutch company needs to think about an internationalization strategy early on in its development, Brazilian companies can turn into giants by simply focusing on the domestic market, and only then do they face pressure to go abroad.
Thirdly, foreign policy has traditionally been an issue only elites worried about. This was reinforced under President Getulio Vargas, who argued that foreign policy making was fundamentally different from national politics, and that the former should not be subject of public debate. As a consequence, Itamaraty has been opaque, elitist and independent, showing little interest in openly discussing its policies. Until this day, international relations issues rarely appear during election campaigns, although this is bound to change as Brazil turns into a more important actor.
Finally, the absence of any classic strategic threats such as border disputes or the risk of war has allowed Brazilian society focus less on international issues than countries such as India which are exposed to constant threats.

WS - How would you compare Brazil with India in terms of: a) planning+implementing capability for infra-structure projects; b) businessmen´s expertise to operate abroad; c) level of diplomatic staff to leverage the country´s emerging in global affairs; d) rule of law and power of citizenship; e) true will to lead?

OS - Both countries’ transport infrastructuresare precarious and more investments are needed to maintain global competitiveness. In both countries, corruption and mismanagement of public works has slowed down modernization. With regard to international business expertise, there are both Brazilian and Indian companies that are very successful internationally. In some areas such as IT, Indian companies are more competitive and thus much better integrated internationally than their Brazilian counterparts. Both countries’ diplomats are extremely well-trained and highly respected all over the world, but there is too few of them. India, for example, has fewer diplomats than New Zealand, and there are more American diplomats in Delhi than there are in the entire Indian Foreign Ministry. Strong rule of law and independent courts in both Brazil and India are one of the key advantages over China. Both societies have a vibrant free press and relatively high levels of civic engagement, although inequality remains a challenge. Finally, both Brazilians and Indians have some sense that their country deserves a key role on the international stage. This is more pronounced in India, which may have to do with the fact that India’s civilization is much older. At this point, both countries are seeking a more prominent position internationally, but they are also beginning to acknowledge the responsibilities and the cost this new status entails.

WS - Could a lack of political leadership by president Dilma possibly trigger an institutional crisis, which would bring former president Lula back to the game? Wouldn´t this freeze decision making in Dilma´s first term and even put Brazil’s democracy at risk?

OS - While former President Lula certainly remains an actor to reckon with, Brazil’s institutions are strong enough to withstand a political leadership crisis. Contrary to more politically volatile countries such as Venezuela, Brazil’s democracy is not at risk.

WS - Brazilian government and military seem to be deeply concerned over land acquisition by Chinese companies, as it may threat national security. Do you agree?

OS - China’s economic ties with Brazil are very recent, and Brazilian society is somewhat surprised of how quickly China has turned into Brazil’s principal trading partner. While Brazil certainly needs to be careful not to become overly dependent on China, it would be overblown at this point to argue that Chinese land acquisitions are a threat to national security. In the past, American and European investors have bought large parts of land, yet this did not cause any backlash.

WS - Notwithstanding an active participation in global debates, Brazil´s projection of power chiefly targets South America. How do South American countries gaugethis “natural” Brazilian leadership? Should Brazil invest more in soft power?

Brazil’s natural leadership role in South America is far from uncontested, and countries such as Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia and Chile reject Brazil’s claims that it can represent South America. Attempts by Brazil to exercise regional leadership have therefore not always been received warmly. At the same time, several countries seek to copy Brazil’s economic strategy, and a strong and stable Brazilian economy has a positive impact on the entire region. This attractiveness and economic dynamism does in fact increase Brazil’s soft power much more than any kind of public diplomacy. Yet there is also a growing uneasiness about Brazil’s economic presence in the region, and smaller neighbors are increasingly concerned about whether Brazil’s rise will be a threat to their economies, or whether they will benefit from it. On this front, Brazil probably needs to do more to assure its neighbors of its regional commitment.

WS - Chinese companies seem to be sidelining Brazilian industrial companies, even in South American markets. How should Brazil react? Is there already a de-industrialisation process underway in Brazil?

OS - In several industries, China is certainly more competitive than Brazil, and pressure on Brazilian firms will increase to increase productivity or become more innovative. Brazil is not the only country in the world to deal with Chinese competition. The major challenge will be to identify and focus on areas in which Brazilian companies have a competitive advantage over Chinese players. A lot of the talk about deindustrialization and unfair Chinese practices has less to do with China, but more with low productivity and cumbersome bureaucracy which makes it difficult to competeinternationally – the solution to these problem is not blocking China’s imports, but to boost industrial productivity at home – by cutting bureaucracy and by investing in education and innovation.

WS - Global competitiveness depends on education. How should Brazil face this huge challenge?

OS - Brazil has failed undertake massive investments in all levels of education over the past decades, like all the other emerging powers. The major problem is that investments today will not show effect until decades later, so there is little incentive for a politician worried about the upcoming election. In order to remain globally competitive, Brazil should make education a national priority, significantly increase spending in the field, and make a concerted effort to invite highly-skilled experts from abroad and settle in Brazil.

WS - Bio-energy and food are two areas in which Brazil holds great expertise and competitiveness. How should Brazil play these cards so as to leverage its position in international negotiations?

OS - Sugarcane-based ethanol can a lot of potential, but only if Brazil is able to convince other countries to produce it, increasing global supply. Last year, Brazil had to import ethanol from the United States as its domestic production did not even meet internal demand. Regarding food, Brazil already employs Embrapa to help other countries in Africa and Asia increase their agricultural productivity. Aside from that, Brazil would benefit greatly from a trade agreement with the European Union, a potentially significant market for Brazilian food products.

WS - Dilma´s government got closer to the US and condemned Tehran´s human rights abuses. Could one say that a shift in Brazilian foreign policy is underway?

OS - It is too early to tell whether Brazil’s vote in favor of an investigating to determine whether the Iranian government violated human rights marks the beginning of a foreign policy shift, or whether it was an exception. During her visit to China, Dilma did not mention human rights at all. While changing Brazil’s stance towards Iran bears little cost, the real litmus test is Brazil’s position towards Venezuela and Cuba: While a Brazilian change of policy is unlikely to affect Iran or China, a tougher position regarding Venezuela and Cuba could have a measurable impact.

WS - How would you assess International Relations courses at Brazilian universities?

OS - The number of International Relations courses at Brazilian universities has grown considerably over the past decade, reaching well over one hundreded undergraduate courses. Several years later, the number fell to about one hundred today. This reflects an increasing necessity to deal with Brazil’s growing international insertion and the necessity to understand and analyze this development. At the same time, the quick surge in programs has led to problems regarding quality, which may affect the ‘brand’ of International Relations in the labor market. While International Relations are of interest to many students, the market is unlikely to be able to absorb such a high number of graduates. In the long term, I expect a consolidation – the number of programs will go down, and average quality will rise.

WS - Has Brazil´s emergence triggered the study of the country abroad?

OS - Interest in Brazil has certainly grown over the past decade, particularly in the field of international relations. Brazil increasingly engages in regions of the world outside of it traditional sphere of influence, such as in the Middle East. The country that is most eager to learn about Brazil, and which invests a lot in accumulating knowledge about Brazil is China. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, for example, employs 20 Brazil experts, and this number is likely to increase over the next years.

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